On the doctorates of (some) UN secretaries-general and other personages

Recently The Global New Light of Myanmar reproduced either in full or excerpts of the interim report by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State headed by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Khieu Samphan's doctorate was awarded in 1959 and Karl Marx received his doctorate in 1841. Photo - SuppliedKhieu Samphan's doctorate was awarded in 1959 and Karl Marx received his doctorate in 1841. Photo - Supplied

In announcements made on MRTV in the Myanmar language, the chair of the commission is mentioned as ‘Mr Kofi Annan’ but in published statements made by the State Counsellor’s Office and in statements made by the State Counsellor herself, the name ‘Dr Kofi Annan’ has been used.

I searched the United Nations web site as well as other internet and printed sources to verify whether the seventh UN secretary-general and Nobel laureate has a doctorate – not an honorary degree but one awarded based on a thesis or dissertation submitted to a university. (Kofi Annan is the only living UN secretary-general to be awarded, in October 2001, the Nobel Peace Prize. Forty years earlier, in October 1961, in an unprecedented action, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the peace prize posthumously to the second UN secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjold, after he died in an air crash in Ndola, Southern Rhodesia, in September 1961.)

The United Nations web site does not indicate that the seventh UN secretary-general has a doctorate which is not an honorary degree. It does state that Kofi Annan obtained a Master of Science degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management in the United States in 1972.

Of course, perhaps all UN secretaries-general who served as ‘chief administrative officers’ of the organisation have been awarded honorary doctorates by universities. By my count, the UN web site lists 32 honorary doctorates awarded to the third UN Secretary-General U Thant between 1962 and 1971. It is very rare that our distinguished fellow countryman has been mentioned in national and international media outlets as ‘Dr Thant’ or ‘Dr U Thant’.

In contrast, the sixth UN secretary-general, the late Dr Boutros-Ghali (even though the UN web site uses the term ‘Mr’) has an earned doctorate. The web site states: “Mr Boutros-Ghali received a PhD in international law from Paris University in 1949. His thesis was on the study of regional organisations.”

The fourth UN secretary-general, the late (Dr) Kurt Waldheim, can be said to be the only other UN chief who obtained a doctorate based on his thesis submitted in the spring of 1944 to the University of Vienna entitled in German “Die Reichsidee bei Konstantin Frantz”, or “Konstantin Frantz’s Concept of Reich”.

The UN web site does not mention this information perhaps because Waldheim’s doctorate is based on the Austrian (and mainly German-speaking) academic degree Diplom (University) and may be different generically from, say, the PhD awarded to Boutros-Ghali by the University of Paris.

Also, scholars and researchers have commented to the effect that the future fourth secretary-general, in a thesis submitted during the war years when the UN did not exist, had shown Nazi sympathies. Since controversy over Waldheim’s Nazi past or affiliation is also understandably not mentioned on the UN web site, it follows that his academic work arguably relating to that aspect of his personal history is perhaps deemed not advisable to be stated therein.

Going back almost exactly 176 years to the month, in mid-April 1841, a more famous and influential person than any of the other names mentioned in this article, Karl Marx, was awarded a doctorate by the University of Jenna in Germany for his thesis “The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.” (Democritus, who died around 370BC, and Epicurus, who died around 270BC, were materialist ancient Greek philosophers whose philosophies diverge from that of Plato’s philosophical idealism, or ‘theory of ideas’. Dr Marx highlighted the differences between the philosophical materialism of these two philosophers who died 2300 to 2400 years ago. The extant parts of Marx’s thesis were translated from German into English only decades after his death.)

Karl Marx received his doctorate in 1841. Photo - SuppliedKarl Marx received his doctorate in 1841. Photo - Supplied

Fast-forward to the year 1959. (Dr) Khieu Samphan, who was head of state of then-Democratic Kampuchea from April 1976 to December 1978 obtained a doctorate in economics from the University of Paris. His thesis, “Underdevelopment in Cambodia”, was translated into English from French by Laura Summers and published in the Indochina Chronicle in its September to November 1976 issues while Dr Samphan was head of state.

Incidentally the late President U Ne Win was the first ever head of state to visit Democratic Kampuchea, for a few days starting on Nov 27, 1977. He was welcomed by and had talks with Dr Khieu Samphan during the visit. Four years after meeting the president of Democratic Kampuchea, U Ne Win, in a speech given around November 1981, boasted that he had no (university) degree and had ‘no tails behind [his] back’.

One does not know whether U Ne Win met the shadowy Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot during his visit. The late Pol Pot had stated to an interviewer that he did not finish his radio engineering course at a polytechnic in Paris in the 1950s.

Khieu Samphan, who at least nominally led a regime that caused the deaths of about one out of every seven Cambodians, was found guilty of crimes against humanity in August 2014 by the United Nations and Cambodian ‘mixed’ tribunal. The Khmer Rouge regime during its reign of terror from April 1975 to December 1978, had targeted and killed, among many others, intellectuals, including ostensibly people wearing spectacles. It is ironic that a ‘super-educated’ intellectual and, at least in his earlier years, a scholar with the highest degree awarded by a prestigious university, had played a leading role in such an inhumane and oppressive regime. During the trial of Khieu Samphan, UN documents consistently referred to him as ‘Mr’ though he has a PhD.

Non-doctorate holders among former and present UN secretaries-general (apart from and in addition to Drs Waldheim and Boutros-Ghali) have, in their own ways, made significant contributions to regional and world peace and the betterment of humanity.

This letter commemorates the 176th anniversary of the award of a doctorate to then-22-year-old Kark Marx by the University of Jenna in Germany in April 1841 and the 79th birthday on April 8 of Nobel Peace laureate and seventh UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.