Former UN secretary general connects with Mount Royal University audience

For the president of Mount Royal University, one word neatly summed up the visit of former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan to the school’s campus – “Wow!”

“Every now and then, you get a true wow moment,” David Docherty said. “At Mount Royal we try to give students as many of these as possible.”

Annan, who served as UN secretary general between 1997 and 2006, visited Mount Royal earlier this month. He gave a short talk about his newly published memoir, Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, and then participated in an intimate Q-and-A session with invited members of the campus community.

The power of change

Annan said that he was pleased to be able to visit universities such as Mount Royal to speak about his experiences as a career diplomat.

“It is always wonderful to see young people who are interested, and who are also determined to be part of what is happening in society and around the world,” Annan said.

Annan, a native of Ghana, encouraged those in attendance to work towards Since his retirement as UN secretary general on Dec. 31, 2006, Kofi Annan has remained involved with a number of organizations who focus on both global and African concerns.

Photo by Karry Taylorchanging the world for the better. He recounted learning to believe in the power of change during Ghana’s struggle for independence.

“When you live through that sort of experience as a young person, you start to believe that change is possible,” Annan said.

We are in one boat

Speaking about his memoir, Annan told the audience that international co-operation is in everybody’s best interests.

“In the book I try to convey the message that we are all in the same boat — we are in one boat,” Annan said. “One cannot be secure at the expense of the other.”

“We are dealing with issues and problems that cross borders,” Annan said. “I call them problems without passports.

“Whether it is terrorism, internationally-organized crime, poverty or disease — these are the areas that we need to pay attention to.”

When asked what accomplishment he was most proud of as secretary general, Annan said it was his fight against poverty. He said the war on poverty was a battle that must continue.

“The poor will always be in our midst. The fight against poverty will never be over,” Annan said.

Political intervention key to Syria

Until the end of August, Annan served as the UN and Arab League envoy to Syria. He told the audience that while he believes there can be successful international intervention in Syria’s civil conflict, it will require a political — rather than a military — solution.

“I still believe that there is no military solution to this crisis,” Annan said.
According to Annan, a political settlement is necessary due to the fact that, in addition to its Sunni Muslim majority, Syria is home to a number of minority ethnic groups.

David Docherty (left) officially welcomes Kofi Annan (right) to Mount Royal University. They are joined by Duane Bratt (middle,) chair of the University`s policy studies department.

Photo by Karry Taylor“The Kurds, Druze, Assyrians, Christians and others are all part of the society without any representation,” Annan said. “We could have a very messy situation on our hands where sectarian war will spread in Syria and probably go beyond its borders.

“Already the conflict is spilling outside of Syria’s borders by throwing out refugees to Turkey and Jordan.”

Annan warned that any international intervention in the Syrian conflict will require forethought.

“If you were to intervene, and it was successful, (Syrian president) Bashar al-Assad is not the end of the story,” Annan said. “If he is removed, we need to ensure that there is not a chaotic collapse.
“We saw what happened in Iraq.”

Students encouraged to engage, ask questions

While Annan spoke briefly about his memoir and his career, he spent most of his time at Mount Royal engaged in answering questions from students.
“He was more interested in hearing questions from the crowd and answering them than he was lecturing,” Docherty said.

“He spoke directly to the student audience. It was a truly inspiring hour.”

For those students who heard him speak, Docherty said Annan’s visit to the campus “could be the biggest wow moment of their undergraduate career.”

Tristan Smyth was one of the students who experienced that wow moment. Smyth, a-21-year-old English major, sought out an invitation to the event and also had the chance to ask Annan a question.

“I knew that this was a rare opportunity, and like trying new foods or having new experiences, I also knew that sitting for one hour in the wisdom of Kofi Annan would be something that I would never forget,” Smyth said.

“There is something entirely different between reading his words and hearing him speak in the same room as you.”

Smyth says that it was a somewhat daunting prospect to stand up and ask a question.

“Ironically, I was more nervous to speak in front of my peers, professors, and the university administration than I was to ask Kofi Annan a question,” Smyth said. “Go figure.”

“By asking him a question, there is a part of me that feels like I ‘met’ him, and greater still is the knowledge that I have been in the same room as one of the most deserving men of the Nobel Peace Prize still alive,” Smyth said.

ktaylor@cjournal.ca