Being There: U.N. Chief Takes a Rights Message to the Doorstep of Autocrats

April 10, 2010

    By Patrick Worsnip

    U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visits Kyrgyzstan and lectures the authorities on the need to improve human rights and stop harassing independent media. Four days later, the government of the Central Asian state is overthrown and its president driven from the capital Bishkek in demonstrations by opposition forces who say their rights have been trampled.

    Senior U.N. officials spend a lot of time beating off allegations that their boss is ineffectual. But in this case, they have been concerned to play down suggestions that Ban’s visit — part of a whistle-stop tour of former Soviet Central Asia — might have actually sparked the unrest that exploded onto the streets on April 7. As the chief executive of a 192-nation organization, Ban is not in the business of toppling governments, however much he may disapprove of their policies.
    “I wouldn’t take that as the case at all,” said one official in Ban’s party of the cause-and-effect notion, pointing out that political tensions had been rising for some time in Kyrgyzstan. But another said: “Touched it off — I don’t know. Exacerbated it? – Possibly.”
    The events in Kyrgyzstan dramatized the whole nature of diplomacy by the U.N. chief, a man who has no legions — as Stalin said of the Pope — and depends on moral suasion to make his points. Deferential by nature, and obliged by his job to be respectful wherever he goes, he did some things likely to appal the advocacy groups that had urged him to hammer the rights message at every stop on his five-nation tour. In Turkmenistan, he laid a wreath in the mausoleum of the late dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. In Uzbekistan, he referred to veteran autocrat Islam Karimov as a “great leader.”
    And yet, Ban did convey the human rights message, both publicly and privately, to all the Central Asian leaders, none of them anxious to hear it. In Kyrgyzstan, he said he was troubled by recent moves against free media. In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, he said it was time to deliver on the rights pledges they had signed up to. While his comments might sound anemic, they were enough to infuriate Uzbekistan’s Karimov, for one. According to U.N. aides, the Uzbek leader hit the roof when Ban raised rights issues, arguing that his country was being unfairly picked on, and that such matters were, in any case, to be discussed only with lower-level officials.
    With no big stick to wield, Ban has one advantage over presidents and prime ministers who say they are concerned about human rights — he does actually visit offending countries. The risk is he can look as though he is endorsing them.  But he does confront their leaders on sensitive issues, however politely. And he is prepared to use public forums in those countries to make the same points out loud. Last year in Myanmar, for instance, he was humiliated by the ruling junta, who prevented him from seeing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But he was able to hit back, saying in a public speech in Yangon that the Asian country’s human rights record was of “grave concern” and the government should start democratic reforms.
    Do rights violators change their ways as a result of such strictures? Kyrgyzstan’s ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev hasn’t lasted long enough to do so. But whether or not any link can be made between Ban’s trip to Bishkek and subsequent events there, autocrats elsewhere who face smoldering opposition might now think twice before they invite the U.N. secretary-general to come visit.

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