Global News Journal
Beyond the World news headlines
By Patrick Worsnip
It’s not uncommon for journalists at some point in their careers to cross the barricades and become the people who dish out the news as spokespersons for an organization or firm, rather than being on the receiving end. It requires a different set of skills that can make the transition tough, and a stern test confronts former Reuters correspondent Martin Nesirky, who has just been appointed spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. After a high-flying career at Reuters that saw him fill senior editorial positions in London, Berlin, Moscow and Seoul, Nesirky has had some time to acclimatize to his new role by working for more than three years as spokesman for the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), based in Vienna. But the move to New York brings much more formidable challenges.
Like any U.N. spokesperson, Nesirky, a Briton, will have to take into account the concerns of the 192 nations that belong to the world body. That’s 192 different governments that can get upset by something he might say. But his chief problem may be his boss Ban, whose public image, to put it mildly, could take a little burnishing. Aside from his awkward use of English, which has television producers tearing their hair, Ban has had a rough ride from hostile media that have accused him of failing to use his position to end the world’s conflicts and right its wrongs. (Defenders say he is more effective than he appears, works tirelessly behind closed doors, and has made at least some progress on such intractable issues as climate change, global poverty and the crisis in Darfur.)
Then there is the sprawling and ill-defined nature of the U.N. press and public relations operation, with different officials and factions competing for the secretary-general’s attention and waiting to pounce on any mis-step by one of the others. The outgoing spokeswoman, Michele Montas of Haiti, stuck to the job for less than three years. In trying to stay close to the South Korean secretary-general, Nesirky could benefit from his knowledge of the Korean language from his time in Seoul. He is also married to a South Korean. But these advantages too could be a double-edged sword. U.N. diplomats have long complained that Ban is happiest in a Korean comfort zone and relies too much on a compatriot who serves as his deputy chief-of-staff, Kim Won-soo.
Ban Ki-moon isn’t having a good year for public relations. Halfway through a five-year term as U.N. secretary-general, he’s been hit with a wave of negative assessments by the Financial Times, The Economist, London Times, Foreign Policy and other media organizations. In a March 2009 editorial entitled “Whereabouts Unknown,” the Times said Ban was “virtually inaudible” on pressing issues of international security and “ineffectual” on climate change, the one issue that Ban claims he has made the biggest difference on. The Economist gave him a mixed report card, assigning him two out of 10 points for his management skills while praising him on climate change (eight out of 10 points).
This week, Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper made an unpleasant situation much worse. It published a confidential memo assessing Ban’s 2-1/2 years in office from Oslo’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Mona Juul, to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. Juul’s report is scathing — and it comes from a representative of one of the world’s body’s top financial contributors. She says the former South Korean foreign minister suffers from a “lack of charisma” and has “constant temper tantrums” in his offices on the 38th floor of the United Nations building in midtown Manhattan.
She describes Ban as a “powerless observer” during the fighting in Sri Lanka earlier this year when thousands of civilians were killed as government forces ended a 25-year civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels, trapping them on a narrow strip of coast in the country’s northeast. In Darfur, Somalia, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Congo, she wrote, Ban’s “passive and not very committed appeals seem to fall on deaf ears.” She says that his recent trip to Myanmar was a failure and that some people in Washington refer to Ban as a “one-term” secretary-general.
Juul’s letter could hardly have come at a more inopportune time. Ban is planning to visit Norway in the coming weeks, where he intends to meet with government officials and visit the Arctic circle to see for himself the effects of global warming and the melting polar ice. Now U.N. officials fear reporters will be more interested in what he says about Juul’s memo than climate change.
So far Ban has not reacted to the letter. However, a Norwegian diplomat told Reuters that Ban’s press office had been instructed to hold off on confirming his visit to Norway shortly after the news of Juul’s memo began to spread.
Ban’s PR difficulties didn’t start this year. In March 2008, his chief of staff Vijay Nambiar sent a memo to U.N. employees explaining how to say his boss’s name. “Many world leaders, some of whom are well acquainted with the Secretary-General, still use his first name mistakenly as his surname and address him wrongly as Mr. Ki-moon or Mr. Moon,” Nambiar complained.
Then came Ban’s own speech to senior U.N. officials in Turin, Italy last year, in which he described how difficult it was to improve the working culture inside the United Nations. The secretary-general seemed to acknowledge that his internal management style had failed. “I tried to lead by example,” Ban said. “Nobody followed.”
Ban’s aides vehemently defend him, saying he’s being treated unfairly by the press. One senior U.N. official suggested privately that Ban could very well turn out to be “the greatest secretary-general ever.” They complain that people continue to compare him to his predecessor Kofi Annan, who was a very different U.N. chief and relied less on “quiet diplomacy” than Ban. Annan became a hero to many people around the world for standing up to the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Annan called the March 2003 invasion illegal. U.N. officials also complain bitterly about the indefatigable blogger Matthew Lee, whose website Inner City Press regularly accuses Ban and other U.N. officials of hypocrisy and failing to keep their promises to reform the United Nations and root out corruption. (Some U.N. officials accuse Lee of not always getting his facts right, but his blog has become unofficial required reading for U.N. staffers around the world.)
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, diplomats in New York say, is among those supporting a campaign against a second term for Ban. Juul’s memo said Helen Clark, New Zealand’s former prime minister and current head of the U.N. Development Program, “could quickly become a competitor for Ban’s second term.” But diplomats say they expect the United States, Britain and other major powers to reluctantly back a second term for Ban, if only because there appears to be no viable alternative whom Russia and China would support.
A recent article in the Times of London said the best U.N. chief in the organization’s 64-year history was not Swedish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dag Hammarskjold but the Peruvian diplomat Javier Perez de Cuellar, who held the top U.N. post for 10 years until 1992. Nicknamed “mumbles” because he was so difficult to understand, Perez de Cuellar kept a low profile and, like Ban, preferred backroom diplomacy, not Annan’s bully pulpit. Among the Peruvian diplomat’s successes were managing the end of the Cold War, leading a long-delayed revival of U.N. peacekeeping and encouraging member states to back a U.S.-led military operation to drive Iraq’s invading forces out of Kuwait in 1991.
Will Ban’s preference for quiet diplomacy make him as good or better than Perez de Cuellar? That remains to be seen.
Small children dressed in dark blue pants and light blue shirts clutched U.N. and Sri Lankan flags as they sang a song in honor of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s arrival at the Manik Farm refugee camp. This is the temporary home to some 220,000 people who fled the final battle between Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces. The camp, Sri Lanka’s biggest, was plastered with posters of a smiling Ban and Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa that said, “Welcome Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to our motherland.”U.N. officials traveling with Ban had voiced concern that his visit could be exploited for propaganda purposes in a kind of victory dance for the Sri Lankan government. The secretary-general was the first major international figure to visit the island nation since the government won a 25-year-old war against the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) earlier this month. The officials said Ban would stay on message, demanding full and immediate access to some 290,000 refugees in camps in northern Sri Lanka and urging President Rajapaksa to reach out to the country’s Tamil minority to prevent a renewal of violence.During his visit to Manik Farm, Ban went to a small field hospital, where he saw severely emaciated elderly people attached to saline drips and children with shrapnel wounds. The picture could have been uglier. U.N. officials said the most severely injured – amputees, victims of mine explosions or heavy artillery blasts – were at other hospitals the delegation was not shown.A group of refugees at the Manik Farm camp, the country’s biggest displaced persons camp with over 210,000 residents, said they were outside the conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka but were rounded up by the government in April and brought to the camp. Asked in New York about the refugees’ unverified comments, U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes said he had no details about any such round-ups. However, he said it was possible that some people outside what was once called the “no-fire” zone were moved by the government into the camps. He noted that all of northeastern Sri Lanka was a war zone in a sense since it had previously been controlled by the Tamil Tigers.Ban and his delegation also flew over the former conflict zone in a tiny strip of coast in northeastern Sri Lanka where U.N. officials have accused the LTTE of using hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields as they struggled to fight off government forces. During the low-altitude helicopter flight, U.N. officials and reporters saw thousands of empty tents, piles of bicycles and other personal items abandoned in a hurry when the masses of starving civilians were fled for their lives. The burnt-out buses and cars, uprooted and smashed trees and craters filled with water appeared to provide evidence that heavy weapons were despite denials from the government and Tamil Tigers.At the end of the trip, Ban met for an hour with the president to press his demands. Afterwards Ban and Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogllagama spoke to reporters. Ban was asked if he saw evidence of “massive bombing” during the flight over the former battle zone. His answer was that “the fighting must have been severe.” Bogllagama was more direct when asked if he was confident Sri Lanka had committed no war crimes as human rights groups have said. His answer: “Absolutely.”Was Ban’s trip a success? One senior U.N. official told Reuters that Bogllagama repeatedly said “yes, yes, yes” in response to Ban’s demand for immediate and unimpeded access to the camps, though it was not clear when the access would come. A ban on the use of motor vehicles by U.N. or other aid agency personnel, however, remained in place for several more days as the government tried to prevent the escape of any Tigers hiding in the camps. (A few days after Ban left Sri Lanka, the government agreed to allow aid agencies to use cars and trucks at Manik Farm, though without flags and not in convoys.) Aid officials continue to complain that restrictions are crippling aid distribution in the camps.