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.

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