For Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, change has defined his life.
Annan spoke to a packed audience of students, professors and community members at a talk sponsored by the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs Thursday afternoon. Annan, who served as head of the UN from 1997 to 2006, came to campus to commemorate the publication of his official UN papers, which will be available in Manuscripts and Archives in the Sterling Memorial Library. During the talk, which was moderated by John Negroponte, a Jackson Institute senior fellow and U.S. ambassador to the UN during part of Annan’s tenure, Annan touched on his experience dealing with a broad variety of cultures and his vision for a U.N. that best reflects 21st century realities.
“I grew up with the sense that change was possible, even the most radical change and went through life testing, pushing change wherever I got,” Annan said. “When I’m told it cannot be done, I say, let’s test it.”
Annan, who lived in Ghana during the nation’s struggle for independence, worked for the U.N. or its affiliates for nearly 50 years. Once decisions are made in the General Assembly and various councils, Annan said, the secretary general is responsible for implementing initiatives and programs to execute larger goals. He said he used his power to focus on helping improve the lives of individuals by working toward better healthcare, improved access to economic opportunities and end to ethnic conflicts.
“We were there to protect these ideas and principles, but these principles belonged to the people,” Annan said. “It is up to us to give [policy] functional interpretation.”
Annan said he thinks the U.N. must stay true to its founding values while evolving to adjust to the world’s shifting geopolitical dynamics.
Plans for the organization’s structural reform are complicated because countries such as the United States have little desire to give up their power while smaller countries do not always gain the influence they want, Annan said. Still, he said, efforts for reform should continue because currently neither India — a nation with 20 percent of the world’s population — nor any Latin American or African country have permanent seats on the Security Council.
“If we do not reform, we are going to really not get the cooperation that we’re going to need from these big emerging countries,” Annan said.
Annan also addressed current global conflicts including the crisis in Syria, where he took up a post as a special UN envoy from February to August 2012. He added that is he is strongly concerned about the conflict in Syria because he fears it will escalate without successful international intervention.
Annan said he hopes the Security Council will lead resolution efforts in the region and called on the U.S. and the Russian Federation to start these efforts.
“This is not a type of crisis where one side wins and the other side accepts and joins in,” Annan said. “It will lead to revenge killings, it will lead to ethnic cleansing and it will get much, much worse than it is today.”
Marilyn Wilkes, the public affairs director for the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, said she thinks lectures such as Annan’s are a tremendous asset to students and community members because they can directly engage with the speaker through questions.
Amy Chang ’16 said she enjoyed the humor and anecdotes Annan included in his discussion and appreciated hearing about the life experiences that motivated him.
In 2001, Annan and the General Assembly were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.