Kofi Annan: Burns - a poet for the world's poor

From the inaugural Robert Burns Memorial Lecture by the UN Secretary General in New York
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You might well ask why a United Nations Secretary General was eager to take part in this event. At first glance, one might think there is an ocean of distance between the hard-nosed give-and-take of international diplomacy as it is practised here in New York, and the lyrical verse that emanated from rural Scotland two centuries ago. But look closer and I think you will see why I am here.

To take one example, Burns was born into poverty, and spent his youth working on a farm. Burns' poems dignify and illuminate the struggle faced by the vast majority of the world's population today. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that Burns had "given voice to all the experiences of common life; he has endeared the farmhouse and cottages, patches and poverty, beans and barley; hardship, the fear of debt".

Burns has also been described as a poet of the poor, an advocate for political and social change, and an opponent of slavery, pomposity and greed - all causes very much supported by the United Nations. He was even, as a tax collector, a civil servant of sorts, though I should stress the United Nations has no interest in that line of work.

But it is one of Burns' most famous lines - "a man's a man for a' that" - that I should like to serve as the touchstone. And his prayer, in the same poem, that "man to man, the world o'er, shall brothers be for a' that".

Let us admire the enduring resonance of the work of Robert Burns. And let us dream, as he did, of a true brotherhood - and sisterhood - that embraces humankind, and allows all people a chance to enjoy their inalienable rights, dignity and freedom.