Transcript of Interview with Kofi Annan

Interviewed by David A. Hamburg
March 20, 2008
New York, NY
download pdf | watch video | about Annan

Hamburg: We have the great privilege of interviewing Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, and, in the minds of many, the greatest Secretary-General in the history of the United Nations -- certainly a world leader in the prevention of mass violence.  You took a very broad view about prevention of mass violence, which included the protection of human rights through democracy; the fostering of equitable socio-economic democratic development; the strengthening of diplomacy, especially preventive diplomacy; and education for survival through conflict resolution, violence prevention. Connecting dangerous conflict with development strategies was to a considerable extent broadened through your leadership. All of it seems to be within a framework of what you called “building a culture of prevention,” which made great progress the ten years you were in office, and I think it will continue a very long time. You were the first world leader to pay attention to the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict. You made their findings known to the Secretariat and set in motion a number of innovations that are gaining strength from year to year. You also managed to create the first-ever Security Council which focused on preventing deadly conflict. This was leadership of a very high level; and you went from conceptualization in a number of great speeches to applying the preventive diplomacy concept in a brilliant way recently in Kenya. At this time you might have a word about that. I think it would have a lasting value if you would give your reflections about how you saw [things] when you came in and how your ideas evolved with respect to the culture of prevention.

Annan: Thank you, David. I’m very pleased to be here, and I must say that the work you and Vance and Carnegie did was of tremendous value to me and to the UN family. One always has to build on what others have done. When we went through the World War and saw how man can be really evil, we said never again; but then came the troubles in former Yugoslavia, we lived through Rwanda and Kosovo. Those were turbulent years. The international community was beginning to grapple with how we deal with these issues, and when you look at it, each one was dealt with differently and, in a way, not very competently.

I recall the report I had to do on Srebenica. UN troops found themselves in the middle of a slaughter where they were neither equipped nor mandated to do anything about it. In the end, thousands were killed and all of us said, how could this have happened? Then came Rwanda. Again some pretended they did not know what was going on. Let’s assume they did not know what was going on--particularly the big powers--but when they found out, how did they react? They sent in planes to Kigali to evacuate their nationals and allowed the slaughter to continue. We faced the same situation in Kosovo and the Russians objected to international action. In the end there was action; but this set you thinking, how should the international community react to similar events in the future? And that was the reason why, in the General Assembly of 1999, I challenged the member states to look at this issue of sovereignty: how we understand it, how we interpret it, and how, in some cases, it places individual citizens in incredibly dangerous situations, where genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity may be going on within the country. But the international community says it’s an internal issue and whoever is in charge is responsible, the people who are being brutalized have no one to turn to.

So I really wanted to push for action. The speech at Ditchley in ’98 was my first statement on this, because I had been reflecting, having been involved in these issues. After the ’99 speech in the General Assembly lots of ambassadors were upset with me, including those from the South like myself. They felt that this would be a license for bigger countries to interfere in their affairs, although it was very clear that this was not a license. It was not going to be arbitrary; we have to apply UN rules and the Council will have to authorize that kind of intervention. So I was very pleased when the Canadians decided to set up a commission to follow up on that. One day when I finished the report, they came to me and said, “Let’s put it before the General Assembly” I said “No, you’ll kill it if you rush the issue. Be patient; let’s explain to people and in the right time we will table the concept.” And the right time came when I produced a report to the General Assembly, “In Larger Freedom,” for the 2005 World Summit. That was one of the recommendations and I was extremely delighted to see member states approve it. Now we have to work with them and civil society to make sure it gets implemented.

Hamburg: That’s one of the interesting features of your term of office. You brought civil society into intimate contact with the UN, more than ever before--the different sectors that we had discussed in the Carnegie Commission: the business community, education community, scientific community. The Global Compact is a good example. Maybe you could say a word about the Global Compact and its historic significance.

Annan: There are issues we can’t leave to governments alone, and governments can’t tackle them alone. We need to work and deal with these issues in partnership, bringing in civil society, the private sector foundations, universities and other stakeholders. I think there are benefits for all. First of all, you keep the pressure on governments and international organizations to honor their commitments and do what is right. Apart from coming up with ideas, some of the things we did I don’t think we could have done without civil society--like the ban on land mines. They were also crucial in the struggle to set up the International Criminal Court. An NGO group brought together 2,500 NGOs from 150 countries to press for the establishment and effectiveness of the court. And of course, business has power, they have influence; but they also have to be part of the solution, they have to use that influence responsibly. That was one of the reasons why I engaged them in establishing the Global Compact, urging them to honor nine principles in the areas of human rights, environmental degradation, core labor standards, and eventually we added the fight against corruption. Today we have over 4,000 multi nationals who have joined the Global Compact and are applying the principles.

To their amazement they discovered the workers love the idea of their companies embracing these principles. They love the idea that doing good is good for business and that was an exciting thing for them to realize. I was in Kenya recently trying to negotiate the conflict between the opposition and the government. I met with the civil society groups, the churches, and the business community who were extremely well organized but perhaps weren’t able to focus their energy and influence the way that they ought to. I met a group of businessmen who represented 85% of the GDP in Kenya. I told them, “This is influence, this is power; how do you use that influence? How did you try to influence events, talk to the politicians and the governments before the explosion?” There was silence. And so when we got the agreement I brought all of them together--the civil society, the churches, and the business community.

I met each group and told them, “Look, now we have an agreement. It’s an agreement that can work but don’t leave it to the politicians alone. This is your society too; the society belongs to all of you, and you have to be active, you have to be vigilant, you have to ensure that these agreements are honored. I also reminded them that when I started the process I made a deal with them. I told them I wanted this to be a very transparent process and so each agreement we signed I would make public. And that’s exactly what we did. We signed an agreement on how to end the violence, an agreement on how to deal with a humanitarian situation and the political settlement, including the need to change the constitution, the need to establish a prime minister and two deputy prime ministers. All of that where there were signatures of the president and the opposition leader was made public, because,--I said--“You have to monitor it, and we are hoping that we will set up a monitoring mechanism with civil society involvement.”

Hamburg: That’s a very strong example of preventive diplomacy. You’ve fostered preventive diplomacy in various parts of the Secretariat, almost under the radar, and it is a mini movement spreading through the UN and also in UN collaboration with other institutions. You went in very early in a very dangerous time, got the parties together, but--this is special--you also got other powerful stakeholders in the society to come in, to help them see that it was in their interest not to stand aside, but participate in the problem solving and in monitoring the agreements.

Annan: I also brought in the international community, which was also very interesting because before I got in I got hold of all of them--the European Union, the African Union, the US, Britain, Kenyan [neighbors with interests?] (___) in Kenya [and I told them] that we all needed to speak with one voice because that was the only way we were going to make a difference and make it quickly. So that arrangement was in place by the time I got in. They were good, gave full support, followed my lead when I felt something needed to be done. The other important thing in this scenario is that the international community heeded the early warning signs. That’s why I was able to get in that early, and then we worked in concert. The other important thing is that there was a single negotiating process. I made it clear to them that there had to be a single negotiating process. By the time I got there with my two other panel members they had had several high-level visits. Archbishop Desmond Tutu had been there; four former African presidents had also been there: former president [Matsinhe?] of Mozambique, former president Kesowo of Zambia, former president Mkapa of Tanzania, and former president Masire of Botswana. They were there trying to help resolve the conflict. Jendayi Frazer, the US Assistant Secretary of State, had also been there and of course Mosovenia also came in; but when we set up I had to negotiate with the four heads of state.

So we had a very frank discussion. I said, “Now that I am here with my team, with a mandate from the African Union to see what we can do to resolve the conflict, what are your plans? Because if all of us stay on, trying to negotiate the same conflict, the parties will play with us. If I tell them something they don’t like they will come to you; if you tell them something they don’t like they will come back to me. So I really believe we have to have one single process.” They offered to remain in Kenya and work with the civil society and the population and try to bring them together; and I told them, “That would be too confusing. You cannot have four former heads of states in town with me and two eminent persons, Graça Machel and Mkapa, running around town, and not cause confusion. It’s really great that you came, but I think that you should let us take over and we’ll let you know when we need help.”

They understood and let us continue. In fact Mesavania came in later with a proposal, which he told me that president Kibaki had accepted, and when I asked the opposition they said, “No, we did not accept it; we told him, if you have a proposal give it to Mr. Annan. He is seeing over the process.” So everybody recognized that there had to be a single process and that was helpful, because you sometimes have so many players that you don’t know whom to turn to. There were very few high profile visitors--I discouraged it. To those who had a very specific objective and could impact, I said yes; but to others I said, “Wait a minute, give us a chance; we’ll tell you when to come in.” They accepted that because of the coordination mechanism I had with them.

Hamburg: This is a magnificent example of preventive diplomacy. What is involved? Essentially, if you train [people for preventive diplomacy], what do they need to know? For example, it is often said you need the strengths of different international organizations, such as the EU and the AU. But because of their bureaucracies it would take forever to get their cooperation. You got their prompt cooperation, and that’s a very important lesson. You have a unique stature in the world, and that was helpful in being able to get that kind of cooperation. You drew in information from many sources, integrated it yourself, made a decision about how to proceed, and got cooperation. Naturally, anyone who would come into that situation would be a person of stature, but it would be unlikely to get another Kofi Annan, so the question is how one can support or reinforce a high quality mediator who comes in early to get the kind of cooperation you need.

Annan: You use the word bureaucracy; you are right. In this Kenyan situation, when the crisis broke out the president called me and said, “Look, we have this major problem and we need your advice.” So we spoke a couple of times and he went into Kenya and couldn’t move very far, so he came back and said “ I want you to help. I want you to step in and help stop the chaos in Kenya. We cannot afford to lose Kenya and I thought it would be good if you and Mkapa and Graça Machel would do it” I said, “Have you told Graça and Mkapa?” and he said, “ No I haven’t, but I know you know them. I was hoping you would tell them.” So I had to call and tell them. I was able to move very quickly, and also make the calls before I got in; normally this would go to the Security Council. You would have to have a debate and you would have to ask to see how you can get the European Union, the African Union—everybody--working together. Here in a very unbureaucratic way I moved in. When we got there we had two people and a couple of others who could be of help, so we were a very small team. I think if you leave the administrative staff aside we were less than ten. But I had the ability of bringing in people from outside to share experience with the Kenyans. For example, when I first proposed a Grand Coalition, they were a bit baffled; but I brought in a German foreign minister who was part of the team that put together the Grand Coalition for Merkel and Schroeder. He explained to them why they needed a grand coalition, because their country was in a crisis where no one party could have dealt with it alone. Coming together and working together, they would be able to pass reforms, and he explained how it was done.

When we got to elections, they wanted to have a rerun, recount, re-tally, and forensic audit. They were all bad solutions. A recount is almost like having the whole election over again. You have to count the 11 million votes; you have to go to all the constituencies; the parties will have to bring observers and agents--and in that climate you are going to get people killed. A rerun would have meant the same thing, and it wasn’t even certain that either party would have accepted the results. These were all bad decisions and bad decisions get people killed. So we had to find a way not to sweep the election issue under the carpet because it was important for the people and us. So we devised a forward-looking proposal that will set up an independent review committee made up of outsiders and Kenyans that would investigate all aspects of the 2007 elections and make findings and recommendations that would be factored into a comprehensive electoral review that is to take place. So we were able to move forward making that proposal.

Hamburg: So you weren’t just putting out the fire--although you had that in mind--but something more than that, a forward-looking electoral commission. Also you mentioned some monitoring device that might include elements of civil society.

Annan: Exactly, and they have agreed to set up a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, where we are also asking for civil society inputs. This will look at the long-term issues at the root of all these problems, even going back to 1963, the time of independence. And they have agreed to undertake comprehensive constitutional, institutional, and land reforms as part of the agreements--not just put out the fire or deal with it short term, but look at the long term issues that have infested and undermined society. The way it’s designed, they will not have to face crisis or violence at every election. This is about the fifth time the Kenyans had to face crisis at the time of election, but this has been the worst and could have really taken them off the cliff.

Hamburg: Another very interesting point--what we in the Commission called peer learning--you brought in the German foreign minister to say, “Look, we had a similar situation, very difficult to deal with. We were able to make a grand coalition that handled the situation effectively; in your own way you could do something like that.”

Annan: Exactly. In fact, I did the same with the president, who at the end was balking at the idea of establishing the post of a prime minister. His people had convinced him that if you established a prime minister it would undermine your power. And yet he was not only head of state he was also head of government; in fact the powers of the president in Kenya are incredible. So, as part of it was to create the post of the prime minister, give him the responsibility to coordinate and supervise the government ministries, they wouldn’t have it. So I invited the president of Tanzania, Kikwete, and said, “Mr. President, you have a prime minister who has more power than the power that we are proposing for the Kenyan prime minister. But your Kenyan brother is balking, so I want you to join me and explain to him that you live with a prime minister who has considerable power, but that has not blown up your presidency and it can work.” So he came in and made a speech which was very helpful.

Hamburg: That’s so very important, to show practical solutions that exist in Africa and outside Africa. In a way it’s the point you emphasized over and over again in your ten years as UN Secretary-General, common humanity. Others have similar problems and solutions have emerged. And cynics will say OK, so you put out the fire but it’ll blow up again in a short time. That often happens, but you’ve given very serious thought to the mechanisms and the people who could prevent that recurrence.

Annan: Yes, and since they signed the agreement on the 28th of February a Parliament met; both leaders urged the parliament to vote for constitutional reform and the amendments; and both parties voted for it unanimously. Now they are going to establish the cabinet, which may be a bit tricky; but I am monitoring it from here. The president filled half the cabinet and some of it hasn’t been filled. It will require cabinet reshuffling and sharing of the positions, because you would have almost a perfect gridlock in Kenya today if they had not come together. In terms of parliamentary strength the government coalition has 102 seats and the opposition has 102 seats. In fact, the opposition would have two more if two members had not been killed, so 104 for the opposition and 102 for the government. In the Parliamentary elections the government won 43 seats and 24 ministers lost their seats. The opposition got 99 seats and brought in a small party. So they are today 102. Now they have to come together. The formula I had was sharing the cabinet posts [according] to the relative strength of the blocs in parliament in terms of parliamentary seats. There also has to be portfolio balance: you cannot have one bloc keep all the key ministries and offer the other one sports, culture, and heritage.

On this the German deputy minister who came in was very eloquent. He said, “In our situation not only did the parties decide to split the cabinet positions 50/50, but the balance had to be respected. If one got defense, the other got foreign affairs, if one got economic development, the other got finance. This is going to be tricky in the Kenyan situation, because the President’s group would want to hold onto as many key ministries as possible.

Hamburg: I feel sure that the feedback to groups from the UN, EU, AU, and other international organizations about preventive diplomacy will be a strong reinforcement to overcome cynics who believe it’s too difficult to do or you can’t train people for it. They can learn from your experiences; and you supported that. You supported Connie Peck’s work at UNITAR: your special representatives had lessons to share and learn from each other. We need to build on that and the Kenya experience will be very helpful.

Annan: When Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon came to the Geneva Rights Council we met briefly. He was with Haysom, and Haysom said, “We are going to continue the Security Council Treaty you started. And we are thinking of doing preventive diplomacy as a topic. We are hoping to use Kenya as an example.” I encouraged them to do it, and we also have a couple of people writing it down as case studies. And we are trying to keep the archives and documents intact.

Hamburg: That’s very important. In addition to the growth of preventive diplomacy, which had been largely dormant since the pioneering experience of (--) [Dag Hammarskjöld?], you also generated several reports on prevention of war and conflict. They were circulated not just in the UN but elsewhere and I think that was an important educational function.

Annan: I agree that it really helped. In 2004, the tenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, I came up with a strategy to fight genocide, including the appointment of the special adviser on prevention of genocide, but really stressing the fact that we needed to prevent armed conflict, we needed to protect civilians in armed conflict, we needed to listen to the early warnings and move quickly, and also generate a lot of discussion about prevention of conflict. But I also saw things in a much broader context. When I talked about human dignity, protection of the individual, it brought in the issue of economic development--because the UN focuses so much on the political. To get them to think of poverty, to get them to think of millennium development goals that would directly impact the lives of the poor, to get them to accept that there was an economic basis to conflict, are things I tried to push very hard with my reforms.

Hamburg: That was very important. Economic development can prevent war and genocide. I consider a landmark statement a speech that you gave at the World Bank in 1999, linking equitable--and I underline equitable, as you did--economic development with conflict prevention. You said the international financial institutions should integrate concern for conflict prevention into development operations, and this was a lovely statement: I quote, “Democracy is, in essence, a form of non-violent conflict management. If war is the worst enemy of development, healthy and balanced development is the best form of conflict prevention.” That had not been prominent in the UN or related institutions until the late 1990s.

Annan: Yes, I was very happy that the World Bank under Jim Wolfensohn praised the concept and worked very closely with us on implementation of the millennium development goals.

Hamburg: We had a very interesting session yesterday with Jeff Sachs on Millennium Development Goals. He, of course, was inspired by you, and, given the authority to move ahead, [formed? led?] an international group of colleagues working at the interface between fundamental research, applied research, and practical action on the ground, especially in Africa. In retrospect, how do you feel about the approach the Millennium goals were having in the General Assembly session on April 1st and 2nd--to say where are we, how far we got, what could accelerate the process?

Annan: I think that some regions have done extremely well, particularly Asia. India and China have lifted millions of people out of poverty because of the pace of their economic growth. In Africa and Latin America some countries are doing better than others, but some are really not moving fast enough. So there have been tendencies in some quarters to say, can we focus on one or two of the goals, like health and education. If you were to do that, some would tell you that you are scaling back. In some areas almost every country has done well; take the issue of girls’ education. There has been a real increase in girls’ enrollment in school. You have seen some progress across the board in the area of health; and some have done extremely well in water and sanitation. But very few can claim that they are meeting [the goals] across the board, so we’ll need to re-energize our efforts and learn why some failed and why others did not--and what successful lessons we can apply to the weaker nations to accelerate their progress.

Hamburg: Overall it seems to me that it did provide a great stimulus to improving education and health, particularly for girls and women.

Annan: That’s correct, it did because it was a simple goal that could be understood by ordinary people; and now with a very active civil society in some countries they almost made it a right and claimed it from governments and organized themselves to achieve the goals. In some ways it also strengthened civil society in many countries.

Hamburg: Awareness [has grown] that the development of capabilities in women strengthens the economy. If there is a weakness in the implementation of the development goals, what would it be

Annan: Some countries are probably weaker on the planning side and structure and perhaps may need more help moving forward in their implementation. In other situations they also need additional financial and material support from the international community. As you know, I am a member of the Africa Progress Panel; we are supposed to encourage the G-8 to honor its commitments to Africans as well as encourage the African governments to improve governance and fight corruption. And we have people like Michel Camdessus, Tony Blair, Muhammad Yunus, Bob Geldorf. When you look at the record, some of the promises have not been met--increasing development assistance to Africa by 25 billion dollars by 2010 is not going to be met. But it’s not just a question of resources; it’s also a question of organization, on the grounds structure and making sure they use all their capacities and can use the money [effectively].

Hamburg: Well, we can go on for hours. There’s so much you did in those years that is important. Is there anything that stands out in your mind that you would like to add in terms of contributions to prevention of mass violence? For instance, you did create this unit on prevention of genocide, headed by Francis Deng. Francis, I understand, sent a couple of people over to Kenya. Is that a useful exercise for that office to have some insight to what’s happening in the crisis?

Annan: I think it is important for them to follow what went on in Nairobi and apply it to future situations. What was fascinating in the Nairobi situation is, we got the High Commission of Human Rights to sign a (____) [an agreement?] very quickly. You know why? Both sides felt that when the team came in, it would finger the other side. I called Louise and said, this is the best time to ask for permission, it’s the best time to send them in. The opposition and the government will receive them with open arms--and that’s what happened. So they came in and did the report. They also considered we [should] do the truth and reconciliation; but if Francis sends his people in, they should--in this sort of climate--have access to look around, talk to people, find out what had happened, and why things went the way they did--and how lessons can be applied to future conflicts on the continent.

Hamburg: One final question has a bearing on conflict in the long run. The initiative that you took stimulated me and others to create an InterAcademy Council to study the food supply for Africa. Now you are chairing an effort, as I understand, with support by a couple of major foundations, and you have selected some excellent people. What is your plan for seeing to it that that is actually implemented? When it was presented to you at the African Summit about a year after you left office, very little happened until you took over.

Annan: I really want to thank you and the other scientists for the study you did, which really is a genesis of an alliance for a green revolution in Africa. The founding members are the Gates and Rockefeller foundations. We are going to work very closely with others on the ground--FAO and IFAD. We are also getting other governments involved; and luckily, the World Bank has decided after twenty years that it will return to agriculture. This couldn’t have come at a better time when we have impact of climate change actually taking place. We have seen deserts droughty at 700 kilometers per year, lands that are no longer cultivable, shortages of water, and a high demand for grain.

What is happening to agriculture prices for the poor is going to be a very serious issue if they do not learn how to grow their own food. The demand from India, China and others is going to continue and if one also continues using grains like corn for fuel it’s going to have an impact on food prices. In 2006 I was in Cuba discussing this with Castro. He looks me in the eye and says, “My friend, if we give the food to the cars people will drive; but what will the people eat?” It was as simple as that; and now we see pressure on farmlands, we see food prices gone up. The corn is also used to feed the chickens, the cattle, so it’s going through the chain. We’ve had food riots around the world and I’m afraid we’ll see more of it. So I’m very excited that in a little way we are beginning to assure food safety for the continent. At least we have started.

Hamburg: But it was your force that stimulated the scientific community so that we could actually move on a problem. You have a good plan and now you’re in a position to implement the plan. The very thing that you started comes full circle and you could pursue it and obviously these situations are of sufficient gravity that they could become very important to mass violence down the road; and we must not let that happen.

Annan: I must really thank you David and the others not only in the preventive area and on the agriculture issue but even on the health issue. You remember when we first started talking about a global fund to help fight HIV lots of people thought I was dreaming; but since then we have raised over 22 billion dollars to help lots and lots of people.

Hamburg: Well you put it front and center as a security issue for the first time--which it certainly is. Whether you kill lots of people with guns or with viruses the problem is very similar. You saw that and put it in the center and we have to continue with that.

PG_Annan.pdf184.03 KB