UN diplomat with lion's heart

Hédi Annabi, a victim of the Haiti quake, and a veteran of international trouble spots, was paving the way for elections to secure the country's future.

Hédi Annabi was meeting a Chinese delegation on the fifth floor of the Christopher Hotel in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck the island of Haiti on January 12. Twenty-one other members of the 7,800 United Nations military and civilian peacekeepers he led as special representative of the UN secretary general also died as the building, used as headquarters by the UN force, collapsed in the quake, a magnitude 7 on the Richter scale.

In all, 61 UN personnel died in the island's devastation. A further 180 are missing. Annabi and his team were preparing to play a leading role in Haiti's presidential and legislative elections to be held on February 28. "Success would allow the country to enter a virtuous circle where stability and development are mutually reinforcing," he was quoted as saying. Educated in Tunis, Paris and Geneva, Annabi joined the Tunisian foreign ministry as an adviser to the country's prime minister and then chaired Tunisia's national news agency, before joining the UN in 1981.

He was appointed principal officer, then director, of the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs in South East Asia with the task of bringing stability to Cambodia following the genocide wrought by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, which came to be known as the Killing Fields. In 1992, he joined the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) overseeing missions in Africa, including the disastrous Rwanda operation. Annabi was deeply affected by the atrocities committed on the Tutsi in 1994. Ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis, raised during Rwanda's civil war, exploded following the assassination on April 6, 1994, of the president Juvénal Habyarimana. Over the next 100 days more than 500,000 people were killed.

The UN was blamed for the genocide but Annabi, who remained in constant contact with the Canadian commander of the UN forces there, maintained that it could have been prevented by timely reinforcements for the ill-equipped mission, but these were denied by member governments who claimed that UN peacekeepers were already overstretched. In 1997, then secretary general Kofi Annan appointed Annabi deputy of the DPKO, where he was responsible for all peacekeeping missions.

In 2007, Annan's successor, Ban Ki-Moon, made Annabi his special representative in Haiti. As head of the UN Stabilization Mission (or, to use the French acronym, Minustah) he made a real contribution to improving what was then - and is now again - a country in a dire condition. Modest, tenacious and droll, Annabi was known within the UN as the "headmaster", and acted as a mentor to a number of young diplomats. He had a prodigious memory and capacity for work. Mr Moon referred to him as "a mild man with the heart of a lion". His role in Haiti was to be his last before retirement.

Hédi Annabi was born on September 4, 1944, and died on January 12. He is survived by his wife and a son. * The National