Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ban, the UN.

Ban The UN
Tribune 12 March
Ban: the man whose hour has come

Our UN correspondent says that secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, against all the odds, is doing a great job
by Ian Williams
Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Ban Ki-moon has an image problem – at least in the English-speaking world. The job description for the Secretary General of the United Nations has always been perplexing. As the old quip has it, what the permanent members want is a secretary to take the minutes and handle the correspondence, while the global public rather hopes for a general – a towering, charismatic figure who will speak truth to power.

He also has to negotiate with the power whose legality and ethics he might be questioning. That allows for some creative tension – not least since the UN Charter empowers the Secretary General to raise issues before the Security Council.

Since the UN’s headquarters is in New York, there is an extra complication. Much of the world media takes its cue from the American media, whose editorial views of the organisation tend to be somewhat jaundiced. Even on the liberal wing of American politics, UN resolutions on the Middle East are depicted as prejudiced and preposterous. That the US can usually only muster a few dependent Pacific atolls to vote with it on Israel is seen as the rest of the world being out of step. On the right, they are more consistent. They question the very existence of the organisation – let alone American membership of it.

So when Ban Ki-moon took office, he had many strikes against him. He had a foreign accent: he was South Korea’s foreign minister, which prejudiced leftists against him almost as much as his support from George Bush and John Bolton. That did not help across the Democratic spectrum either. Conservatives regard any UN Secretary General with suspicion – even if their own administration had nominated him.

It did not help that South Korea is almost beyond the event horizon – in the depths of a geopolitical black hole, with China, Japan, the US and Russia surrounding it and an eccentric neighbour in Pyongyang necessarily taking up a lot of policy attention. This meant that, initially, Ban was prone to accept American and Israeli views of the Middle East.

He inadvertently damned himself in the early stages by joking that the Korean press corps used to call him “the slippery eel” for his skill in evading tough questions.

Other journalists did not notice his sense of humour. The stereotype stuck: Ban was an evasive, boring bureaucrat who did what he was told. The few, unflattering profiles of him were widely accepted as standard – even though one was from a neo-conservative who was unhappy that Ban had not lived up to Bolton’s expectations, while another was a leaked, tendentious report from a Norwegian diplomat who had not secured the UN job she wanted.

In fact, almost unnoticed, Ban has secured $10.5 million “reimbursement” for the damage the Israel Defence Forces did to UN facilities in Gaza. This is a first for the UN, whose premises have often been targeted, and it depended on maintaining relations with Israel even while standing up for UN principles.

Israeli ministers queue up to meet Ban, even though his statements are often far more forthright than his predecessors, “As far as Gaza is concerned, I was horrified by seeing what had happened to the UN and to many thousands of Palestinians”, he told me.

He has shown an attachment to principle that is inconsistent with the caricature. When he was running for office, I asked him about the International Criminal Court and the “responsibility to protect”. He could – and, by all the rules of diplomacy and elections, should – have prevaricated. He could have said he would implement UN decisions. He did not. He declared his unequivocal support for them even though Bolton had made it his sworn task to kill off the ICC.

I asked Ban about this last week and he remembered. “That was from my conviction. When I was foreign minister, I visited Rwanda and saw the Massacre Memorial. I was so saddened and horrified by what I saw. 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.”

He speaks to President Omar Bashir of Sudan to try to bring peace there, but when I asked about the ICC indictment, he replied: “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.

“I believe in being straightforward with leaders, who are very difficult to deal with – regardless of whom – but I am still able to maintain relationships with them. Most of my senior advisors were quite surprised by how outspoken I was – because I was speaking from my own conviction.”

Indeed, last year, he told the US House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee that the US was being a “deadbeat” about its UN dues, earning a rebuke even from the White House spokesman. But it was a closed meeting, from which a disgruntled congressman had leaked the comments, and the dues are now paid – making Ban the first solvent Secretary General for decades.

The lack of public profile is a mixed blessing. At least Rupert Murdoch’s minions have not yet been on his case yet. But Ban Ki-moon deserves more attention and support.

Ian Williams is Tribune's UN correspondent

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