Welcomed by a long standing ovation, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan was the guest of Richard Descoings (President of Sciences Po Paris) and Ghassan Salamé (Dean of PSIA), Monday February 14, 2011 in Paris. Mr. Annan addressed a packed amphitheatre: over 500 students and faculty attended this event, which was not opened to the press.
The audience also included a number of Mr. Annan’s former UN colleagues, including Lakhdar Brahimi, former UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Alvaro de Soto, former UN senior adviser and envoy, both of whom are now visiting professors at Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA). The event was moderated by the Dean of PSIA, Ghassan Salamé, who worked closely with Mr Annan as Senior Advisor to the United Nations Secretary-General (2003-2006) and Political Advisor to the UN Mission in Iraq (2003). Ghassan Salamé delivered a biographical introduction to the life and accomplishments of Mr. Annan, who started his career at the P-1 level at the UN and was sent into Iraq in the 1990s, where according to Ghassan Salamé, “Mr. Annan became a man of action, a field man, and was not someone just simply interested in running the organization but rather transforming and implementing its core mission for peace and security”.
The UN and the G20:
Mr Annan responded to “cyclical” criticisms of the UN as a “paper tiger” by stating that instead of viewing the UN as a “paper tiger”, we can work together to make the UN work better. In retrospect, Mr. Annan stated that it would be extremely difficult to invent the UN as it exists today, and cites the example of the G20. Mr. Annan stated, “We are accused of being a paper tiger, a talk shop, but our lives would be extremely complicated without the UN and its agencies.” He asserted that the G20 expanded from the G8 only due to the imperative brought on by the financial crisis; however there are still 172 countries that do not have representation in the G20, while the UN is more inclusive.
Mr. Annan stated that “when you look at norm-setting, the UN has been good, and the UN can be strong if member states accept it.”
Concerning expanding membership of the UN Security Council, Mr. Annan stated “We need to bring emerging countries to the table, if we do not do this, then there will be destructive competition.” He especially indicated the need for representation of India, Latin America, and Africa on the Security Council. Mr. Annan emphasized, “I put value on a forum where everyone can be represented.”
Concerning wealthy countries and permanent members on the Security Council, Mr. Annan stated “there are two things that are hard to give up, one, subsidies, and two, privileges.”
When asked about the efficiency of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Mr. Annan stated that there is an economic basis to conflict, and a tendency to focus on the political side and ignore the economic side of conflict. He asserted a need to reach out and establish partnerships to address the economic side to conflict.
Several students asked about the future of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as the 2015 deadline draws closer. Mr Annan stressed that major advances have already been achieved in many countries, where millions have been lifted out of poverty. It is important that countries keep striving to meet their MDG targets even after 2015, while those that have already done so should continue to surpass them.
Giving an example of development progress, Mr. Annan reminisced, “I am old enough to remember hearing about the poor little Chinese children…now it is the poor little Chinese who are keeping our global economy afloat.” Mr. Annan emphasized that countries also learn from each other.
Mr. Annan added that in a time of economic crisis it takes courage for governments in wealthy countries to explain to their citizens the necessity of providing development aid, however in an interconnected world this is both an economic as well as a moral imperative. Mr. Annan also emphasized “the imperative to find innovative sources of funding, as climate change will cost billions”. He cited the levy on air tickets as an example of renewable sources of funding to address climate change.
Mr Annan told the gathering about his life-long commitment to fostering civil society, both through his attempts as UN Secretary-General to reach out to civil society and the private sector, and through his involvement in conflict resolution in Kenya and as Chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa since leaving office in December 2006. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa aims to assist African small holder farmers increase food production and move beyond subsistence farming, as 60-70% of Africans work in agriculture, most of whom are women.
Political Unrest in Africa:
He expressed hope for the future of the African continent, citing the increasing organisation of civil society groups, often led by women, in pushing for political and social reform and greater environmental sustainability. When asked about the current intensity of political unrest in Africa, Mr. Annan stated, on a positive note, that “civil society groups are becoming very robust, many of these groups are headed by women, and they are increasingly putting pressure on governments to become more accountable to civil society.”
When asked for his reflection on the disputed elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe, Mr. Annan responded, “In Kenya, there was no clear winner, whereas in Zimbabwe, it was clear who won the election in the first round. It is necessary for leaders to understand that if you enter elections, you lose or you win. Nearly 1200 people died in Kenya and they need to agree to a major program of reform. From the beginning, I insisted on one mediation process.”
Engaging Civil Society:
When asked about the role of the UN in engaging civil society, Mr. Annan responded, “I made a conscious effort to open the UN up to civil society, universities, and business.” He cited the achievement of the Landmine Treaty as an accomplishment achieved by UN engagement with civil society. Mr. Annan underlined the importance of the relationship between the UN and civil society.
Cooperation with Regional Organizations:
Mr. Annan also addressed a question concerning the role of the UN with regional bodies such as the EU and NATO, and responded that “Since there is a strong regional element to conflicts, as in the case of the Sudan, the UN has worked together with regional bodies such as the African Union (Sudan), NATO (former Yugoslavia) and the Organization of American States (Haiti).” He also stated that “The EU is timid in using its power. The EU waits for the US to lead.”
Experience as Secretary-General:
When asked whether there was anything he wished he could have achieved as Secretary-General, Mr. Annan cited the “painful disappointment” of being unable to prevent the 2003 war in Iraq. Mr. Annan acknowledged that the process of evaluating lessons learnt in peacebuilding during his tenure led to the creation of the Peacebuilding Commission Mr. Annan stated that the Peacebuilding Commission is a relatively new, but important institution with potential to prevent the re-emergence of conflict, as it addresses socioeconomic factors underpinning and mitigating conflict.
Mr. Annan also spoke at length about the urgent need to reform and expand the Security Council to make it more representative. Despite the complexities and obstacles (such as the question of whether or not to grant veto power to new members, and whether they should be given permanent membership or “semi-permanent” regional membership with elections every 6 years or so), Mr. Annan declared that such reform is vital to ensure that all regions of the world have a voice at the table.
Reflecting on his tenure as Secretary-General, Mr. Annan stated “I had a good team, and whatever little I did, I could not have done it without those around me, including advisors, governments, and civil society.”
At the end of the discussion, Mr. Annan received a second standing ovation from the audience.