Lessons Learned and Ideas Inspired by Kofi Annan’s Memoir

Kofi Photo

After recently finishing Interventions: A Life in War and Peace by Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, I found myself not being able to stop thinking about many of the points he made. After jotting down random notes, underlines, and bookmarking several pages, I wanted to put this all together somewhere that I could reference in the future. His ideals on peacekeeping made so much sense in a world that is often chaotic with unnecessary conflict. Without letting himself be influenced by major powers, including the United States, he stayed true to what he believed in even if it led to disagreements with the security council or permanent UN member states.

A Christmas gift from my fiance, he bought it for me because of my curiosity for the UN, passion for peace keeping and preventing mass atrocities, and recent experience in Ghana and admiration of their culture. It resonated with me how Annan’s ideals and values seemed to stem from the culture I experienced while I was volunteering in Ghana this past summer. It also coincided with my belief in the benefits of cross-cultural communication and understanding. Not only would it eliminate conflicts essentially based on cultural misunderstandings, as many of the wars in the world often resonate, but also nations could learn how to better themselves by taking in lessons and ideas from places different from themselves. I know the United States and other major western powers often spread their practices to other countries with intentions of bettering theirs, but there is a lot that these powerful nations can learn from others as well. I thought of this a lot once I returned from Ghana and reflected in a post on who really are the rich and lucky ones in the world, and how are those two areas defined. In Annan’s writing, I found another example that especially if the United States related it to congress and our partisan conflicts today, might help finally move the country forward.

“For Ghanians, the concept of the African palaver tree has always been a tangible part of our heritage, and a source of the relative peace and harmony among myriad tribes and religions. A place to meet and talk, to seek compromise and settle disputes, to bridge differences and foster unity–this was the meaning of the palaver tree.”

“If you have a problem and you can’t find a solution, you meet again tomorrow and you keep talking until you find a solution. You can disagree with behavior or a particular position, but you do not resort to calling an opponent worthless. This notion extends to the relationship between traditional chiefs and their tribes, where there is accountability in the case of abuse or arrogance, including providing for the removal of chiefs who have lost the trust and respect of their people.”

What if this was the way for Congress and the White House today in the United States? Annan also highlights similar lessons he learned from his father.

“He taught me that when others insisted that sides must be chosen, and that it had to be either/or, there was another way that was truer to the reality of a complex world. His own life had been defined by the coexistence of tribe and language, place and purpose–the mix of heritage and hope that could bring Africa a new beginning, with dignity at its core.”

Annan also brought up a point of spreading democracy. An area I always questioned, because different cultures have different needs, he claimed that African countries are actually not being “westernized” when accepting democracy. It is in fact an idea that used to exist for them before colonization though not called democracy at the time, but contained many of the same ideals. As an African, he also stood strongly on the fact that colonization could no longer be used as an excuse for Africa’s problems. They need to look forward rather than letting the past inhibit them forever. Many countries such as Rwanda and Ghana have proven to be successful and peaceful democracies in recent years. They can serve as a model for states around them with cultural similarities, but who are still stuck under the result of a long military coup that took over once they obtained their freedom again and allowed corruption and prejudice to run rampid.

Under Annan, The United Nations also made poverty alleviation a global fight. Prior to September 11th, Annan reflected on near success of having the permanent member states ready to commit their share to make this goal closer to a reality. However, after September 11th this was pushed to the side. A very ironic move considering that poverty and all of the aspects that come along with it (lack of education, hunger, disease, etc.) are often what push men into extremist terrorist cells. Fighting poverty would likely have a considerably better result on the fight against terrorism than going in and fighting in countries that are already facing instability. This new tension, fear, and instability only leads to the growing number of terrorist activity which is now showing up in recent reports from the use of drones, for example. Imagine constantly living in fear and anxiety as unmanned killing machines flew above you without ever knowing when they would unleash their weapons. I think that may be enough to drive any person into a panic.

He touched on the importance of empowering women to make a substantial difference in the world, a common theory arising today and the importance of contraception access to give women these equal opportunities and also in reducing HIV/AIDS infections that continue to make it impossible for state’s with lack of awareness and resources to rise above.

In the situation in the Middle East he stood for the change the Arab Spring was working to bring, and sympathized with the battles they faced to finally have a better future that must include focus on young people and women to fully succeed. He reflected on lessons in Bosnia and Kosovo (an area I need to learn more about), and the cruelties between Israel and Palestine. To this day Israel continues its disagreements with the United Nations, seeing them as siding against them. Annan showed it in a way that showed the instability rising up over history, but the extreme retaliations often coming from the Israeli government only deepened the instability. That, and their persistance to not recognize international law and Palestine as a state, giving Palestinians a chance at rights and growth rather than keeping them oppressed, again something that feeds into growing extremist groups. An example here being Hamas.

He touched on the struggle during Rwanda as the world turned its back was especially interesting, since after the tragedy in Somalia gave nations reluctance to put troops on the ground in a country again. This has consistently undermined the theory of “responsibility to protect” that holds true how our world today is more interconnected than ever. A threat to peace anywhere is a threat to stability everywhere. We are very much a part of a global society.

As you can see there is so much inside the pages of this book, I’m sure I could go on talking about it forever. It’s great to read a perspective of someone who is on the side of all the world’s peoples rather than biased by what nation he may belong to. This was especially apparent to me in the chapters regarding the U.S. invading Iraq despite disapproval from the security council. We are seeing the results of this mistake now as we leave the country still in turmoil.

Annan consistently kept hope alive throughout the horrific tragedies he was faced with. Important to do in order to inspire future peace makers and not turn anyone away from a situation that may seem impossible.

“A Swahili proverb holds that “You cannot turn the wind, so turn the sail.” Turning the sail-from conflict prevention to economic development, peacekeeping, human rights, and climate change-is now more than ever in the hands of each and every one of us. The wind will follow its own unsettled course, but men and women in every society today have the ability to determine their destiny in ways unimaginable in past eras. Tyrants and bigots, warlords and criminals, the exploiters of human capital and destroyers of our natural resources, will always be with us, but their sails are not the only ones that can harness the wind.”

His main goal in working to provide more legitimacy to the United Nations was to show that sovereignty was not something that a state could hide behind any longer to deny its citizens their human rights. The United Nations was “for the peoples” along with for the states and governments must be held accountable for the behavior toward its citizens.

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UN Declares Contraception Universal Human Right-What Does This Mean for The World?

Yesterday, the United Nations declared access to contraception and family planning a universal human right stating:

“Not only does the ability for a couple to choose when and how many children to have help lift nations out of poverty, but it is also one of the most effective means of empowering women. Women who use contraception are generally healthier, better educated, more empowered in their households and communities and more economically productive. Women’s increased labor-force participation boosts nations’ economies.”

This is a huge step for so much of the world. I don’t consider myself a major “feminist” by any means, however, it is just common sense that women make up roughly half the world. Therefore, if half the world is left behind or oppressed there is no way that the rest of society can effectively move forward. The unfortunate part remains that people immediate associate contraception to mean sex and irresponsibility. It is completely the opposite, well, the irresponsible party anyways. First of all, women have the right to choose their lifestyle. So even if it is solely to protect themselves for sexual reasons, they are being safe. Then there are those who are in committed relationships or married. Having this lifestyle should not mean that having sex with your partner could always lead to the possibility of a child. By planning in your relationship how many children and when you will have children allows the woman to pursue her career and achieve leadership positions that will benefit society. This also benefits the children that the couple will have since they will be in a healthier environment.

In developing countries, there are unfortunately circumstances that come up against women where contraception is needed to avoid the results that danger and violence can often cause. Many girls must travel great distances to get to school which often makes them targets of abduction and rape. Whether rape as a weapon of war, forced into child marriage, sex slavery/trafficking, etc., these crimes are often focused primarily on women and girls. Access to contraception can help them keep some power and control over their lives. When I was in Ghana, I saw first hand that many schools had no bathrooms, making it difficult for girls to come to school during that time of month. Contraception provides an opportunity to regulate this and control symptoms that may otherwise keep them home, eventually causing them to be so far behind that they drop out. Mothers in developing countries who have multiple children would now be given the chance to control the spacing between children. Therefore, delaying pregnancy, finishing school, succeeding in jobs, saving money, and lifting themselves and their family out of poverty.

In the U.S., Obama’s affordable care act is known to have access to free contraceptives. Many people are disturbed by this thinking that the government is forcing to pay for something that may not believe in. However, there is no way everyone’s tax dollars will go 100% where they agree. It’s not possible to make everyone happy. Secondly, if your concern is your religion, religion is personal. Religion is not the law, and not everyone has the same beliefs as you. Therefore, you can not harm the health and quality of lives to others because you believe in something that works for you. I’m still unsure why religion has so much control over laws and policy when it should be a personal relationship. There are so many different religions in the United States. Law must focus on the well-being of people overall and not give in to a few religions that may hinder others. Another issue in the U.S. that is extremely popular to argue on is the economy. But it has been proven that by having money go into providing family planning services for women will gain revenue as an end result. The money that is put in then goes back into society as these women succeed into leadership postions and careers that allow them to establish and support themselves, rather than not finishing school or moving ahead in work causing them to sink into poverty relying on government assistance programs. Again, if you leave behind half of your society because they are women and therefore have reproductive health issues that must be addressed, there is no way to move forward. Being a woman is not a pre-existing condition, and should not be treated as such. Men certainly aren’t going to stop wanting sex, and neither will women. So the fault should not fall on women who are trying to be responsible so they don’t fall behind by using methods that are much less reliable.

I will never forget the 14 year old girl we met in Ghana, who was so intelligent and inspiring to speak with. On the last day we found out she was pregnant, would have to quit school, and work to support her family instead. That was her life. No responsibility was even considered to be put on the boy. It was heartbreaking. These are things that could so easily be avoided. People often put a stigma on the issue that causes it to slow down rather than moving forward and succeeding. It is a shame, and I am thrilled to see the United Nations take this important step forward to push the world to take action in supporting women and therefore supporting the world.

To learn more, the UNFPA released a full report here: http://www.unfpa.org/webdav/site/global/shared/swp/2012/EN-SWP2012_Report.pdf