December 3, 2021

Reflections on Kofi Annan

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By Tenesha Myrie From Caribbean News Now

Since the news of Kofi Annan’s death on August 18, 2018, world leaders have been sending tributes in his honour. Kofi Annan was a secretary-general of the United Nations and is widely praised for his work in diplomacy, development, and human rights. Upon hearing of his death, I paused to reflect on my own engagement with Kofi Annan while attending the University of Oxford as a Chevening scholar.

This engagement was made possible when Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government hosted Mr Annan in 2016. Our discussion centered on international human rights law. It was fuelled by my concerns about the failure of states to fulfil their obligations under human rights treaties, and the shrinking space for civil society engagement at the United Nations.

During his time as UN secretary-general, Mr Annan introduced a wide range of reforms centred on strengthening the relationship between the UN and civil society. I thought it prudent to ask him how civil society should respond to what the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association calls the ‘closing space’ for civil society engagement at the UN.

This, according to the Special Rapporteur, is evidenced by the arbitrary deferrals of applications for consultative status of NGOs working on human rights.

Mr Annan was uncertain as to whether the space is closing, but shared that there was always a tension. The question, according to Mr Annan, is not whether civil society is allowed to engage with the UN or whether the relationship between the two is being weakened or strengthened. The imperative is on civil society to assert its relevance and its influence.

Mr Annan expressed confidence that if civil society is dynamic and engage, then the doors cannot close. In light of Mr Annan’s intimate knowledge of the workings of the UN, I took comfort in his response.

Taking a step back from the plight of civil society, I also questioned whether, in light of the weak enforcement mechanisms under international law, there is a moral imperative on states to refrain from ratifying treaties where they are unwilling or unable to progressively work towards compliance.

Ratification is where a state signals that it is bound by the terms of the treaty and is willing to fulfil its legal obligations under that treaty. For example, Jamaica ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007.

To my question, Mr Annan acknowledged that states ratify human rights treaties, even when they do not intend to comply, because they do not want to be singled out as bad leaders. He quickly captured my underlying concern of states being lauded at the international level for the act of ratification, while failing miserably to give effect domestically.

Mr Annan maintained that states should be allowed to ratify even if they do not intend to comply because such treaties provide a yardstick by which governments can be shamed into treating its people well. Highlighting its significance, Mr Annan shared that he often wondered, if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had existed at the time of the Second World War, what leverage would the Declaration have given those who were against what was going on.

Following this discourse, I drew attention to the dilemma with which civil society groups working on human rights issues are faced. With limited resources, not only must they convince their governments to ratify international human rights treaties; in the absence of effective implementation of the treaties, they must also work at the domestic level to encourage implementation while navigating the political sphere of the UN.

This prompted my call for a new era of ‘responsible ratification’, requiring prior to the act of ratification, sufficient evidence that a state has laid the groundwork that will support its efforts to progressively fulfill its treaty obligations.

I have since reflected on the way in which Mr Annan dealt with the political issues which I raised. There is a new appreciation for the symbolic value and leverage potential of treaty ratification. I have also thought about the energy that filled the room while he spoke and the renewed sense of purpose among those of us who were privileged to have heard him speak on current diplomatic rows and human rights issues.

Mr Kofi Annan is remembered as a phenomenal human being, an ultimate diplomat, and a staunch protector of human rights. He will be missed.

IMAGE: Tenesha Myrie.
Tenesha Myrie is an attorney-at-law and lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Jamaica. Email: [email protected] / Twitter: @teneshamyrie

For more on this story go to: https://www.caribbeannewsnow.com/2018/08/26/commentary-reflections-on-kofi-annan/

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