Press Releases

    4 September 2002


    NEW YORK, 3 September (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of remarks by Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the Civil Society Forum in Johannesburg on 2 September:

    Thank you very much for the words of introduction. Let me say how happy I am to be here with you this afternoon. I wish it had been possible for all of us to be under one roof, but given the numbers and logistics, we all know that was not possible. Anyway, the important thing is that I have come to hear you, to talk and to engage with you.

    I know that some of you may have experienced a bit of confusion in getting settled here in Johannesburg. But I’m sure that many many more of you have been assisted, in one way or another, by the 5,000 volunteers who have been placed at our disposal by the Government to help the Summit.

    The volunteers have been stationed at airports, hotels, conference rooms and elsewhere, or working behind the scenes in virtually every aspect of planning and logistics, and they are part of the glue that has held this event together. I also understand that the South African authorities have identified 5,000 more who are ready to fan out across the country to ensure that what we agree to here is implemented. And the name "Arise and act" is their slogan. "Arise and act" -– and I hope it goes for all of us -- that is just the kind of civic engagement we need if this Summit is to have a real impact in the years ahead.

    Some people, when you talk to them about the Rio Summit, remember mainly the agreements adopted there: the visionary Agenda 21 and the landmark conventions on climate change and biodiversity.

    Others recall the controversies over who attended and who did not, or over what steps States were or were not prepared to take to protect the global environment.

    What I remember most vividly is the mass mobilization of people -- groups small and large, individuals in suits or saris -- humanity on a parade, clamouring for action, demanding action.

    Of course, citizens’ groups and non-governmental organizations have been a part of the United Nations constellation since the very founding of the Organization. You have always been a part of us and we have always relied on you. But Rio was a turning point. Never before had so many gathered in one place. Never before had such a diverse collection of activists and groups come together around a common agenda.

    And never before had they had such a profound influence on the proceedings. Civil society brought off something of a revolution, and the international community is far stronger for it.

    But this of course reflects a worldwide change in society itself. More and more, the initiative in taking action to improve the human conditions comes from voluntary groups such as yours. In southern Africa especially, I am full of admiration for the way civil society is coping with the terrible drama of HIV-AIDS and now also with the effect of drought and threats of famine.

    I have had the good fortune to serve as Secretary-General during a time when civil society’s presence at the United Nations conferences and in our day-to-day work has both widened and deepened, enriching our work and increasing our effectiveness. You have that capacity to keep us on our toes, to push the envelope and say and do things we do not dare -– but that are helpful to the cause. In some areas, you often lead and we catch up with you. And I must confess, though much of my daily work involves contacts with governments, it is with civil society that I feel a special affinity, particularly when it comes to matters of environment and development.

    Like you, I am deeply troubled by the slow pace of progress over the past decade. Like you, I am alarmed at what may be in store for us 10, 20 or 30 years from now, if we continue with business as usual. I am baffled when urgent issues are ignored, when common sense suggestions fall on deaf ears, or when available solutions are not pursued. And I am disappointed when old and long unfulfilled promises are trotted out as new proposals, or when it appears that those with power to do the maximum profess to be able to do only the minimum.

    The question is what to do in a world of entrenched interests, political inertia, and hard-to-break habits on the part of governments and individuals. Dire predictions, apocalyptic talk and doom-and-gloom scenarios are not enough to inspire change. But it would be irresponsible to downplay the problems we face, or to think that a technological breakthrough will come to rescue us.

    Your challenge, or our challenge, is to calibrate the strategies and actions required. Purism and pragmatism both have their place, as do market solutions and mandates set out by governments. There will be days when bold action is called for, and times when more nuanced approaches are more effective. Civil society, too, in challenging business as usual, must also be ready to make difficult adjustments in its own perspectives and points of view.

    Sustainable development will not happen of its own accord -- and certainly not without the efforts of civil society and the legions of volunteers who bring such energy to the cause. Whether working to advance women’s rights or to build more liberal and liveable societies, whether you find yourself in air-conditioned conference halls or hot zones of despoliation and despair, your initiatives hold many of the keys to the future. Indeed, civil society occupies a unique space where ideas are born, where mindsets are changed, and where the work of development and conservation doesn’t just get talked about, but gets done.

    I want to, on that note, thank you for your contributions and look forward to our continued partnership for the betterment of humankind upon our one and only earth.

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