Read: United Nations and the Baha'is, The


On January 1, 1997 Kofi Annan began his term as the last United Nations Secretary-General of the 20th Century. As the UN approaches its second century of existence, member countries have increasingly questioned its role in the international community. In this interview with Yale International Forum Senior Editor Sahba Sobhani, Secretary General Annan presents his vision for the institution, and his optimism for the future.

1. How do you propose to deal with the issue of equitable representation on the Security Council?
I am in favor of reforming the Council to make it more effective, efficient and democratic, thereby giving it greater legitimacy. Reforming the Council is not an easy task, though. Most Member States agree that the Security Council as is today reflects the geopolitical realities of 1945 and that it should be brought in line with today's realities. But beyond this point, there is not any agreement on these issues, such as the size of the Council and, assuming it would have more seats, which Member States should join the expanded Council. These are tough questions and for which, at the end of the day, answers will have to found by the Member States themselves.

2. Despite your recent appointment of an African, Dr. Zepherin Diabre of Burkina Faso, as the associate administrator of the United Nations Program and under-secretary general, some African countries have criticized the United Nations for its lack of diversity. What tangible goals have you set for your organization in order to achieve more diversity?
As you may know, it is up to the General Assembly to set targets for the diversity of staff. Since my appointment as Secretary General I have worked hard to reach these targets when filling posts. In 1996, only 43 of the 53 African countries were at their targets , we have 48 African States represented at the target level. Actually, Africa has more countries—three—that are over represented in the Secretariat than any other grouping of countries except for Asia and the Pacific, which has four. I do certainly intend to keep drawing on Africa's talent in staffing the United Nations and I invite African countries to come forward with qualified candidates for consideration.

3. What programs has the United Nations established to promote its vision to young people?
Last year, in Portugal, I attended two international meetings on youth. The first one was the World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth. I told them that their mission was to open up as many possibilities and perspectives for youth as they could. The second meeting was the United Nations World Youth Forum. There were hundreds of young people from all over the world. That gathering of spirited future leaders left me with the hope that our successors can and will do better than us in preventing war and promoting development.

4. In your speech in August 1998 to the students at Kwame Nkrumah University in Ghana, you urged African students to the call of public service. What qualities do you think the younger generation of African leaders should try to embody?
First and foremost, I would encourage the young leaders of Africa to be aware of their own tremendous potential to change the world for the better. They may feel powerless in the face of the complex global problems which loom large, especially in Africa, but with unity of purpose, enthusiasm and skill, obstacles can be overcome.

We have seen the recent example of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines-the driving force behind last year's treaty to ban the production, stockpiling, export and use of these abominable weapons. The campaign, which involved many young people, demonstrated that there are no limits to what civil society can achieve in partnership with governments. Many young people took part in that campaign. One thousand NGOs in 60 countries were linked together by one unbending conviction and excellent communications—they made extensive use of e-mail, proving that it could be more powerful than landmines.

That leads me to another point. All of today's future leaders must harness the positive aspects of globalization, using new forms of communication to foster new networks for change. I would say especially to my fellow Africans that young people must develop the skills to master the technology of the future. And Africans must unite to help our continent. We have a huge potential crying out to be realized.

5. Your appointment to the helm of the United Nations has been a source of pride by fellow sons and daughters of Africa. Many had anticipated that you would put Africa at the top of the world agenda. What specific proposals have you put forward to deal with the issue of peace-making and poverty alleviation in Africa?
In my 27 months as United Nations Secretary General, I have tried to focus the energies and ideas of the United Nations clearly and resolutely on Africa's challenges. In April of 1998, I presented a report to the Security council containing realistic and achievable measures designed to significantly reduce political tensions and violence within and between African states. I stressed that Africa today must more than ever look at itself, given the renewed momentum in the continent's quest for peace and greater prosperity.

However, African efforts needs stronger international support politically, as well as in the economic area, where greater debt relief and market access for more diversified African exports are crucial to ensuring the higher living standards that promote stability.

I stressed that development aid should be restructured, focusing on high impact areas and on reducing dependency. I pointed out that after more than 40 years of technical assistance program, 90 percent of the $12 billion a year of technical assistance is spent on non-African consultants, despite the availability of African experts in many fields. I therefore urged donors to make sure that at least 50 per cent of their aid to Africa is spent in Africa. I also called for new sources of funding, as well as better use of existing resources and the enactment of trade and debt measures that will enable Africa to generate and better reinvest its own resources.

I strongly criticized international arms merchants for profiting from conflict in Africa, and recommended that Member States pass legislation making the violation of Security Council arms embargoes by individuals or corporations a criminal offence under their national laws. While recognizing the rights of States to provide for their own defence, I called upon African countries to reduce their purchases of arms and munitions below 1.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and to commit themselves to a zero growth policy for defence budgets for a period of ten years.

I also called for support for regional and sub-regional initiatives, and strongly encouraged Member States to contribute to the United Nations and Organization of African Unity (OAU) Trust Funds for conflict prevention and peacekeeping. I urged governments in conflict situations to consider appointing special mediators or special commissions to build practical solutions, and called for the establishment of contact groups of interested countries or a special conference in conflict and post conflict situations.

Already, the follow-up to this report has begun within the United Nations, primarily in the economic area, but also including special conferences on Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Security Council has passed a number of resolutions on Africa in response to my report, one on the safety of refugee camps, the other on illicit arms flows. These decisions illustrate the Council's active concern for two issues which are critical to our continent's activity.

During the General Assembly's general debate last year, I convened a meeting of Ministers of Foreigns and other high officials of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) Development Assistance Committee, and drew their attention to several priority areas. I stressed, in particular, the need to increase the volume, and improve the quality of official development assistance, and to provide significant debt relief for the poorest African countries.

6. Recently, the Iranian government has conducted an extensive crackdown against the Bahá'í Institute of Higher Education (BIHE), an open university started by members of the Bahá'í Faith, as part of its campaign of persecution against this minority group. Since Iran's action violates both the 1996 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which recognizes "the right of everyone to education" and international agreements on religious freedom, what has the UN done to deal with the human rights plight of the Bahá'ís of Iran?
The United Nations is certainly concerned with the plight of the Bahá'ís in Iran. The Commission on Human Rights has appointed a Special Representative, Maurice Danby Copithorne, to monitor the situation in that country. In order to fulfill his mandate, Mr. Copithorne has interviewed representatives of several non-governmental organizations, including the Bahá'í International Community, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch/Middle East, Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights and the National Council of Resistance of Iran. In his report , which is public and available on the UN web site, he includes cases in which the human rights of Bahá'ís have been breached and of situations of discrimination and even of persecution, including extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detentions, refusal of entry to universities, confiscation of property and dismissal from employment.

The General Assembly has, in successive years, addressed this problem through the adoption of strong resolutions on the human rights situation in Iran. In the latest one, adopted on December 9, 1998, the Assembly expressed its concern with the discrimination against religious minorities in Iran. In particular, it remained gravely concerned at the unabated pattern of persecution against the Bahá'ís and drew attention to the execution, sentencing to death and arrests of members of the Bahá'í community. The Assembly called on the Government to implement the recommendations of the Commission on Human Rights relating to the Bahá'ís and to other religious minorities until they are completely emancipated.

7. In a recent Earth Times Comic Strip, Mr. Shashi Tharoor was portrayed as your "Krishna of Communications" having done a great deal in promoting your image and message to the media. How would you describe your relationship with Mr. Shashi Tharoor?
It is very important to have a solid team working with you. I am very fortunate to have that, particularly in the area of communications. I chose Shashi to be my Director of Communications because I trust his knowledge and his experience. His creativity and enthusiasm are characteristics that I consider essential for someone with responsibility in the field of communications. As Director of Communications, he coordinates our communication efforts and helps to ensure that the Organization speaks with one voice.

8. You speak very fondly of the time you spend as a student at Macalester College in the American Midwest. What did you most enjoy about living in the American Midwest?
I have very fond memories of the time I spent in the Midwest. I was particularly touched by the warmth and hospitality of the people. Last year, I had the opportunity to return to Macalester College—the spirit remains the same. I particularly admire their curiosity about the outside world; at Macalester I was struck by the way in which diversity was celebrated, not just tolerated.

9. Finally, how has your job changed you?
When I became Secretary-General, I knew there would be changes in my life. My predecessor Dag Hammarskjold once said it is a "question not of a man, but of an institution." I believe in the institution and accept all changes as part of the job. Of course, there is an impact on my personal routine and family life; but (my wife) Nane is very supportive and whenever possible we travel together.

Family life is an essential balancing element in my life. One lives continually in the public glare of the "big world", so one needs the "little world" of the family to retire to each day. And my wife has been very good at ensuring that that little world has been preserved for me to return to. It is essential for my equilibrium.

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