(Reuters) – Former U.N. Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kofi Annan died on Saturday at the age of 80, his foundation said, after decades of championing efforts to try to end protracted conflicts in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Annan, a Ghanaian national, died in hospital in Bern, Switzerland, in the early hours, his close associates said.
Annan and the United Nations shared the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to reform the world body and give priority to human rights issues.
As head of U.N. peacekeeping operations, Annan was criticized for the world body’s failure to halt the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s.
As U.N. boss he was linked to peace efforts to reunite the divided island of Cyprus, submitting a reunification blueprint which was rejected in a referendum by Greek Cypriots in 2004.
He staunchly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and later served as the first U.N. envoy at the start of Syria’s war, but quit after world powers failed to fulfill their commitments, saying: “I lost my troops on the way to Damascus”.
“The U.N. can be improved, it is not perfect but if it didn’t exist you would have to create it,” he told the BBC’s Hard Talk during an interview for his 80th birthday last April, recorded at the Geneva Graduate Institute where he had studied.
“I am a stubborn optimist, I was born an optimist and will remain an optimist,” added Annan, who often joked about having learned from locals to wear earmuffs against the freezing cold during his undergraduate years at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the United States.
Raila Odinga, Kenyan opposition leader and former prime minister, said on Citizen TV: “We didn’t expect Kofi to pass that abruptly. Kofi Annan is a man of integrity; a great African, a great leader of the world.”
The Elders, a group of former leaders including Gro Harlem Brundtland and Mary Robinson, paid tribute to their inspiring chairman, noting his visits to South Africa and Zimbabwe in July.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, paid tribute to Annan as “humanity’s best example, the epitome, of human decency and grace”.
Zeid, who has criticized major powers and other countries during his four-year term that ends later this month, said that whenever he felt “isolated and alone politically”, he would go for long walks with Annan in Geneva.
“When I told him once how everyone was grumbling about me, he looked at me — like a father would look at a son — and said sternly: “You’re doing the right thing, let them grumble.” Then he grinned!”