Press Releases

    7 May 2002

    Most Courageous Are Often Ordinary People Struggling Against Poverty, Injustice Says Secretary-General, Upon Receiving "Profile in Courage" Award

    NEW YORK, 6 May (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the statement of Secretary-General Kofi Annan upon receiving the "Profile in Courage" Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston on 6 May:

    I am deeply honoured to accept the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award. It is a special privilege for me to receive an award in memory of a leader whose commitment to national progress was matched only by his passion for global justice.

    John Kennedy was a man of the world in the truest sense, and the best sense of the word. He saw a world that deserved compassion, understanding and respect -- a world where no people should be denied the right to determine their own fate.

    I spoke last night about how Africans of my generation remember John Kennedy as an early and eloquent champion of decolonization and independence. In the four decades since his death he has only grown in stature throughout the world -- representing to millions of people the most hopeful, the most generous, the most inspiring qualities of the United States.

    Indeed, it may be said that few Presidents in this country's history -- or the world's -- defined their times in the way John Kennedy did. His youth and vigour made it a young and vigourous age. His boldness and courage made it an adventurous age. And his belief in man's ability to meet great challenges made it an age when anything seemed possible.

    Today, perhaps the world is more modest and more fearful. If so, it is all the more in need of leaders to make us look beyond the horizon, beneath the distrust, and behind the myths; leaders who can make us see that all men and women fundamentally seek the same opportunities for peace and prosperity.

    The burden of true leadership is perhaps best summed up in President Kennedy's own admiration for those who had the courage to follow their conscience without fear, and to face the consequences.

    My own continent of Africa has provided our time with perhaps the greatest example of such leadership in the figure of Nelson Mandela. Thanks to this one man, South Africa was able to make a transition -- from apartheid to coexistence, from hatred to understanding, and from pariah status to world leader -- that no one imagined possible. Mandela's steadfast belief in a non-racial society, his persistent refusal to avenge the past at the cost of the present, the future, and his determination to make South Africa one nation under laws -- all these showed that even in the darkest moments, if leaders put the interests of the whole people before those of any one party or one group, progress and coexistence are possible.

    Perhaps the greatest test of leadership comes when a leader needs to go against the passions of the day, the calls for revenge, the belief that peace is no longer possible. Such may be the case in the Middle East today.

    As we meet, many Israelis and many Palestinians are in a state of despair, believing that their very existence as a people is in jeopardy. Both peoples yearn for peace and security, and both peoples overwhelmingly recognize that a political solution is needed, and yet none of them can begin to believe in such a solution as long as the violence continues.

    This is when true leadership matters -- when leaders must appeal to what another great American president once called "our better angels." They must convince their peoples that giving in to the fears and hatreds of the moment will do nothing to secure lasting peace. This is when leaders must make decisions of conscience -- and choose compromise over conflict, negotiation over violence, and peace over war.

    These are not easy choices. But that very fact may make them all the more necessary. It is when leaders find a way to marry necessity and interest, morality and purpose, that true progress is made. That is what is required to meet the basic need of all men and women for peace, for security, for the assurance that the child they say goodbye to in the morning will still be safe when they come home in the evening.

    John Kennedy believed deeply in the role of the United Nations in advancing such progress, as we heard last night from Senator Kennedy, step by step, day by day. Calling the United Nations "both the measure and the vehicle of man's most generous impulses," President Kennedy also knew that the work of peace is not done in one day, or one gesture. In his last address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, in September 1963, he said that "peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures."

    In my service as Secretary-General, I have sought to sustain this process by speaking out in favour of universal human rights and in defence of the victims of aggression or abuse, wherever they may be. I have used my office as a bridge between two or more parties, wherever I saw an opportunity to resolve disputes peacefully. And I have sought to place human beings at the centre of everything the United Nations does -- from conflict prevention to development to human rights. I believe that the most courageous decisions are often those made by ordinary men and women struggling against poverty and injustice.

    Let me, therefore, close with the words of Robert Kennedy, who stood before an audience of students in South Africa in 1966 and spoke the language of equality and liberty as few had done in that country before him.

    He said: "It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope; and, crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

    * *** *