Kofi Annan Talk Spotlights Global Affairs and Leadership

Kofi Annan and John H. Ruggie in conversation at City College.

By Maura Christopher, Director of Publications, Colin Powell Center

With the fate of Syria dominating headlines, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on Friday for a political solution to the conflict. “Military intervention will only make things worse.” said Annan, who served during 2012 as Joint Special Envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the League of Arab States.

Annan’s comments were part of a wide-ranging discussion with John H. Ruggie, professor of Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard University, who served as Annan’s assistant secretary-general for strategic planning. The February 8 talk, sponsored by the Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service and the City College Division of Social Science, marked the completion of a six-year joint CCNY-Yale University project to research, collect, organize, and publish the official papers of Kofi Annan.

Unprecedented Access
Led by the Professor Jean Krasno, director of multilateral organizations for the Colin Powell Center and director of CCNY’s MA program in International Relations, the project provides access to documents that otherwise, under the UN system, would be locked away for decades. “The papers open up the UN and offer a view behind the scenes,” Annan said. “Now young academicians who want to understand the decade will get access, and so Jean’s contribution is of tremendous value.”

Speaking before a full house that had braved blizzard warnings to attend the talk, Annan and Ruggie offered relaxed conversation on a range of topics, including the proper role of governments. Annan described that role as “getting governments to understand that they should focus not only on themselves but on protecting and defending the rights of their people.” Annan added: “Even genocide starts with the humiliation of one person.”

On Syria, Annan noted the effect of intervention on the country’s numerous ethnic minorities. “Syrians have seen the jihadist elements that military intervention encourages, and they know the ethnic cleansing, revenge killings, and instability this can lead to,” he said. He also stressed the importance of countries such as China and Russia supporting a diplomatic solution, which could avoid the collapse of Syria as a state.

Changing the World’s View
Ruggie also engaged Annan on his role on the global HIV/AIDs pandemic. Annan, along with the UN itself, won the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership on this issue, which had been widely marginalized. As CCNY President Lisa S. Coico had noted in her introductory remarks, “Kofi Annan changed the world’s view of the virus and focused its attention so we could make tremendous strides in this arena.” In his remarks, Annan movingly described how he and his wife, Nane, visited poor patients who could not begin to afford the costly life-saving medication available in wealthier countries. In response, Annan brought together pharmaceutical executives to work out cost-effective solutions. Annan also praised President George W. Bush’s action providing $200 million to fight HIV/AIDS globally.

Peace Before Justice
Taking questions from the audience, Annan called himself a supporter of the International Criminal Court, but noted that in a conflict situation, peace must come before justice. “You stop the violence in a situation, then seek justice,” he said.

The inspirational talk in the Great Hall of Shepard Hall also touched on Annan’s concept of leadership: “Gather together a good team-people with good judgment,” Annan said. “Assign tasks, free your people to do them. and instill team spirit.” Annan added his own model of such spirit: Brazil’s national soccer team. “It’s all about winning as a team, but it allows for individual brilliance.”

Read more about Maura Christopher and our other contributors here.

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