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Long Live the United Nations

27 January 2006

Kofi Annan has come to Davos many times. Each time he has been feted as one of the world’s leading statesman, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace offering a clear moral compass to packed audiences in the massive Congress Hall that aligns tactically and strategically to the possible, the pragmatic. This occasion is in all likelihood his last time around as Secretary General. As I take my seat in the big hall, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie enter the room followed by admirers and press and take their seats on the front row. Kofi enters and takes the stage. The hall, extraordinarily, is half empty, and he walks to the podium without the usual welcoming, enthusiatic applause that has greeted him in previous years. His speech is a testimony to the United Nations, a testimony to his period at the helm, a farewell maybe to a community of business people and assorted hangers on who he has brought closer to the UN and vice versa. He almost seems to be pleading for people to notice how much has happened, how many successes there have been, to notice how much more focused and healthy the UN has become under his command. “Dear friends, the UN cannot stand still since a threat to humanity does not stand still”. His words are profoundly true and yet somehow do not have the resonance of earlier speeches. His modest and open ending marks the ending of an era, “I have worked long and hard to improve the UN…it will be the true measure of my success or failure”.

Kofi Annan finishes and leaves the stage, symbolically seating himself with the participants, as the high-profile panel takes on the topic of the future of the UN. There is a sense in the room that this might be a 360 degree interview or at least a declared job description for prospective candidates for the role of Secretary General.

A sombre moment indeed. With all that has not happened under his watch, Kofi has undoubtedly been a beacon of sanity amidst an international politics that too often leaves one despairing. This occasion, his farewell speech to Davos, made to far too few people whose closing applause is barely polite, feels like and really is a sad, lonely moment. Due respect to this amazing man is not being paid by the many that have courted and often used him and the UN.

Most of all, Kofi stood for an open multilateralism, a common space where he drew in, validated and sought to empower not only political but also business and civil society leaders. Despite his insistent pragmatism, one always sensed his vision of and commitment to a global polity that went beyond providing a platform for horse-trading between powerful nations. There seems little sign of this powerful vision at Davos this year. Despite the apparent successes of Gleneagles, and Davos’s roll-call of global initiatives, the adrenalin-charged exhilaration of China’s 9% growth rate seems to have swamped our collective sense of perspective on what is important, a dark sign of things to come.

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