Accessing Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Collected Papers

When Kofi Annan retired as Secretary-General of the United Nations in 2006 after a decade of service, he left almost a million documents to the United Nations Library in New York. These documents—comprising Mr. Annan’s official remarks, statements, and reports, as well as his declassified letters, handwritten notes, and memos—are now available online through an electronic platform created by the City College of New York (CCNY).

On Monday, 17 December 2018, the UN Library Insight Series sponsored Kofi Annan “Declassified”: An Online Collection of His Writings, a panel discussion about the years-long process of curating and digitizing the former Secretary-General’s voluminous body of work, generated during his tenure at the helm of the United Nations from January 1997 through December 2006. The collection, which filled about 1200 boxes, not only reveals the thinking and personality of the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, but represents a prescient use of technology as a tool for historical preservation.

The responsibility for reviewing each page in the collection to determine whether or not it could be declassified, the first step in making Secretariat papers public, fell to Richard Amdur, the Deputy Director of Communications and Speechwriting for the Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General.  Secretary-General Annan wanted the papers “declassified as early and as widely as possible,” he said, a request that departed from the norm. Typically, Mr. Amdur explained, the UN preserves Secretariat documents but does not distribute them publicly.

Stephen Haufek, Chief of the UN Archives, added that it was Secretary-General Annan himself who requested that his documents be reviewed and digitized, on a case-by-case basis, for eventual public distribution. “At the time, that was ground-breaking both technologically and procedurally,” he observed.

The panel offered two reasons for the former Secretary-General’s unusual request. First, he recognized that technology was making the world increasingly more transparent and believed that UN procedures should reflect this change in the public’s expectations. Not only this, but “he had a keen sense of history. He knew he was a part of it, and he wanted to preserve it,” said Gillian Sorensen, former UN Assistant Secretary-General for External Relations, who worked closely with Mr. Annan during his years at the UN.

Dr. Jean Krasno of The Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at CCNY, another panelist, first learned of the Kofi Annan archived materials when she collaborated with Ms. Sorensen on another UN-based project. Dr. Krasno went on to assemble and publish a five-volume set of books from these documents, entitled The Collected Papers of Kofi Annan: UN Secretary-General 1997-2006 (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012). The online version of the set, published later, also includes selected declassified papers previously unseen by the public in their original format, along with some photographs and additional documents omitted from the book.

These published writings, in both print and digital formats, will go a long way toward increasing understanding of the UN’s organizational structure, daily operations, and, ultimately, its mission. “Global digital availability of the Secretary-General’s papers will make the work of Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the United Nations more comprehensible to the public beyond the confines of the institution and will allow scholars, diplomats, and the general public to explore with more clarity the inner workings, not only of the Secretary-General’s office, but through his work, the UN’s departments and subsidiaries,” reads the CCNY website.  

“I invite you all to go online and look through the archive,” urged Mr. Haufek, who talked about how to make use of the website’s many search features, including both by-collection and by-item browsing. For instance, a keyword search on the word “Kosovo” yields six pages of UN reports, notes, letters, and more related to the geopolitical unrest in that country during the latter part of the 20th century.    

The final word on Mr. Annan’s legacy came from Ms. Sorensen, who noted the former Secretary-General’s many contributions beyond the UN’s immediate mandates—including his push to accredit NGOs, his concern for educational initiatives, and his appointment of women to positions of institutional authority. In addition, she noted his quiet charisma and keen listening ability, interpersonal skills that set him apart as a global diplomat. “I consider him one of our era’s best leaders,” she said. “The UN should be proud that he gave his life in service to this organization.” 

The selected papers of Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan can be found at