Dag Hammarskjöld and the 21st century by Kofi Annan

The Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture 2001: ‘Dag Hammarskjöld and the 21st Century’ given by Kofi Annan, the then Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Event details

Date:6 September 2001
Venue:Uppsala University Hall

KofiWhen Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, ascended the rostrum of the Main Hall of Uppsala University on 6 September 2001, he was met with loud applause and cheers from the audience. Two thousand people had filled the hall to capacity, after queuing for much of the afternoon. Almost as many people outside the building – though disappointed that there were no seats left for them – had been the first to greet Kofi Annan enthusiastically when he arrived after the short walk from the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. Both spontaneous welcomes were a strong and moving demonstration of support for the Secretary-General, the ideas he stands for, and the United Nations as the world’s leading multilaterist forum.

In the fourth Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture – jointly organised by Uppsala University and the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation – Kofi Annan opened up an ingenious imaginary conversation with Hammarskjöld, drawing comparisons between the global political situation of around 1960 and the present. Under the title ‘Dag Hammarskjöld and the 21st Century’, he addressed several crucial issues for the United Nations, reflecting on the progress made, as well as the disappointments experienced, and drawing attention to both similarities and differences between the challenges confronting the UN during Hammarskjöld’s era and those that face it now in the new century.

As his framework for the lecture, Kofi Annan used Hammarskjöld’s ‘Introduction’ to his final Annual Report to the UN, presented in August 1961. In this, Hammarskjöld expressed the conviction that the United Nations must be a ‘dynamic instrument’ for change in the world rather than a form of ‘static conference machinery’.

Hammarskjöld drew on four main principles in the UN Charter to show clearly that an essentially restricted concept of the UN’s role was incompatible with its fundamental aims, namely equal political rights; equal economic opportunities; justice based on international law; and the prohibition of the use of armed force (save in the common interest). These principles were important in the context of the Cold War and, as Kofi Annan emphasised, are every bit as relevant today; yet ‘industrialised countries remain reluctant to see the United Nations act on Hammarskjöld’s second principle’ and some governments are ‘equally loath to see it actively promote respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all’. He went on to sum up this part of his lecture by stating that ‘the United Nations will fail in its duty to the world’s peoples, who are the ultimate source of its authority, if it allows itself to be reduced to a mere “static conference” whether on economic and social rights or on civil and political ones’.

In the conclusion to his lecture, Kofi Annan suggested that the greatest difference between the political environment of four decades ago and that of today, and probably the most difficult for Dag Hammarskjöld to relate to had he been present, is ‘the sheer complexity of a world in which individuals and groups of all kinds are constantly interacting – across frontiers and across oceans, economically, socially and culturally – without expecting or receiving any permission, let alone assistance, from their national governments’. To achieve the aims of the UN Charter in the 21st century it will be necessary, Kofi Annan argued, to involve not just governments but all the different actors, such as civil society organisations, private companies, universities and think tanks, foundations and creative individuals – ‘to listen to them, to guide them, and to urge them on’.

It was extremely gratifying to the organisers of the Dag Hammarskjöld Lectures that the present Secretary-General of the United Nations visited Uppsala and delivered the fourth lecture in September 2001, commemorating Dag Hammarskjöld’s untimely death four decades ago. Interestingly, Kofi Annan has served the United Nations for almost all of the intervening years: he joined the Organisation in 1962 at the age of 24, only one year after the tragic accident at Ndola. It is evident from his lecture that Dag Hammarskjöld’s legacy was an important inspiration for Kofi Annan’s generation at the UN and still influences the discussions held and decisions taken today. Kofi Annan began his service to the UN in the World Health Organization in Geneva and subsequently moved to the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa. Later, he returned to Geneva to work in the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, before moving to the UN Headquarters in New York, where he held the posts of Assistant Secretary-General and Under-Secretary-General in several important departments. On 1 January 1997 he began his first term as Secretary-General, an appointment that was extended by the General Assembly in June 2001, with a second five-year period beginning in January 2002.

Only a month after delivering the Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture, Kofi Annan was nominated to receive, jointly with the Organisation he leads, the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in December 2001. The nomination carries a special significance in this context both because Kofi Annan and Dag Hammarskjöld (posthumously) are the only Secretaries-General who have been awarded the Peace Prize and because the themes discussed in the Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture have taken on even greater importance in the darker international atmosphere following 11 September – a point implicitly recognised by the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

The Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture was jointly instituted in 1998 by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and Uppsala University in memory of the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. The guidelines for the selection process state that ‘the privilege of delivering the Lecture is offered to a person who has promoted, in action and spirit, the values that inspired Dag Hammarskjöld as Secretary-General of the United Nations and generally in his life: compassion, humanism and commitment to international solidarity and cooperation’. Kofi Annan fulfils these criteria to a remarkably high degree.

When the Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture was instituted, Uppsala University also commissioned an artist to create a special Dag Hammarskjöld Medal, to be awarded to the person delivering the lecture. Recipients of the medal so far have been: Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; Brian Urquhart, the former UN Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs; Joseph Rotblat, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and the founder of the Pugwash Movement; and, most recently, Kofi Annan.

The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and Uppsala University are proud to publish the text of Kofi Annan’s lecture, to which – on the suggestion of the Secretary-General – Dag Hammarskjöld’s ‘Introduction’ to his Annual Report to the UN for 1960 is appendixed.

The 4th Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture, 2001 from Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation on Vimeo.


This lecture exists also in a written published format.


The Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture

is given in memory of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, and in recognition of the values that inspired him as Secretary-General and generally in his life – compassion, humanism and commitment to international solidarity and cooperation.

The invited speaker should be an outstanding international personality who in significant and innovative ways contributes to a more just, peaceful and environmentally sustainable world through valuable achievements in politics or research.

The Annual Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture is co-organised by Uppsala University and the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. The lecture is free and includes a performance by Allmänna sången. The lecture will be filmed and available here on this webpage.

See all Dag Hammarskjöld Lectures over the years