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Kofi Annan exhorts interventions to right wrongs

05 November 2012

Mr Annan speaking on interventions by the international community when governments do not take responsibility to protect their people

Mr Annan and Dean of LKY School Prof Kishore Mahbubani discussing issues raised by the audience

Photos: Michael Culme-Seymour

Mr Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations who recently left the organisation, is without doubt a popular figure. He was met with thunderous standing ovation by the capacity audience when he entered the auditorium at the NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Policy (LKY School) for the LKY School Distinguished Dialogue on 31 October.

The diplomat extraordinaire made light of his larger-than-life reputation by recounting an anecdote where someone approached him for an autograph, thinking he was African-American actor Morgan Freeman. He gamely played along and signed on behalf of his mistaken identity.

On a more serious note, the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize laureate talked about why he wrote the book Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, which documented his 40 years at the UN. He shared his experience and thought-provoking insights into the many international issues and crises around the world, especially the human conflicts in Iran, Iraq, Rwanda and Bosnia where thousands perished.

The first Li Ka Shing Professor for the LKY School underscored in his speech that governments must not hide behind sovereignty as a shield to brutalise their people. "Governments have the responsibility to protect their citizens and where they fail to do it - to protect them from genocide, crimes against humanity, gross and systematic abuse of human rights - the international community has the responsibility to intervene."

The message for other countries was that they cannot use sovereignty as a reason not to intervene.

Mr Annan added that intervention does not refer to military force, which should only be the last resort. Intervention has to be political, diplomatic, economic and pressure for the parties involved to change their ways and protect their people or allow external help. One such successful example was Kenya, where countries rendered support without resorting to force.

Other kinds of intervention take the form of providing assistance to poor countries to lift the people out of poverty, as well as medicines to save those areas afflicted with diseases such as HIV, malaria and tuberculosis.

Mr Annan believes that as an international community, everyone has to support and play a role to ensure healthy societies around the world. And such societies need to be built on the foundation of peace and stability, development, rule of law and respect for human rights.

In his travel in the Middle East, Mr Annan observed a strong transformational wind blowing and he exhorted that such a change should be accepted, embraced, and leveraged upon. He concluded with an African proverb: "You cannot bend the wind, so bend the sail."

Following the talk, students and attendees queued up to ask Mr Annan questions ranging from why the UN did not intervene in certain conflicts to his views on the leadership change in China and how to address the current crisis in Syria.