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.”