I was one of the lucky few who was invited to attend a rare opportunity to have a roundtable discussion with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan who was in Toronto for an exclusive speaking engagement as part of the ongoing speakers series presented by the Bon Mot Book Club a Vancouver-based ideas forum headed by Leah Costello. After other speaking stops Vancouver and Calgary, she brought Annan to Toronto.

Before the sold-out larger speaking event which was held at the Windsor Arms Hotel, Annan answered our questions which covered various hot button topics including the ways towards a successful society, Iran, Romney and China.

 Secret to a successful society

“There are three pillars: Stability and security (creating a stable environment), Development, Rule of Law and Human Rights.

You need stability and you need development. You cannot have stability without development and you cannot have development without stability. When people are deprived, unemployed and helpless it leads to social tension.

All this is rooted in my judgment in rule of law and respect for human rights. It’s when you have that solid basis that is when societies flourish. You look around the world; the societies that have flourished that have these three pillars.

If we have been asked including myself two years ago what you have thought of Tunisia, one would have said great tourist destination, stable, economic growth is at 5-6 per cent and doing well. But none of us would have raised the issue of human rights and rule of law. We sometimes tend to confuse stability with rule of law and respect for human rights.  And yet that third pillar for me is most important. And if you ignore it you are building on sand.”

Embracing the winds of change

“There’s an African proverb, which says, ‘You cannot bend the wind, so bend the sail.’

And with my discussions with the leaders of the region, I try to encourage them to understand that the strong transformational winds, which are blowing today, cannot be resisted for long. One needs to stay ahead of the curve and embrace change and reform.

For those who think they can block it, they are wasting their time and need to embrace reform. It’s not something limited to the third world. We see it in Europe today on the economic front with the EU. If right from the beginning they had accepted on what was happening in Greece and everybody knew was likely to happen in Spain and Portugal was a common problem, the approach would have been different and they probably would have been over the hump now. To try to get them to understand that the collective interest is a national interest. I use the example of the cruise ship, you may have the best suite in the ship and somebody else may be in another comer. But if there is a hole in one comer of the ship we are all at risk, regardless of the suite.”

Optimism for today

“I’m by nature optimistic but I can also be coldly realistic when I’m looking at a problem. There has to be hope. One has to offer hope. People ask me why do you take on the question of envoy of Syria; it was a hopeless case – a Mission: Impossible. I said ‘I agree but somebody had to do it’. And not only try to see if we can get them to stop killing each other, but to give hope to the people that efforts are being made.

My own background is from the Gold Coast, which is now Ghana. I grew up at a time of independence and seeing all the changes that the country went through. I walked away as young man convinced that change is possible, even radical revolutionary change. That has helped me a lot in my life because when people tell me that it can’t be done I say ‘let’s test it, let’s try it because unless you try it you won’t even know if it’s possible or not.”‘


“Iran has been with us for quite a while and will be with us for a while yet. The diplomatic efforts, discussions and negotiations should continue. It’s tricky because the Iranians maintain that they don’t want to have a nuclear weapon but nobody believes them. It’s this lack of trust that leads to this point. I was talking to them this summer and they said that the main purpose is to expand their scientific knowledge of enrichment. The rest of the world, that is suspicious, the West in particular feels that once you have mastered the art of enrichment it’s a short jump to go nuclear.

My advice to the Iranians is that if you have nothing to hide, open it up, let the atomic agencies go everywhere and they will discover that you are genuine. When you look at the geopolitical volatility of that region, a region that has seen so many wars, between Iran and Iraq, Iraq and the rest of the world, and Lebanon and Israel, and today with Syria tensions, do we really want to start another war? I think the U.S. has been quite correct in exercising restraint. I think that Netanyahu and the Israeli government, even if they were to go that way, would make a big mistake. My advice is to continue discussion and I think most of the world would want to. A military venture would be very very costly.

One argument that the Iranian bomb may get into the wrong hands i.e. Jihadists and extremists. Than if that is the case, than Pakistan is even more dangerous than Iran and one is not hearing anything about that.”

Israel/Palestine Issue

“It’s been very dormant in the last couple of years. What is worrying is that I noticed my friend Jimmy Carter three days ago saying he is getting worried about the viability of the two-state solution and heading towards a one-state solution, which he believes would be a disaster for Israel. But I had Amr Moussa who was the former Secretary General of The Arab League tell me three weeks ago, that he believes that one should focus on a one-state solution. There is no process. I don’t know what will happen after the elections but without a process you cannot expect to make progress.

The Palestinian issue has an impact way beyond their borders, way beyond the theatre of conflict. It’s also sometimes exploited by politicians and people to do what they want to do. And the same people, when they have a chance to do something for the Palestinian issue, they don’t do it. So you have this hypocrisy. It is a problem and it cannot be solved without  a real push from the U.S.

I was a member of The Quartet. When it was created, I genuinely thought at the time, if we have a roundtable with the Russian Federation, The UN, U.S. and EU working together and coming up with a roadmap that will lead to a two-state solution, the parties would engage and we would put collective pressure on the side that failed to do it. The road map was never implemented and was conditioned to death. The U.S. was not always ready to put its weight [behind it]. Yes there are four in The Quartet but the U.S. is the most influential.

It’s the only country that Israelis really listen to. I teased Putin that ‘You should have influence, lots of your citizens have emigrated to Israel’, he said ‘Yes my friend, but for some strange reason once they get to Israel their politics tend to go the right.”

 A Romney win

“There will be a period of adjustment for the Americans and for the world. I don’t know which Romney will emerge. When we look back at the days of George Bush and Iraq there was tension between the U.S. and the rest of the world. That dissipated when Obama came. If you have a change, depending on the policies of Romney, you would either see those tensions rising or continue to thaw. My own view is that despite what he says on the campaign trail, if he does win, the responsibility will sober him up.

You don’t know responsibility until you have tasted it. With the American public that is just coming through two wars, they’re not going to be in a hurry to get into another one. The American public has learned to not give a president a free hand, declaring wars without even putting a budget on it. The congress didn’t do their work. The President [George W. Bush] didn’t do his work. Everybody was cheerleading and woke up much later. The American people won’t sit back and let it happen [again].”

The world of instant information

“With the Libyan situation, in the old days we would have had six months of back and forth to decide how to handle it and what to share with the public. Now the public knows immediately and you get a cable. There is this impatience and wanting instant results, making it extremely difficult for leaders. In the [U.S. Presidential] debate the question of horses and bayonets came up. There were days where everything came by boat and you had time to reflect and think.”

Media coverage of conflicts

“When media poses an issue and stays on the story, often the politicians [will then] act and it moves up the political agenda. I think media has been positive in certain situations where they have focused so much attention on an issue. One example is Somalia 20 years ago, when Senior President Bush sent in thousands of U.S. troops to help feed the people. The problem that was that food has been flown in by UN World Food Program but the rebels kept it in the warehouses and sometimes stole and sold it to neighbouring countries.

With the press’ attention [Bush] agreed to send in the forces and it made a difference. Also to a certain extent, the press has been very effective in Bosnia and Kosovo. [And] we have seen how press has been effective in natural disasters with the Tsunami.”

China – Business & Human Rights

“Chinese are a big player in Africa today. They are focusing a lot on infrastructure and getting into other areas, having invested $5 billion in a bank in South Africa. I tell Africa that it has to be mutually beneficial. I tell the Chinese this also, I go beyond that, if they make agreements which are unfair then it will not stand the test of time. The point about human rights and good governance is something the Africans themselves have to do.

I have leaders tell me that ‘I like doing business with the Chinese because they come, they discuss, they give you the cheque and they don’t lecture you on governance and human rights.’ I say ‘You should do it in a way so nobody will lecture you and you get it right.’ I think the pressure of building a civil society will keep these leaders on their toes. We need to have rule of law, governance and respect human rights but we need to set the frame for it. The Chinese won’t do it for us.”

Special thanks to Leah Costello and Rev. Bill Dost

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