Monday, June 06, 2011

Ban again, and again!

Ban shoots for the stars
By Ian Williams
Asia Times
June 7th 2011

WASHINGTON - It is very Asian, or at least Confucian, that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his team have kept so close-mouthed about his decision to run for a second five-year term, which was announced on Monday.

Ban's first term expires at the end of this year, and the vote for the next UN head could take place by the end of June at a General Assembly session. No other candidates are in the running so far.

It would imply a tremendous loss of face for Ban, South Korea and even to some extent Asia, if he had overtly indicated interest without being sure that that he had all the ducks in a row. In itself, it suggests some serious diplomatic skills to get member states united behind his candidacy, not least Japan and China, but he has clearly done so. There has not been a serious voice raised in

opposition, unless there is a serious misstep, and the reappointment will soon be confirmed by the Security Council and General Assembly.

It is possible that the last one in the convoy was indeed a Peking, or Beijing, duck, since he met the Chinese vice president last week. Human Rights Watch criticized Ban for not being more vociferous about human rights in China, and it would have been a great gesture if he had. But this would have been the diplomatic equivalent of seppuku (ritual suicide).

Ironically, John Bolton, the rebarbative former acting US ambassador to the UN, has endorsed a second term for Ban on the grounds that he did not regard himself as a "secular pope". Bolton is not known for nuance, and he was a strong supporter of Ban's original nomination.

Ban is South Korean, and thus reliably anti-communist, and Bolton and others saw a grey self-effacing bureaucrat who would not rock the boat. But perhaps they should have listened. Even on the hustings, Ban declared himself a strong supporter of, for example, the International Criminal Court, whose destruction was Bolton's great, and unsuccessful, crusade.

On issues like climate change, the financial crisis and certainly on human-rights issues and the Responsibility to Protect (the latter loved no more by Bolton than by Beijing) he has been far more outspoken than his predecessors.

To begin with, he spoke strongly about particulars in private, but in public expressed general principles. In Myanmar (Burma) he told off the junta, but kept lines of communication open publicly. However, as he gained confidence, on issue after issue he has become more open, more precise in his delineation of principles and their application.

On the Middle East, calling for a Palestinian state, an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza and other UN positions forcibly has not prevented his office being the first port of call for Israeli politicians in New York.

Cynically, one can wonder if they are not using it to claim government expenses for fundraising trips to the diaspora's capital, but for whatever reason, it takes the UN out of the Israel Lobby's firing line in the US. This no bad thing for the beleaguered UN since the lobby in the US unites both conservatives and the liberal politicians who in many other countries provide the backstop for the UN's local support.

But that illustrates the dilemma. Bolton is of the ilk that finds it difficult to admit error, so he would not go out of his way to find fault with Ban. Even so, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week he called for the US Congress to again cut funding to the UN to force it to bow to Washington's and Israel's positions on Palestinian statehood - without mentioning Ban or his position. In times past conservative critics like him could be relied upon to personalize battles with the UN by belittling its secretary general.

It does suggest that Ban's outspokenness has been attenuated by his earlier self-effacement. He has pushed the boundaries of the sayable for the UN. Indeed even human-rights organizations who criticize him for not raising human-rights issues with China, have admitted that Ban has been outspoken on other human-rights issues, and indeed, during the Arab Spring, he has singled out heads of state like former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak for criticism in a very public way, before self-professed human-rights champions like the US, whose recent statements on such issues have been extremely expedient.

Indeed, he has broken quite sharply with long standing UN practice of servile deference to any head of state, no matter how cruel or corrupt. One only has to contrast the respect the organization and its emissaries offered former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for example.

In that context, it is perhaps understandable that he demurred on public criticism of Chinese human rights. It would be somewhat Quixotic for the secretary general of the United Nations, with, as Boutros Boutros-Ghali once complained, no army nor police force, to take a tougher stand than the member states who appoint and give him orders.

Not least if it knocked him out of office to be replaced by someone else hand picked to be even more complaisant. In the absence of the Madeleine Albright and Senator Jesse Helms team that knocked out Boutros Ghali, the Chinese are the only ones to have nixed the reappointment of other secretaries general - such as Kurt Waldheim.

But the dilemma of his second term is inherent in such contradictions of office. Sixty-five years after its founding, there has never been such a concatenation of problems demanding a global response that only the United Nations is equipped to mediate. Climate change, food security, energy shortages, financial crisis, pandemic diseases, uneven development and a host of other issues cannot be solved by any one country, as even the indebted energy poor US is now discovering. They demand global solutions which entail a revived, re-energized and modernized United Nations.

Once confirmed, there are strong reasons to hope that, on his present trajectory, Ban will be able not just to say the right things, but also to inspire others, his staff, the member states and the peoples of the world, to do what is needed. He has shown strong principles so far. Now he needs to inject charisma-building steroids to ensure those principles are heard.

Having secured reappointment, he now has to draw up an agenda for his second term that will inspire a jaded world to unite against the common enemies and for Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms that originally inspired the UN: Freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

Once he does not have to look over his shoulder at Beijing and Washington about a second term, he will have the freedom not only to articulate positions that they would prefer unsaid, but to marshal others as well. Even so, one can be sure that while he will try to steer boats, he won't try to rock them. He is a diplomat above all, even if some might hope that he will indeed become the secular pope that Bolton did want!

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Bank on Ban Ki Moon for term two

Bank on Ban Ki Moon for term two
by Ian Williams

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Sometime soon, Ban Ki Moon is almost certainly going to announce his willingness to accept a second term as United Nations Secretary General. He is unlikely to meet any serious opposition. In part that is because it would be rude not to reappoint him. After all the only other SG denied a second term was Boutros Ghali, because Madeleine Albright offered his head on a platter to Senator Jesse Helms as the price for her confirmation as Secretary of State.

But courtesy apart, there are good reasons to offer Ban a second term. Like his predecessor Dag Hammarskjold, who died fifty years ago, this year, Ban has been growing into the position and becoming increasingly effective. When Hammarskjold was appointed UN Secretary General, the eminently forgettable Trygve Lie, the first to hold the position, dismissed him as a colourless bureaucrat. Hammarskjold is now widely regarded as the very model for a UN Secretary General.

When first elected, Ban Ki Moon light-heartedly delighted in the title the Korean press corp had given him, “the Slippery Eel” for dodging questions and for his self-effacing diplomacy. With the lazy conservatism of the media, his image is still shaded by those first impressions. It did not help that his instinct in the first few years was to work behind the scenes rather than on the public stage, so much of his good work was unrecognised. US acting ambassador John Bolton and the Bush administration nominated him precisely because they wanted a gray apparatchik who would keep the UN its proper place – in the closet until wanted on occasion by the White House.

However, neither the White House nor much of the media checked the reality behind their presuppositions. Even before his election, for example, Ban was publically declaring his support for the International Criminal Court that Bolton had made his life’s work destroying. As soon as he had he taken office he was pushing positions on climate change calculated to get right up the nostrils of the Republican right.

When he first took office, he combined diplomatic delivery in public with strong words in private to national leaders. There was a notable change as he gained confidence and realised that the post of UN Secretary General demanded a public, pulpit role. For example, in the Arab spring, he has been outspoken about naming and shaming the leaders who have used force against demonstrators, which marks a break from the UN tradition of slavish respect for heads of member states.

While he has consistently displayed his principles in a similar way since, he has also been a quick learner. That has been most visible on Middle Eastern issues, where he started off with an almost reflexively pro-Israeli position adopted from his American friends. Now he is now far more outspoken than his predecessors – but as a testament to his diplomatic skills, his office is still the first port of call for Israeli politicians coming to New York. It was little remarked, but he actually made history by getting the Israelis to pay compensation for destroying UN premises in Gaza, and he has consistently condemned the Israeli blockade of the enclave.

It is true that the UN no longer inspires the hopes it did at its founding, but it is a body whose relevance has been renewed by the demands of the era. From finance, to development to human rights and global warming, the world’s problems demand multilateral, global solutions and Ban shows every sign of appreciating that.

His first term has coincided with circumstances that have persuaded even Americans that they cannot singlehandedly run the world. Most of us noticed they weren’t very good at it anyway.

Ban’s approaching second term offers an opportunity for the world to reappreciate the role of the United Nations and its collective approach to the world’s problems and a revival of some of the idealism of its early days and the battle for the Four Freedoms seems appropriate when the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse seem to be hovering the on horizon of an overpopulated, financially precarious yet overarmed world.