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Kofi Annan's Advice to the United Nations

02/21/2013 05:32 EST | Updated 04/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing Kofi Annan speak in New York. On the cusp of his 75th birthday, he hasn't yet lost his quiet cadence and he remains a man of fine fashion and well-honed politesse. Without effort, he held the attention of a distinguished crowd of now and former diplomats, current and ex-foundation heads, senior scholars of matters relating to the UN, leaders from international civil society, and an assortment of that rare breed of east coast philanthropists -- the financial donors and activists that makes New York the unofficial epicenter of good causes, and international sensibility. All of us collected in the dining room of one of the venerable mega-foundations (America's distinctive contribution to international good works), to have lunch and pay tribute to Mr. Annan, who for years -- as Secretary-General -- was the voice of the peacemaker in a world in strife.

But, there was one difference. Freed from the constraints of office, armed with a newly written book and perspective to view the world a little closer to the ground than from his previous perch on the 52nd floor of the UN building would allow, there was a sharper edge to Kofi Annan. It is seen in the title of his book, "Interventions."

Around the UN, these days, it has become the "I" word, to be avoided in diplomatic exchange, never appearing in releases or statements, submerged under the political palaver of sovereign rights and self-determination, holdovers from ages gone by. In the discussion on Syria, the smart set talk is about giving rebels guns, negotiating a soft landing for Assad, avoiding any entanglement on the ground (or in the air for that matter). It is a retreat from the efforts of a previous decade to establish a basic principle of protection for innocent people being murdered by their own government (think: Responsibility to Protect).

Kofi doesn't pull any punches. Early in his book he sets out his creed for the UN: "A United Nations for the twenty-first century would have to create new partnerships, respond to the needs of the individuals and stand for the principle that national sovereignty could never be used as a shield for genocide or a gross violation of human rights."

He also remains grounded as to why such basic ambitions can't be met. A security council that is fractured into special national interests, abusing the right of the veto; warlords and dictators who kill with impunity to advance their greed for riches or power; and the weakening of resolve in North America and Europe to act in a collective manner, and thus far a confused set of objectives by the emerging states. As Kofi Annan clearly concludes, our level of governance is not up to the task posed by world realities.

He speaks not just from the serenity of retirement. He has been active in trying to put into practice what he preaches. He played an instrumental role in avoiding a civil conflict in Kenya in 2008, and took on a UN envoy role in Syria until he realized that there was really no consensus at the UN on what to do, or to back up his efforts. His recent book tour is an effort to recharge the batteries of interest and commitment to a more active and robust UN.

However, if the well-placed and influential crowd in the foundation dining room were any indication then his birthday message -- well delivered as it was -- just didn't resonate with any renewed sense of urgency. No sense outrage presented itself in the crown at the present murderous situation in Syria, nor did any hope show itself that the Security Council would show any gumption to stop the killing.

It may just be that we are in a trough of poor leadership, divisive world politics, and an indifference to multilateral, cooperative solutions. Try to name one international institution that recently showed success in mobilizing collective action to confront the growing risks of violence against the innocent, the threat of environmental destruction through climate change, the starving thousands facing drought and food shortages, or the growing refugee tragedies populating the world. We have lost our global mojo to do anything that doesn't serve a particular national interest or advance the voodoo magic of the market.

But the world has experienced such similar valleys of inaction and indifference before. We have proven ourselves capable to climb out of the darkest periods of human history to forge effective and united action which advances new, tough goals and standards and builds the appropriate architecture to make international cooperation work.

But it happens only if there continues to be a coterie of people around the world who believe that values of peace and human security are important and can be activated. That's why we need to look to the work of our wise leaders, such as the cultured, calm and coherent voice of 75-year-old Kofi Annan, to give voice to such hopes.

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