Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, spoke briefly to about 100 staff and scholars at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on December 2. He then met with four of the Center’s program directors on globalization issues, water diplomacy, legacies of the Cold War, and non-proliferation.

In his opening comments, he said the Center is a living memorial to the vision of Woodrow Wilson, who perhaps more than any other American inspired the idea of the United Nations. As members of the Center, he added, “you are also carrying forward the belief that a world of laws, and a world of order based on multinational cooperation is a world where all states pursue their aims in peace.”

The Secretary-General went on to suggest a few areas of study he feels deserve special attention. The first is the effort to eliminate poverty. According to Annan, what is necessary is real political will toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals---8 commitments drawn from the Millennium Declaration and endorsed by all member states of the UN. The goals range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education---all by the target date of 2015. “They represent a set of simple but powerful objectives that every man and woman from Washington to Warsaw or Nairobi to Delhi can easily support and understand,” Annan said. He also pointed out that Wilson Center staff and scholars can play a crucial role in drawing the attention of policymakers to the connection between these priorities and the possibility of achieving and maintaining peace and security in the developing world.

During the question and answer session, the Secretary-General was asked to comment on the current inspections in Iraq. Annan gave a positive report but cautioned that it has only been a week. His recent report from Chief UN Weapons Inspector Hans Blix said that Blix was pleased with the assurances the inspectors had received thus far from the Iraqi authorities. Annan said, “Now we are testing those assurances and we are into the 5th day and things seem to be going well.” Annan clarified that the new resolution strengthens the inspector’s hand by allowing them access anywhere and anytime. “We hope that if they are able to get the full cooperation from the Iraqis ---and the inspections are to be done in accordance with the Security Council resolutions--- the arguments for war would be considerably diminished and we may be able to resolve this issue without conflict.” Annan went on to say that it is important that all members of the Council who voted for the resolution, act in good faith: “…good faith in the sense that if Iraq does comply, and is disarmed and the inspectors confirm that there are no weapons of mass destruction, we accept that. On the other hand if Iraq were to continue to defy the international authority and the Council, then the members of that Council will have to face up to their responsibilities.”

When asked about the possible erosion of civil liberties resulting from the war on terrorism, the Secretary-General expressed concern. “We have to be extremely careful not to think that there is a trade-off between effective action against terrorism and human rights and civil liberties. If an individual is required to give up his civil liberties or freedom for security and safety, do you in the end have security and safety?” He commented further that there have been situations all over the world where political leaders have tagged opposition leaders with the “T” word. “If we do allow that [the erosion of civil liberties in the name of the fight against terrorism] then we are giving the terrorists a victory they could not have won themselves.”

The final question posed to the Secretary-General asked for his assessment of the reasons why many Americans are suspicious of the United Nations and what can be done to change this perception. In his response, Annan said that part of the problem had been the United Nations itself, “We don’t seem to be able to tell our story—even the successful ones.” When Annan became Secretary-General in 1997, one of the first things he remarked on was the need to bring the UN closer to the people. He explained that in the developing world where the UN is active on the ground with humanitarian action, development activities, and peacekeeping operations, people see humanitarian and social workers working in the communities. The UN does not have that sort of exposure with the American public. Annan once asked President Bill Clinton why it was that while poll after poll indicated that the American people supported the idea of the UN, it was not translated into action on Capitol Hill. “His answer was interesting—without batting an eye, he said that they support the UN, but when the congressmen and the senators go back to their constituents, nobody asks them about the UN. When they vote against the UN, they don’t pay a price.” He went on to say that no lobby exists that puts pressure on legislators with regard to UN issues.

He concluded his remarks with more hopeful words. “But I have been encouraged recently—when you look at the debate and discussion on Iraq, it was not just politicians and diplomats pleading with the administration to go to the Security Council. The public, the American public was saying “Go to the Council, work with allies, and that was an interesting development.” This indicated to Annan that the American public is becoming more engaged with and more supportive of the United Nations. He asked that scholars at the Center do their part to communicate the important role the UN can play in an interdependent world. “If it is going to be a global village, we need to have common values that hold us together. We need to have a common language. For the time being that language is international law and if we begin to undermine that ---international cooperation and the role of the UN-- I think it is going to be quite a miserable place.”

Drafted by Lauren Crowley

Sharon Coleman, Director of Outreach & Communications, 202/691-4016.