Our thanks to Jim
Cunningham, President of the Burns Assocation of North America for
providing us with a copy of this address
DELIVERING INAUGURAL ROBERT BURNS MEMORIAL
LECTURE, SECRETARY-GENERAL ANNAN
CALLS FOR BROTHERHOOD, TOLERANCE,
COEXISTENCE AMONG ALL PEOPLES
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
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
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
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
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
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
These are not just differences over
cotton exports or compliance with UN resolutions. There are worldviews
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.