The Death of Kofi Annan

The Kofi Annan Foundation announced the death of its founder on the morning of 18 August. I knew Kofi Annan as a senior colleague at the UN years before he was Secretary-General, and like many in the Secretariat, was on first name basis with him.

Once shortly after he became SG I was having breakfast in the staff cafetaria when he came in with Elizabeth Lindenmeyer and the Staff Union president (whose name escapes me). He waved me over to the vacant seat at their table, which was on the central raised island. Within a few minutes other staff noticed he was there and as Kofi was sitting where they could come up and shake his hand, they did.

For the next 40 minutes or so the conversation at the table was extremely spotty as he would greet those coming up by name and ask about their families. When we were leaving I asked him how many UN staff in NY he knew by name. "About half" he said.

The warmth of his interpersonal relations was not reserved for those with rank and status. A G-4 retired staffer who had worked with Kofi early in his career told me that upon seeing him standing in front of the DC-1 building the new SG crossed First Avenue to greet him.

He also never forgot those who let him down. I was working late one day in what was then CESI when the phone rang. It was Kofi, asking if I could come up to his office. He had just taken over as the head of Personnel (which he renamed OHRM). When I got up there he handed me a set of galley proofs of Secretariat News. "It's lucky I asked to see these," he said. "It has me speaking gibberish." The editor of the Secretariat News had taped an interview and not bothered to clean it up at all. The guy went on to prosper in Washington.

His extraordinary gift for dealing with people was not just for colleagues. Early one morning as I was heading for my office on the Press Floor of the UN, I noticed Iqbal Riza standing rather forlornly at the side of the Conference Building lobby leading to the Delegate's Dining Room. In answer to my quizzical look he gestured with his chin at the Zanetti mural, and there amidst a gaggle of tourists was Kofi, entirely comfortable, chatting with complete strangers. (Can you imagine Kurt Waldheim doing that!)

Personal charm has not been a particular gift of those who have held the top job at the UN, and it was lucky for the UN Kofi had it in abundance, for one of his first jobs was to negotiate full US-funding of the organization with two firmly anti-UN members of the Congress, Senator Jesse Helms and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Not only did Congress restrore full funding to the UN, Helms visited the UN and was pleased as punch to be shown around the place and be able to sit at the Security Council table.

On that first visit to Washington in January 1997 Kofi also met with President Clinton at the White House. After their meeting in the Oval Office they came out to the Roosevelt Room for a brief Q&A with the gathered Press. I happened to catch Clinton's eye and got in a question: On a scale of 1 to 10, where would he put US-UN relations? I thought that would pin him down but his answer was "Rising rapidly." It was generally taken as a compliment to the new SG.

No other head of the UN has had Kofi's personal warmth and capacity to communicate easily with people. Hammarskjold had a clearer sense of spiritual mission and sacred drama, Perez de Cuellar had more solid diplomatic achievements, and Boutros-Ghali was a likeable maverick; but Kofi was uniquely graceful.

He passed away a day before the 15th anniversary of the bombing of the UN office in Baghdad that killed 22 people, most of them UN staff. The incident was a particular burden on his conscience because one of the victims was a close friend, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, then the High Commissioner for Human Rights. He had been reluctant to leave Geneva for Baghdad, but the pressure on Kofi from the Bush administration was high and Sergio went. He survived the truck-bomb that detonated directy under his office and was conscious but died trapped in the debris. Poignantly, it happened as his term in Baghdad was ending.

Those of us who annually mourn the death of friends and colleagues on the 19th of August can now begin the sad observance a day earlier.

click on pix to read text

Scroll down to read a brief note Kofi at his death 

number of subscribers remained low because of widespread piracy by UN officials, including the Secretary-General, then Boutros Boutros-Ghali. (Efforts to get paid proved fruitless; a copyright lawyer I consulted said there was no point in pursuing UN officials legally for they were notoriously beyond reach of the law.) So, in 1999 I gave up on the newsletter and began publishing UNDIPLOMATIC TIMES. With a controlled circulation to all diplomatic missions, Secretariat offices, journalists and representatives of non-governmental organizations at the UN, it was beyond piracy.

Working for the United Nations and covering it as an independent journalist have educated me about the very serious flaws of the organization, not least the utter lack of accountability of its senior staff. Politically, the United Nations is trapped in international power structures that are rigid, deeply cynical and corrupt beyond belief. Small criminal elites in a handful of countries protect international arrangements that allow the trafficking of drugs and arms, the money laundering "tax havens" that funnel profits into their own banks and hedge funds, and the terrorist organizations that do the work that once occupied colonial armies. Governments not directly involved in those activities have demonstrated a staggering lack of vision by not confronting those issues honestly. The United Nations itself has been corrupted from the top down by inserting incompetent men into the office of Secretary-General. These failures have been kept from public view by mass media that cover multilateral affairs as if it were a football game among different tribes, reporting how many goals were scored, who won and who lost. In reality, everyone has been on the losing side, for there is only one team: all of us, regardless of where we live, whether we are rich or poor, or what faith we profess. Indeed, we have to include all life as part of that team. As my forbears in ancient India put it, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: all creation is God's family.

Undiplomatic Times was liberated from its hard-copy existence when the impending renovation of the UN Headquarters building sent me off to India in 2008. It became first a blog and evolved into its current form in 2011. In mid 2015, after I returned to the United States, its focus broadened from the United Nations to world affairs generally. The change marked the realization that the UN is now in the same situation as the League of Nations in the 1930s, when the world was sliding from the Great Depression into the Second World War. The major difference between now and the 1930s is that if the world should slide into another unrestricted war there will be little time and perhaps no need to create a successor organization. The 60 to 80 million death toll of the last World War could be overshadowed in the first few hours of a nuclear war. The obvious lesson of this situation is that we must plan a new organization and set about transitioning to it now, before a full-blown crisis emerges. In 2016 I proposed how that could be done, and in 2017 refined it into a specific set of changes to replace the hierarchically organized United Nations with a globally networked organization, UN/Globenet. 

As the pun in its name implies, Undiplomatic Times does not beat around the bush. The mix of straightforward reporting, commentary and analysis provides a unique perspective, often dramatically different from that found in mainstream media. That is a proud boast, but it has rendered the publication incapable of making money. In the hard copy, paid editorial inserts and advertising usually covered costs, but it was essentially a labor of love.  In the online version it is entirely that, for there are no income streams. It has proved impossible to monetize because I seem to be in some sort of political quarantine. Both in India and in the United States faceless, invisible government agencies have let me know that my work is not welcome. People working for the world's largest democracies have made me as much of a nonperson as any resident of a tyrannical gulag. 

Perhaps the most concrete part of that experience has been the total lack of response from readers. This site has not received a single comment since it went online in India in 2011 and after its 2015 relaunch in the United States: no email, no phone calls, not a single piece of mail, not even junk. Another aspect of my surreal situation is that statistics about visitors to this site tend to be extremely erratic. Go Daddy, my web host, can go from reporting over 9,000 visitors one month to weeks when it reports none at all. In May 2017, it entered a Twilight Zone in which the number of visitors actually ran backwards in front of my eyes. When I complained to Go Daddy a helpful agent suggested that I sign into Google Analytics. My first look at Google's stats proved to be a shock: the cumulative number of visitors to the site was over 24 million. After I wrote of that on Facebook  those numbers vanished and since then Google Analytics has been reporting zero hits in its weekly messages. After I commented on that, the numbers have crept up into the 20s and 30s daily. Meanwhile, Go Daddy continues on its whimsical path, reporting visitors in the thousands every month. 

My imposed isolation has other faces. It is not just emails and phone calls from readers that do not reach me; my bank manager calling to close an account at my request does not get through. Her voicemail disappears without trace. As a result of this situation two books I've written over the last seven years, the result of five decades of research and thought, remain unpublished; literary agents and publishers simply do not respond; if they do, I do not get to see it. One agent did respond and was encouraging about the work, which she was "unable to represent." (You can read bits and pieces of the books here.)

My way of dealing with this situation has been to consider myself a political prisoner, held in the digital version of a medieval dungeon, a karmic situation that I cannot change. However, whoever is responsible for my situation has escalated since 2017 to insidious attacks on my health. The first sign of that was switched medication that caused a hemorrhage. There have been a number of incidents, noted on my facebook page. Most recently, I have suffered heavy headaches which seem to render me temporarily incapable of spelling words correctly. Obviously, the entire campaign is directed at silencing my editorial voice. I continue to publish hoping that at some point the universe will shift.  The only way I will know of such a shift is if readers continue to write and I begin to get their dispatches. So please do write, even if you get no response. 

Why do I bother? The nearly five decades I have spent writing about international affairs have led to the firm conviction that if we want a peaceful world, it cannot be left to governments. Every individual has a responsibility to understand the basic unity of the world and to act in its defense. This web site is my bit to encourage such action. It seeks to demystify international issues and the United Nations System, to give readers information largely unavailable in corporate mass media.  Readers might be interested in an article I wrote in August 2018 on
The Path of Karma


Bhaskar Menon   

ABOUT Undiplomatic Times

In 1990, as part of a wave of "reform," the United Nations offered to buy out the contracts of staff who wanted to leave. I volunteered, and my bosses accepted with alacrity. In the emerging post-Cold War dispensation at the UN, my propensity to present the viewpoint of developing countries at staff meetings had become increasingly irksome.

For nearly a decade after quitting as a staff member, I put out a weekly newsletter on UN affairs, the International Documents Review. An eight pager turned out at a copy shop near the UN, and sold for $200 a year, it soon won a following. But the 

the next united nations

The United Nations now is in the same situation as the League of Nations in the period before World War II. It needs radical reform and we have a detailed proposal on what can be done to create a successor organization, UN/Globenet.  

What Irritates The Spooks About Me?

In Lawrence of Arabia General Allenby asks the low-ranking Lawrence why he is so irritating. "It's my attitude, Sir" Lawrence says. I think that's my problem too. 

In the seven years I spent in India (September 2008-June 2015), the problem began because I was seen as an arrogant NRI. After the current BJP government was elected in 2014, there was more cause as I took to criticizing it. Here's a summary of what happened, written in May 2015 (and some additional details). It led to a serious escalation of assaults on my wellbeing that forced me out of the country.


In the United States, first at Columbia J School, then two decades as UN staffer and another two as an independent journalist, the spook world was never very far but it was generally law abiding in its treatment of me until 2015. My return from India seems to have pushed post-9/11 paranoias into newly aggressive and life-threatening territory. 

The World is Indeed One Family

The Sanskrit phrase Vasudhaiva Kutumbakham is generally read as the "world is indeed one family." I have chosen to render it as "all Creation is God's family because Vasudeva is one of the most popular names of Krishna, the eighth  incarnation of Vishnu who speaks to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita

I take that license from a beautiful Sanskrit verse that declares:

"Vasudeva is the Supreme knowledge. The fullest form of Dharma is devotion to Him. Vasudeva is the eternal goal and final reality of all existence.  

For more

Three who keep me going