Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ban and Diplomacy

Ban Ki-Moon and the power of diplomacy

From Ian Williams
Middle East International 18 March 2009

The UN secretary-general, in an interview with MEI’s Ian Williams, describes how his low-key public style camouflages a direct and forthright approach in his dealings in private with world leaders, and speaks of his commitment to see international law upheld.

Many Arab observers stick with first impressions of Ban Ki-moon as a hopeless tool of Washington and appeaser of Israel. They should look more closely. In a recent MEI interview, he recalled his visit to the Gaza Strip in early 2009 just after Operation Cast Lead, saying: “I was horrified by seeing what had happened to the UN and to many thousands of Palestinians. I have been pushing very hard to get the crossings opened and to let the UN humanitarian process begin. They promised me to consider positively rebuilding the UN premises and ordinary people’s damaged community.”

On 8 March, Ban met Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and pressed him to open the borders into Gaza to allow reconstruction. Shalom was just the latest of a long line of Israeli politicians who want to see Ban, and even if the secretary-general has not yet managed to get the crossings opened, he did secure $10.5 million “reimbursement” from Israel for damaged UN property (MEI II, 6, p 20). He has also just won the cooperation of Israel for another visit to Gaza.

But the handshakes and photo-ops do not inhibit his statements. A day after meeting Shalom, following Israel’s announcement of 1,600 new homes for settlers in East Jerusalem, Ban’s spokesman said the secretary-general “reiterates that settlements are illegal under international law. Furthermore, he underscores that settlement activity is contrary to Israel’s obligations under the Road Map, and undermines any movement towards a viable peace process.” Of course, that is the position of almost every UN member – but it is not often they volunteer that opinion.

In contrast, the US State Department mumbled that the approval for 112 homes in an ultra-Orthodox settlement was “the kind of thing that both sides need to be cautious of”, while Vice-President Joe Biden expressed slightly stronger (but still mild) distress at the resounding slap in the face that the announcement of new settlers’ homes represented for his administration.

Provide and facilitate
Superficial observers sometimes underestimate Ban because he maintains a low-key public approach, which allows him to continue to deal with recalcitrant leaders. In our interview, for example we discussed his role at the Copenhagen conference, which illustrates his diplomatic style. Climate change had been one of his key issues since taking office, and with little public recognition he played a major role in ensuring that the meeting would be a high-profile one, with attendance of a stature that could achieve results. He was instrumental in pulling the delegates together to salvage the ‘accords’ from the event; but when I asked if, in retrospect, he felt some high-pulpit naming and shaming might have helped, he quietly demurred.

“The secretary-general is not a negotiator,” he said “The members do the negotiating. We provide and facilitate. It is not our job to say we must agree on one or two degrees or on a timetable. I speak on the basis of scientific findings, the IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change], but it is the member states who have to negotiate, who have to agree.”

To that end, he is very forthright in stating impeccable principles, but he does not comment in public about personalities, whether President Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, the generals in Burma, or, presumably, politicians in Israel. However, from his own account, and from others who have seen him in operation, he can be strong in private.

He says: “My meetings with those leaders have been quite straightforward and very vocal, and the record will show this. Most of my senior advisers were quite surprised by how outspoken I was – speaking from my own conviction.”

Ban added: “Normally, diplomatically speaking, one should be nice and indirect, but I believe in being straightforward with leaders who are very difficult to deal with, regardless of whom. But I am still able to maintain a relationship with them.”

Asked about his views on the Middle East, the secretary-general replied: “I can tell you that my dialogue with Israel and Arab governments has always been based on my convictions – human rights, resolution of differences of opinions – and in that regard I have had trust from both parties. Of course, my dialogue with the Israelis has been quite difficult. I have always been trying to communicate over the phone or at bilateral meetings, anytime, anyplace around the world where there is an opportunity. I have been working hard, even though we haven’t yet been able to resume negotiations.”

Of course it is a job that needs the patience of Job, and so it is not surprising that he is “working closely” with George Mitchell. “I have met and talked several times, and I have been trying to help the US effort work, and I think it may have a chance now.”

How did he envisage peace talks that did not involve Hamas? After all, there is no UN decision to boycott them. He side-steps the issue adroitly: “The Quartet has made it quite clear: the condition for their involvement is that they must renounce violence and engage in dialogue.”

Sudan’s crucial year
Ban described the situation in Sudan as a “number one priority” this year. “With an election in April and a referendum in January, it’s a crucial year for Sudanese and Darfurians. There have been so many summits and meetings, and in Addis Ababa, at the African Union, all the African leaders were committed, including President Bashir.”

But are there problems with talking to Bashir while he is under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC)? “The ICC case has given a very strong message to the international community that there can never be, and will not be, any impunity. In that regard it created a very important message around the world.” Ban added: “In May, I open the very important review conference of the ICC in Kampala – very important to strengthen the capacity of the ICC. Sometimes you have to confront, but rather than directly confronting, you can use your own wisdom and experience, the cases in the past that have already happened, that is the best way to convince power of truth.”

I had asked Ban about the ICC when he was running for election – backed at the time by US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. He gave it his full support then and he explains why: “That was from my conviction. When I was foreign minister [of South Korea] I visited Rwanda and saw the Massacre Memorial. I was so horrified by what I saw there, I was convinced the international community had to take steps to prevent anything like what had happened there. I wrote in the guest book that there must be no repetition of these crimes.” His comments hint at the effect that the Gaza visit might have had for someone who grew up in a war-devastated country – an experience he keeps returning to.

Ban jokes that when he was elected he was told that ‘S-G’ stood for one of the office’s biggest responsibilities – ‘Scapegoat’. He is aware that in the job he has to look at the sensitivities “not just of the great powers, the P5 [five permanent members of the Security Council], but also NAM [Non-Aligned Movement], Islamic Conference, G77, all of them important political groups. Yet as a person brought up and educated, working for 37 years in diplomacy and as foreign minister of Korea, a small peninsula, divided still, and surrounded by big powers, I had always believed in the power of diplomacy.”

He will need a lot of faith in the Middle East. But if the ‘great powers’ decided to apply international law, he would clearly not be objecting.

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