Celebrating Kofi Annan’s Contributions to Business & Human Rights

By John G. Ruggie

On September 13, 2018, I had the honor to attend the state funeral for Kofi Annan in Accra. The President of Ghana, in his eulogy, described Kofi as “charming, cosmopolitan, consensus-builder, elegant, eloquent, gentle-mannered, modest, polyglot, proud African, peacemaker, quintessential diplomat.” To me he was also mentor, friend, and favorite boss.

Shortly after Kofi took office as the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations he invited me to join the team he was assembling (at the time, I was Dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs). I asked him what my job description would be. He smiled and said “don’t get swallowed up by the cable traffic.” Eventually that function became formalized on the UN org chart as Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Planning.

As Secretary-General, Kofi lived the African proverb “you cannot bend the wind so bend the sail.” To bureaucrats who were skeptical of new ideas and innovative approaches, his response invariably was: “Why don’t we test it? You may be surprised. Let’s test it.”

Nowhere was this more evident than in his desire to involve the broadest possible array of social actors in the mission and daily work of the United Nations—be they parliamentarians or leaders of business, civil society, workers organizations, the world’s many faiths, and universities. The ability of the United Nations to help improve the lives of people, he believed, required that it reach beyond the precincts of intergovernmentalism on Turtle Bay.

The now vibrant field of business and human rights looms large among Kofi’s many legacies. Perhaps it came to him naturally. The dignity of every person was integral to the family values with which he was raised. And human rights were inextricably bound up in the struggle for independence, which Ghana achieved in 1957 when he was in his late teens. On the business side, his father, Henry Reginald Annan, was the first black manager of a Ghanaian subsidiary of Lever Brothers (now Unilever). At university, Kofi studied economics, beginning in Kumasi and completing his undergraduate degree at Macalester College in Minnesota. He also studied economics at the Graduate Institute in Geneva and earned a mid-career master’s degree at MIT’s Sloan School of Business. It seemed self-evident to him that concern with the dignity of people a company impacts should be integral to its strategies and practices.

Kofi’s contribution to the global business and human rights agenda began with his establishing the UN Global Compact in 2000. As he famously said at the World Economic Forum in Davos that year: “My friends, the simple fact of the matter is this: if we cannot make globalization work for all, in the end it will work for none.”

He envisaged the Compact as a multi-stakeholder learning forum for identifying and disseminating good corporate practices in relation to worker and other human rights,
environmental practices, and (later) anti-corruption. He sought to make it a platform to engage business in support of the broad array of UN goals. When a delegation of governments challenged him on where he got the mandate for this, he responded, softly, “I didn’t realize I needed a mandate to help implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

To this day, the Compact remains the world’s largest corporate citizenship initiative, with some 10,000 global participants and national networks in more than 50 countries. Among its many knock-on effects are the Principles for Responsible Investment, launched in 2006 not long before Kofi’s term in office came to an end, which marked a significant step forward in the evolution of what is now known as ESG investing—incorporating environmental, social, and corporate governance criteria into investment decisions.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Annan persuaded the UN General Assembly to mark the year 2000 with a summit of heads of state and government, and to ask him to offer them suggestions regarding the role of the United Nations in the new millennium. He presented the summit with a report entitled We the Peoples, addressing both new and enduring challenges. Under the heading of ‘development and poverty eradication’ were eight specific targets for the world to aim at during the next 15 years. They were adopted as the Millennium Development Goals. In 2001, Annan was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “bringing new life to the organization.”

When the MDGs expired in 2015 they were succeeded by a broader set of Sustainable Development Goals. Both of these ambitious agendas have had at their core the realization of human rights; and both have recognized the indispensable role of all sectors of society, including business, in making them a reality.

In 2005, the UN Commission on Human Rights (now Human Rights Council) adopted a resolution requesting the Secretary-General to appoint a Special Representative on the subject of business and human rights. The mandate was to identify and clarify the respective responsibilities of states and business, and to make recommendations for the Commission’s consideration. By then I had returned to academic life, but Kofi asked me to take this on as an extra-curricular assignment. He expressed particular concern that the seriousness of the issues not become overwhelmed by unrelated and unhelpful political dynamics within the UN bubble, stressing the imperative of generating meaningful buy-in so as to achieve real change in how business gets done. Six years and 50 international consultations later, I presented the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to the Human Rights Council, which endorsed them unanimously.

Kofi Annan was the least ego-driven leader I have ever met. He had an infectious laugh. He and his beloved wife Nane, a lawyer by training and an accomplished artist, were role models of mutual respect and collaboration. As a boss, Kofi had the ability to inspire those of us who worked closely with him to achieve things we never thought we could. Sadly he has passed. But his inspiration lives on—as do the many legacies he bequeathed to us all.