Reinvigorating International Cooperation: Q&A with The Elders 

Kofi Annan (top right) and other members of The Elders discuss the challenges facing multilateralism. New York, May 9, 2017.

A recent Council on Foreign Relations survey saw the heads of major policy institutes downgrade the level of international cooperation on addressing the world’s most pressing problems from a B to a C-. A similar assessment was given by four members of The Elders—a group of independent global leaders—at an International Peace Institute forum on May 9, in which they discussed ways to reinvigorate mutilateralism.

“We live in a world where we are confronted with many challenges—from climate change, terrorism, inequality, and a whole series of issues, and none of these problems can be resolved by any one country, however powerful or confident that country or the leader is,” said former United Nations Secretary-General and Chair of The Elders, Kofi Annan.

He said that the UN was the only institution he was aware of that could bring people together to solve these crises.

Mr. Annan later sat for the following interview with the Global Observatory Editor James Bowen, along with the other Elders in attendance: former Norweigan Prime Minister and former World Health Organization Director-General, Gro Harlem Brundtland; former UN/Arab League Special Envoy to Syria and former Algerian Foreign Minister, Lakhdar Brahimi; and former Irish President and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson.

First, to Mr. Annan: You spoke about the need to rebuild relationships, and particularly in a context like Syria, where national interests are dominating the peace process. Can you explain more about why you think these relationships have broken down and how they can be rebuilt?

Obviously, you have so many players involved, and each with their own agenda. And as my friend and colleague Lakhdar Brahimi said, it’s not necessarily about Syria. And this is a real problem. Until you can get them to understand the destruction they have wrought, and the fact that there’s no winner, nobody is going to win, and they have to come together to work not only in the interest of the Syrians, but also in their own interests.

The amount of money being wasted on weapons, on paying for militia and other things could be used constructively. If we can get them to agree on a common framework, and work on something positive, it will be a way of not only solving the Syrian problem, but also bringing them together and building relationships. As long as each country or each group pushes its own narrow, selfish interest the destruction will continue.

Ms. Brundtland, you discussed the need to connect the environment to people, and the role of civil society within that. I’m wondering now that the Paris climate change agreement has been signed, what’s the role of civil society in shepherding through progress on that?

Civil society has been instrumental for a long time. You can go far back, but even if you look at 2009 when everything broke down in Copenhagen, civil society was mobilized. People were wanting something real to happen with the climate agreement at that time, and then as gradually governments and civil society regained momentum, they were even more important in the follow-up towards Paris.

Of course, there’s a way to see this in what Mary [Robinson] characterized as a fair, but also weak agreement, which was something new in the building of international law. That kind of consensus and the building of understanding across regions was helped a lot by civil society activity. They will have to be active; we need civil society to pursue the content of the Paris agreement.

To return to Syria, Mr. Brahimi, you mentioned progress in peace processes in both Astana [led by Russia] and Geneva [led by the UN]. Can you expand on that a little as to what you see as the progress coming out of those? And are there any implications for the UN if more progress is perhaps happening through the Astana process than Geneva?

The short answer to the question is that I don’t know. What we hear is that they are speaking about zones which are going to be, I think, kept out of the conflict. That is welcome. If you can give some kind of peace to as many people in Syria as possible, it cannot be rejected, you cannot say no to it. I think Kofi mentioned the fact that it was in January last year that in Vienna they made some rather welcome noises about working together. As a matter of fact they did so; [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov and [then United States Secretary of State John] Kerry did so on the 7th of May, 2013, in Moscow. That’s what gave us a lot of hope. So, meeting in Vienna, and then moving back to Geneva was the first time that these people responded effectively to what the UN has been saying, and that is that there is no military solution.

It hasn’t moved forward very much, so we will have to wait and see if Astana and Geneva are going first of all to become one. You cannot have a little piece here and a little piece there. We spoke of the Security Council and the permanent members and I should have also spoken about the regional powers. They have a very important positive role to play, they have created a very negative role until now. There is some hope in the sense in the language now, about the fact that there is no military solution, which seems to be accepted by everyone, except the regime [of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad], who think that that they will continue fighting.

And finally, Ms. Robinson, on the Paris climate change agreement and the connection with migration: You mentioned this idea of a fair, but not necessarily strong agreement in Paris and also the UN’s upcoming global compacts on migration and refugees. How do you assess the chances of creating either a fair or strong agreement, or perhaps both, here?

Well, first of all, on the Paris agreement, the interesting thing is that we are now into the stage of implementation and it’s going quite well. It’s remarkable that of the 195 countries that signed in Paris, 140 have already ratified, which is a historic speed. And, secondly, in Marrakesh, at the COP [Conference of Parties], when the election had taken place here in the United States, there was a signing of a Marrakesh Declaration reaffirming commitments. And now it’s very interesting to see how seriously countries are moving, and that includes the big emitters like China and India moving much more rapidly into renewables, taking seriously their nationally determined contributions (NDC). And the corporations that are pressurizing President Trump not to pull out of Paris—and I’ve been part of some of these conversations in recent days—they’re saying, “If in the event of a formal pullout we will in cities and states and in industry across the United States make up the NDC, we will actually fulfill it.”

That’s an interesting energy that has been unleashed by the possibility that the United States might pull out, and I’m hoping in relation to the global compact, both on refugees and migration, that we will manage in that way of listening and discussing, have a much more positive narrative of migration. We desperately need that. Migration on the whole is very good for countries. This country, for example, is a country of migrants, apart from the Native Americans, and it’s incredibly important that we again value diversity, value the other and the contribution of the other, and address the hate speech that’s going on, and the fear of the other that has become part of the populist language and part of the nationalist America-first, other countries-first, approach.

So it’s going to be a battle for the minds and hearts, but it helps that we have a compact context to do that because that helps the multilateral process. And I think we can get a good agreement. I’m very pleased that one of my successors as high commissioner [for human rights at the UN], Louise Arbour, has been given a role from the secretary-general on this process, and I have no doubt she will manage that very well.