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Lecture given by Koffi Annan

Our thanks to Jim Cunningham, President of the Burns Assocation of North America for providing us with a copy of this address



Following is Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Inaugural Robert Burns Memorial Lecture, “The Brotherhood of Man”, which he delivered at United Nations Headquarters on Tuesday, 13 January:

It is a great pleasure indeed for Nane and me to be here with you to celebrate the great Scottish poet Robert Burns and to help you inaugurate what I hope will become an important series of lectures.

Emyr, I realize you have inherited this event from your predecessor.  Since you are a quintessential Welshman now joining in tribute to a renowned Scot, I think it only right to congratulate you for your broad-mindedness, which is truly in the spirit of the United Nations –- and of Burns, too, of course.

Let me also say that my own presence here tonight is not because I can trace my roots to Scotland.  Yes, as we all know, there is a town of Annan there, whose founding dates back many centuries.  And yes, the town even has a walking club and festival, and that is one of my favourite pursuits.  But my name has a quite different origin.  Let’s just say, as Burns himself would, that we are all brothers.

But then, you might well ask why a United Nations Secretary-General was eager to take part in this event.  At first glance, one might think there is an ocean of distance between the hard-nosed give-and-take of international diplomacy as it is practised here in New York, and the lyrical verse that emanated from rural Scotland two centuries ago.  But look closer and I think you will see why I am here.

To take just one example, Burns was born into poverty, and spent his youth working on a farm.  Burns’s poems dignify and illuminate the struggle faced by the vast majority of the world’s population today.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that Burns had, and I quote,

“given voice to all the experiences of common life; he has endeared the farmhouse and cottages, patches and poverty, beans and barley; ... hardship, the fear of debt...”.  End of quote.

Burns has also been described as a poet of the poor, an advocate for political and social change, and an opponent of slavery, pomposity and greed –- all causes very much supported by the United Nations.  He was even, as a tax collector, a civil servant of sorts, though I should stress the United Nations has no interest in that line of work.

But it is one of Burns’s most famous lines –- “a Man’s a Man for a’ That” -- that I should like to serve as the touchstone for my remarks tonight.  And in particular his prayer, in the same poem, that “Man to Man, the world o’er, Shall brothers be for a’ that”.

Living together is the fundamental human project -– not just in towns and villages from Scotland to South Africa, but also as a single human family facing common threats and opportunities.

The year just past has seen dramatic challenges to that project.  The war in Iraq, failed negotiations on opening up the global trading system, and other events have revealed deep fissures.

These are not just differences over cotton exports or compliance with UN resolutions.  There are worldviews at odds.

For many decades now, States and peoples have woven a tapestry of rules, institutions, and principles that, it was hoped, would promote prosperity and protect the peace.  Today, this fabric may be starting to unravel, and I sense a great deal of anxiety about that, around the world.  Not because the system has been uniformly successful; quite the contrary, war and poverty have proven painfully chronic.  But because it does offer at least some possibility of order and justice in what so often seems a Hobbesian world.  At a time when it is essential for us to tackle our problems together, we seem to be slipping into mutual distrust, protectionism and fear.

And at such a time, the persistence of prejudice should be especially troubling to us all.  We should all feel pain when women are denied their freedom and dignity.  We should all recognize the peril to our rights when anyone is dehumanized because of the colour of their skin, or when indigenous peoples are marginalized and held in contempt.  And we should all recognize the great power of intolerance to foment violence and generate the conditions that can abet ethnic cleansing, genocide and terrorism.

One of the most disturbing manifestations of bigotry today is Islamophobia –- a new word for an old phenomenon.

The Crusades and colonialism are just two examples of a poisoned past in which Muslims were first portrayed as hostile or dangerous, and then subjected to aggression and domination.

In more recent decades, some have viewed Muslim countries as culturally unsuited to democracy.  The West’s late response to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and the continuing tragic situation between Palestinians and Israelis, have led many Muslims to wonder whether their grievances and plight have an equal claim on the world’s conscience.

Since the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States, which were condemned throughout the Muslim world, many Muslims, particularly in the West, have found themselves the objects of suspicion, harassment and discrimination.

And too many people see Islam as a monolith, and as intrinsically opposed to the West -– when in fact Western and Islamic peoples have a long history of commerce, of intermingling and intermarrying, and of influencing and enriching each other’s art, literature, science and much else besides.

Despite a discourse of centuries, caricature remains widespread, and the gulf of ignorance is dangerously deep.

These issues, at once intensely personal and of crucial importance to all members of society, have far-reaching implications for international harmony and peace.

Muslims -- reformers and traditionalists, believers and secularists -- are addressing them with great vigour, in particular the rights of women, the extremist threat and the contours of Islamic democracy.  Followers of other faiths owe it to them, and to themselves, to distinguish between disagreement and disdain; and between fair comment and unfounded condemnation.

It would be unconscionable to add any further to the resentment and sense of injustice felt by members of one of the world’s great religions, cultures and civilizations.

Another dangerous hatred blights our world:  anti-Semitism.

No one should underestimate the depth of the scars left by the long history of persecution, pogroms, institutionalized discrimination and other degradation, culminating in the Holocaust, that has been inflicted on the Jews.

Yet new wrongs are heaped upon old:  by those who seek to deny the fact of the Holocaust or its uniqueness, and by those who continue to spread lies and vile stereotypes about Jews and Judaism.  The recent upsurge of attacks on Jews, synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish targets in Europe, Turkey and elsewhere show this hatred to be not just the stuff of history, but virulent still.

The United Nations itself is still living with the legacy of the unfortunate resolution that declared Zionism to be a form of racism and racial discrimination, even though the General Assembly revoked it in 1991.

In some cases, anti-Semitism appears to be a by-product of the Israel-Palestine conflict, particularly with the escalation of hostilities in the past several years.  Criticism of Israeli policies is one thing.  But it is quite another when such critiques take the form of attacks, physical or verbal, on Jewish individuals and the symbols of their heritage and faith.  The situation is painful and complex enough as a political matter, without adding religion and race to the debate.

No one should be allowed to use criticism of Israel’s actions as a mask for anti-Semitism.  Nor, on the other side, should Israel’s supporters use the charge of anti-Semitism to stifle legitimate discussion.  The United Nations, for its part, must reject all forms of racism and discrimination.  Only in so doing, clearly and consistently, will it be true to its Charter and to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to people of all creeds and colours striving for their dignity.

It is one thing to bemoan the persistence of prejudice, and quite another to actually do something about it.  All too often, when faced with bigotry and nihilism, political leaders, governments and ordinary citizens are silent or complacent.  Such passivity must not be allowed to masquerade as tolerance.  It is more like complicity, since it emboldens the intolerant, and leaves victims defenceless.  True tolerance is an active, even assertive quality, based on mutual respect.  Its aim must be, not to eliminate differences between human beings, but to embrace and even celebrate them as a source of joy and strength.

That is the world ethic that we need:  a framework of shared values within which different peoples can coexist.  Men and women must be able to follow their own paths without making war on each other.  They must have sufficient freedom to exchange ideas.  They must be able to learn from each other.  And that means that each nation must not only respect the culture and traditions of others, but must also allow its own citizens -– women and men alike -– the freedom to think for themselves.

It is, first and foremost, governments and individual men and women who must fulfil these responsibilities of citizenship -- either in the community of nations, or face to face, in the daily interaction of diverse peoples that increasingly characterizes our world.  But this battle is also of paramount importance to the entire United Nations, and the Secretariat is strongly committed to doing its part, including through seminars and educational activities in the months ahead.

The enterprise of living together is not easy.  Including all people in one’s circle of concern requires us to go beyond our immediate family and friends, and to accept wider notions of kinship and connection.  Even then, things will happen that will strain our capacity for dialogue and understanding.  Burns himself was no stranger to dark turns of events.  As he wrote, “man was made to mourn”.

But we have just begun a new year, at least according to the Gregorian calendar.  One can almost, still, hear the echo of millions of people singing “Auld Lang Syne”, Burns’s great ode to friendship.  So let us allow hope to be renewed.  Let us admire the enduring resonance of the work of Robert Burns.  And let us dream, as he did, of a true brotherhood -- and sisterhood -– that embraces and encompasses all humankind, and allows all people a chance to enjoy their inalienable rights, dignity and freedom.

I would like to express my great appreciation to the Scottish Operations of British Executive Services Overseas for the invaluable work they carry out in pursuit of that goal, and for their strong support of the United Nations.

Thank you also to Iain McDonnell of BESO Scotland for putting this event together, and to the piper(s) who piped me in.

Finally, while I know this is not a traditional Burns supper, I do hope you will let this hungry Secretary-General try some haggis at some point in the near future.

Thank you very much.

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