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UNsensational? Five more years of Ban Ki-moon

February 16, 2011
U.S. Senators Joseph Lieberman and John Kerry look on as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon addresses reporters in Washington. REUTERS/Molley Riley

U.S. Senators Joe Lieberman and John Kerry look on as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon addresses reporters in Washington. REUTERS/Molley Riley

It’s hard to find a delegate to the United Nations who despises U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. But it’s even harder to find someone who thinks he has the gravitas and charisma of his Nobel Peace Prize-winning predecessor Kofi Annan, who invoked the wrath of the previous U.S. administration when he called the 2003 invasion of Iraq “illegal.” As one senior Western official, who declined to be identified, said about Ban: “It’s not as if he’s lightning in a bottle, but we can live with him.”

The former South Korean foreign minister is in the final year of his first five-year term and is widely expected to run for another stint as the supreme U.N. official. The formal re-election process is likely to commence in the coming months. In the meantime, Ban is visiting the capitals of key U.N. member states to gauge his chances of keeping his job. Those chances, U.N. diplomats say, are excellent. So far, no country has nominated any candidate to oppose him. “I’d put my money on Ban Ki-moon getting a second term,” said a Security Council diplomat.

The 15-nation Security Council nominates the secretary-general, though the choice has to be confirmed by the 192-nation General Assembly. Despite the veneer of democracy, it is the five veto-wielding permanent council members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — who choose the top U.N. bureaucrat in New York. And none of the five has any serious objections to a second and final term for Ban, diplomats say.

Some people say that running the United Nations is the toughest job on earth. With little real power, he spends his time mediating and negotiating behind closed doors, getting blamed for member states’ failures and receiving no credit for his off-camera successes. National lobbyists push and pull him in all directions. The five permanent Security Council members, known as the “P5″, regularly insist that he acquiesce to their demands, often pressuring him to reserve a healthy portion of top U.N. jobs for their nationals or preferential treatment for themselves or their allies. Journalists harangue the secretary-general to disclose the details of sensitive negotiations, which he usually tries to keep secret under the label of “quiet diplomacy.” Human rights groups routinely skewer him for not being tough enough on the rulers of despotic countries, which are, after all, member states like all the others and don’t take kindly to criticism.

Ban has been no exception. He has been publicly clobbered for not congratulating jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo for winning the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize or raising his detention with President Hu Jintao during a recent visit to China. He was hung out to dry for not being tough enough on Sri Lanka’s government and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide in Sudan’s western Darfur region. Arab and other delegations from the developing world accuse Ban of being a U.S. lackey, noting how often his statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues echo those of the U.S. State Department or White House.

As much as Ban has sought to please his P5 kingmakers, he has managed to run afoul of each of them in the past. In 2008 Russia accused him of siding with the United States, France and Britain in supporting the secession of Kosovo from Serbia, which Moscow fiercely opposed. U.N. officials said at the time that Russia even threatened to block his second term over Kosovo (Ban made it up to them later). Both China and Russia complained that Ban had voiced public support for Egyptian demonstrators calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, who resigned last week. The United States, Britain and France were annoyed with Ban in 2009 for departing from past practice and not referring to the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia as part of Georgia. The Georgian ambassador accused Ban of succumbing to pressure from Russia, which fought a brief war against the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008. Ban denied the charge.

Ban’s unwavering stance against Ivory Coast’s incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to recognize U.N. certified election results from November 2010 that say he lost to rival Alassane Ouattara, surprised many U.N. watchers who are more accustomed to seeing him sitting on the fence on tough issues. Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch, who has been one of the secretary-general’s toughest critics, welcomed Ban’s “swift and unequivocal reaction” to Gbagbo, who ordered U.N. peacekeepers out of the world’s top cocoa producer. So far the secretary-general has refused to withdraw his blue helmets and the deadlock continues.

(International relations expert David Bosco has reacted to this post on his blog, The Multilateralist. )

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