PENSIVE: Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan shares his thoughts on international affairs (WANG XIANG)
Having all live in a better, more peaceful world has long been a dream of Kofi Annan, both during his 10-year service as secretary general of the UN and now, as chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation. For this, Annan and the UN won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. To "make our world more harmonious, people-to-people understanding and cooperation is extremely important," Kofi Annan told Beijing Review. "We often forget that there's more that unites us than divides us," he said. In an exclusive interview during his recent visit to Beijing, he shared his views on issues of global importance. Edited excerpts of the interview follow:
Beijing Review: This year, the UN will celebrate its 70th anniversary. Where resolving international conflicts and contentious issues is concerned, how can it avoid being marginalized by other multilateral mechanisms such as the G20, the G8, and Iran P5+1?
Kofi Annan: The UN has always recognized a role for regional organizations. In fact, we sometimes felt that there are certain problems which are better to solve closer to the issues in the region. The emergence of G20, G8, G7, they've always been around except for G20, and the UN has managed to function very effectively side by side with them. I hope the emergence of G20 and these groups is an indication that certain powerful countries realize that they also have a particular responsibility for the challenges facing the world and that they have a role to play. If they see their role as complementary to that of the UN to make the world a better place, I don't think there is any problem. If there were to be a sort of competition and they move in a different direction to what the global community wants, then we have a problem. So far it has not been, there has not been a major problem between the UN and the various Gs, as we call them.
As former UN secretary general, how do you see China's evolving role in the UN and the international community?
China as a big country with a great economy and a seat on the Security Council has a role to play in global affairs. It has a responsibility to make this world a better and a safer place and I think China is beginning to do that, whether in Africa [or elsewhere] and now we see that with these investments in Asia and the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). All these are positive contributions.
China is also making major economic contributions to the development of Africa. But I think there is more that can be done with Africa.
In the light of the al-Shabab attacks in Kenya and increasing destructive influence of the Boko Haram in Nigeria and Central Africa, how do you think Africa as a collective could respond more effectively to terror attacks and security threats on the continent?
It is very tragic what is happening in these countries and in these regions. I think the governments have to work together to deprive these terrorist groups of opportunities and to ensure that they don't use each other's territory as a safe haven, that they don't use their banking systems to move money around, and to ensure that they don't link up with criminal activities within the countries. This is where it is extremely important that the governments join together as they are doing in Nigeria where troops from Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria have come together to fight the Boko Haram. And, similar action is being taken in East Africa to fight al-Shabab. Obviously it's a long-term issue; it's not something they can do overnight, but the effort has to be sustained. They should also try and explain to the public, to the population, what is happening, because you can't do this always with force alone. There has to be other aspects to this solution. I hope they will be able to contain [the situation] - and they seem to be making good progress against the Boko Haram, but time will tell.
The Central African Republic is a particularly difficult one because you find lots of problems in the region start there with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Twenty years ago we had the situation of Rwanda and the whole region. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a country where the UN has been engaged and involved for almost 60 years and we are still there. I hope that African governments [together] with their neighbors, and to some extent [with] the support of the international community, can find a way of eliminating these conflicts so that they can devote their energies and time to the essential work of economic and social development, to focus on the welfare of their people. And I don't think it's hopeless. I am looking forward to that day [of resolution] and that will definitely come. You have to keep hope alive.
Recently South Africa saw xenophobic attacks on migrants from other African countries. Will this negatively affect the integration process promoted by the African Union?
This is a very sad and tragic development. This is the kind of development that happens when there's economic difficulty. When people are unemployed, they are idle and jobless and have lots of time on their hands and they are frustrated. The foreigner is easy bait. We look for excuses. Why am I not employed? Why is my government not assisting me to find something to do? It is very easy to point a finger at the foreigners who are in your midst and blame them for taking away jobs or creating a situation that has placed you at a disadvantage. And unfortunately, some of the foreigners they killed or are fighting are the ones who created jobs in the communities, for shops and other things. I hope this is something that the government will bring under control very, very quickly.
I don't expect it to affect the African program for integration and regional cooperation promoted by the African Union and regional organizations such as ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) and SADC (Southern African Development Community). I see it as an isolated incident, although it has happened before. I urge the government to take firm action against these criminal elements, who are beating up people and killing them. My hope is that it will not affect the process of regional cooperation and integration which is taking place. We need that desperately. We need to cooperate across borders, we need to improve intra-African trade, and we need to improve our infrastructures across national borders to be able to develop our economy. If we do that we will increase trade considerably amongst the countries in the region as well as create jobs.
The Chinese presence in African countries encompasses a wide range of activities like agricultural cooperation, building hospitals, contributing to UN peacekeeping missions, and sending supplies and doctors to Ebola-hit countries. Does all this transcend the allegation that China is colonizing Africa for its resources?
Let me start by affirming straightaway that the Chinese engagement with Africa has been positive, Africa has had benefits and I think that these sorts of encounters must always be mutually beneficial. If it is not mutually beneficial, it will not last, it will not be sustainable. So the emphasis should be on [being] mutually beneficial. The other thing is, I am happy to see China engage in a much broader way than just commerce, because in the past people saw China as being interested only in African natural resources, in copper, iron and oil. But China has demonstrated that it has broader interests in Africa and in its dealings with Africa, which I consider extremely important.
First of all, China has experiences which are very relevant to Africa, which we can learn from, whether in agriculture, in the development of infrastructure, or energy. Today energy and lack of infrastructure are the two main bottlenecks for African economic development. China has a lot to offer in these areas.
It was wonderful that they were there when Ebola struck. It's wonderful that they are playing an important part in peacekeeping in Africa at a time when most of the developed countries have stopped sending troops to Africa. I think this is very positive and I applaud this evolution of China's international cooperation.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of China sending troops to UN peacekeeping operations. And the operations they attended have been diversified. How do you see this?
It's very important. I had the chance of working with Chinese troops who were [taking part] in UN peacekeeping operations and I visited the police training center here [in China] where they were preparing to participate in peacekeeping operations. We've come a long way together, Africa, China and the UN.
[The missions they participated in] are quite varied. They made a good contribution and I hope the participation will continue. They are making a good contribution and they are needed.
The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road are important initiatives proposed by China's current leadership. What do you think of the Maritime Silk Road that links China's port facilities with the African coast? How do you see this impacting Africa?
Asian countries like Africa also have infrastructural needs. I saw the project that President Xi Jinping discussed with his Pakistani counterpart, the 3,000-km economic corridor that would also open up that region as well as ports linking Africa and other [locations]. I think the idea of opening up and linking up with Africa, which could expand trade, is important but we also need to help Africa add value to what it exports. Africa cannot continue to export natural resources and expect to develop [by doing so]. It has to manufacture, it has to add value to the items that it exports. China can also be very helpful in working with Africa on that. We can learn from the Chinese experience. Opening up ports, setting up infrastructure and giving access to African goods, not just to China, but to all the countries around the world, would be quite important.
The Sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Ministerial Conference, to be held in South Africa later this year, marks a new era of dynamic developments across Africa. As it's the first FOCAC meeting since President Xi Jinping assumed office in 2013, what are the expectations surrounding this meeting? What do you expect will be the major outcomes?
I would expect very serious discussions on economic development and on major projects where they would need China's assistance. I think I have mentioned two of them - energy and infrastructure. Energy is extremely important for economic development. But it is also extremely important for the environment. This is the year when we are going to have a major environmental conference in Paris. Without access to modern electricity people are cutting down trees and wood for firewood to cook and that has an impact on the environment. If we help them get access to electricity, we will be protecting the environment as well, apart from the economic development that would entail.
About infrastructure, if the African governments can work with the Chinese Government and all international players to improve infrastructure and increase intra-African trade, in 10 years or less, studies have shown that trade between them could be increased by $300 billion. So these are areas that could be extremely important.
Another area I think would be important, that I would expect the African leaders to raise, is the question of agriculture, where some of China's experiences would be relevant to what we are trying to do in Africa. I would expect Africa over time to be a major source of agricultural products and not only feed itself, but also be part of the global food and nutrition security system, which it can export to the rest of the world.
The three areas I have mentioned, energy, infrastructure and agriculture, I hope would be very much on the agenda and [I hope] there will be some concrete proposals made at the meeting in South Africa.
In recent years, the FOCAC mechanism has focused more on the cultural aspect of Sino-African relations, because after economic cooperation we need people to better understand each other. What are your thoughts on this?
I think people-to-people understanding and cooperation is extremely important. It facilitates contacts and also makes our world more harmonious. The more people get to know each other, understand each other and respect each other's culture, the easier it is to live together. And we often forget that there's more that unites us than divides us because we have a tendency to focus on the negative, to focus on what divides us rather than what unites us. I think the cultural understanding that is being promoted is something that is helpful in a world where we have seen lots of tensions and lots of divisions. So I support that approach.
Recently a Chinese naval ship helped evacuate more than 200 foreign citizens from Yemen. It is the first time that the Chinese military has aided other countries to evacuate their citizens during an international crisis. Does this emphasize China's increasing relevance in international affairs?
Absolutely. China has the capacity and I think it should use it to help for the sake of humanity and international solidarity. I think it was very good that China did that. And when you read about what's happening in the Mediterranean, with lots of people losing their lives at sea traveling in rickety boats, trying to get to Europe from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, West Africa, taking incredible risks to get to safety - whatever help you can give to these people is essential. Countries with capacity and the means have a special responsibility to lend a hand. Today, there is a debate about the European Union doing more to help these people who are at risk. It's true that China is also lending a hand. I think it's an incident which indicates that in times to come China will be expected to do more of this. I am sure China will help wherever it can.
It is said of many African countries that whenever they have general elections, there will be conflicts. But this year the Nigerian election was very peaceful. What's your comment?
It was very peaceful and I think Nigerians were very pleased about this. They were surprised themselves. I was there in January to meet with all the presidential candidates. There were 11 of them. And on that occasion they signed a document that they would not encourage violence and they would accept the results of the elections peacefully. Not only did the presidential and the parliamentary elections go well but the election of the governors also was peaceful. The observers were all very pleased. That is the way it should be. We should avoid situations where elections, which are meant to be peaceful and democratic rotation of leadership, become reasons for a fight, becomes reasons for conflict. I was very, very pleased with what happened in Nigeria. There are many more elections coming up in Africa this year and next and I hope they will follow the example that the Nigerians have set for them.
After you retired as UN secretary general, you worked to help resolve international conflicts on many occasions. After the Syria crisis, why aren't you playing a more active role in this regard in Africa?
I have been involved with African crises, [but] not always upfront, often behind the scenes, working with the leaders. Where[ever] necessary, we do it obliquely. Quite a lot of it has been discreet. I have also been involved with the negotiations in Colombia between the government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the FARC revolutionary movement. I was there to discuss and encourage the peace talks. I had also been involved in Thailand before the military took over.
I am active with African situations as well. I was envoy for Syria and realized we were not going anywhere and resigned because as I said at the time, I didn't think the international community was ready to give the push and the necessary support which was required for that mission. As a mediator you have to understand that you cannot want peace more than the protagonists want peace, those who give you the mandate and the option. They need to work with you and support you in that effort.
You have come to China may times. What do you think of the changes in the country?
Each time I come to China I see tremendous changes and tremendous progress. Of course there are problems too, particularly the environment, which everybody is concerned about and is trying to deal with it. But it is quite remarkable what China has been able to do within the past 30-35 years. I recall my first visit to China, it was to Shanghai over 30 years ago. I lived in a guesthouse and in the later years when I came I was going to try to look for that guesthouse. It was impossible, everything was gone, [there were] skyscrapers, complete redevelopment and it was extraordinary the change that had taken place in a relatively short time.
Whenever I come back to China, I travel around to see what is happening. The last time [I traveled on] the fast train to Tianjin and it was quite extraordinary how fast it was. It took 28 minutes, which is quite something. I was with some American friends and they couldn't believe the speed and the technology that was at work. It is quite remarkable progress.
As you mentioned the AIIB just now, what's your expectation of the bank? Could it play a complementary role with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB)?
First of all, the bank has been established to deal with infrastructure. When you travel around Asia, you recognize that the needs are enormous. Honestly, there is enough demand and enough work and investment possibilities for all three. What is important is that along the line they do cooperate. The fact that the bank has been set up is positive for me, but that does not mean that the kind of reforms I have been pushing for, both at the UN and in the form of the Security Council and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, is not necessary. Those reforms of the global institutions must go on regardless of the latest development.
How will African countries benefit from the AIIB?
It depends on the mandate of the AIIB. If it is limited geographically to Asia, Africa cannot benefit. But there are serious needs in Africa and I think investment houses or banks should look at that. Whether it's done by expanding the mandate of the AIIB or creating one in cooperation with others for Africa, there is a possibility. There are enormous possibilities for long-term infrastructure investments in Africa and I hope China will not ignore that.
I haven't looked at the detailed mandate of the bank but if it is also going to cover African projects it's fine. Today at the university [Peking University] we talked about the Inga Dam in the [DR] Congo which, if it's put into place, can satisfy the electricity needs of several countries, including South Africa. The Inga budget requires huge investments. That is the sort of project that one would hope an infrastructure bank will take on.
So today's key words are infrastructure and energy.
It is very important because energy constraints make development difficult. You can imagine if you are a manufacturer and 100 days out of the year you have no electricity. How do you assure your customers that you can supply them on a continuous basis? How do you assure your employees that they will have work throughout the year? How do you plan ahead? And as I said, how do you protect the environment? Energy is as important as infrastructure.
[South Africa recently suffered a lot of power cuts.] It [also] happens in my own country Ghana. The government is trying to resolve it but it is very frustrating for the population. It's an example and experience China has had, and we can learn a lot from how China dealt with its electricity and infrastructure problems.