By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 13/07/07):
The United Nations has long had a public relations problem. Its detractors are loud and passionate, its supporters low-key and reasonable. Around the world the numbers of people who wish the organisation well far exceed those who see it as a nuisance, yet they barely make their voices heard. As a result, the UN is always on the defensive.Never more than now, six months after Ban Ki-moon’s installation as the eighth secretary general. Foreign minister in the South Korean government which sent troops to Iraq after the US invasion, he was the Bush administration’s favourite among the five contestants for the job. His country is totally dependent on the US for its defence. He had little experience of the UN or large parts of the world. He was described as a cautious, even faceless bureaucrat, and a man of little vision.
Whoever leads it, the UN and its many agencies still arouse global expectations. So when I went to hear Ban speak in London this week, I was not alone in hoping to come away reassured, if not inspired. What other centre is there for mobilising change in a world of massive inequalities, bloody conflicts, a widening nuclear arms race, and the new challenge of climate change?
What other forum offers small and medium-sized states a chance to challenge US unilateralism and get a hearing (though not much press coverage)? It was not just France that blocked the security council from authorising the attack on Iraq in 2003. Bush and Blair could not get support from enough of the 10 council members who have no veto. No wonder international polls at the time showed the highest ratings the UN has ever had.
All the former UN officials and other UN-watchers whom I rang to ask about Ban’s performance before the meeting asked to speak off the record. This was not a good sign. If you’ve something positive to say, why hide it? Some mentioned gaffes, like Ban’s support for the death penalty in a comment after Saddam Hussein was hanged, or his statement in East Jerusalem that he was pleased to be in Israel. Others pointed to his decision to close the Department of Disarmament Affairs and put its staff into his own office, a decision which he described as giving it a higher profile, but critics say downgrades it as a favour to Washington. Bush wants to focus on stopping new countries going nuclear rather than have the existing bomb-owners cut back.
Almost everyone I consulted agreed Ban knew little of the UN “culture” before he got the job. One said, somewhat haughtily, that he is “the first secretary general who is neither a European or brought up in a British colony”. (Perez de Cuellar, the Peruvian who held the job in the 1980s, was so white and upper-class that he might as well have been a Spanish grandee.) The remark was meant to highlight Ban’s unfamiliarity with the arts of marshalling arguments elegantly and seeming to express passion without becoming shrill. They were epitomised by the silken style and smile of Kofi Annan.
If he intended to understand the UN quickly, Ban’s first appointments were not encouraging. He picked a Tanzanian as deputy secretary general and an Indian as his chef de cabinet, neither with extensive UN experience. His gatekeepers – his executive assistant and scheduling officer – are South Korean and UN outsiders, as is his deputy chef de cabinet. Although he had two months between getting the job and starting work (most secretary generals have less), he is said to have filled staff jobs more slowly than any of them. “On the issue of competence it’s a huge disappointment. I thought he must have been chosen at least because he’s a good manager,” said one New York-based watcher.
The human rights community is gloomy. Annan famously said the UN’s third pillar, after development and international peace and security, was human rights. Ban is reported to pay less attention to it, tending to farm controversies out to the feeble new Human Rights Council in Geneva. Senior Israelis like him, apparently because they consider him less pro-Palestinian than his predecessors.
On climate change, the world’s new priority, Ban has been soft. In the run-up to this summer’s G8 summit, when a row developed over Bush’s wish to move the post-Kyoto agenda away from the UN to a process which Washington would lead, the new secretary general failed to speak up for preserving the UN framework. He only did so after the G8 kept the issue with the UN.
In this litany of pessimism, the most optimistic notes I heard were that the jury is still out on Ban. Give him time. He’s learning. He had a hard act to follow. That was the gist of it.
At a Chatham House reception it was clear he has no small talk but his big talk was little better. His speech ran safely through a list of current crises. This kind of audience does not applaud readily, but they are overwhelmingly pro-UN types. Not once did they clap any point he made, though there was polite laughter when he suggested imposing the off-the-record Chatham House rule on the UN. He was skilful at evading controversial questions, not least what benefit he sees for the UN, as a member of the Quartet, in maintaining its political boycott of Hamas. “Underwhelming,” a veteran diplomatic correspondent concluded.
In Ban’s favour one has to say that being UN secretary general is an impossible job. He is a secular figure to whom people turn for a moral lead. We desperately want a new world order and look to the UN as the only place where it may be born. We hope for an internationally recognised referee who will show a yellow card to the unilateralists and bullies who flout their own or other people’s rights and break international law.
In our rational moments we know these dreams are unrealistic. The secretary general has even fewer divisions than the Pope. But could he at least be an actor and not just an instrument? Could he go beyond his charter-mandated duties as servant of the security council and play a strong role as an agenda-setter? The one power he has is not to confer legitimacy on things that are wrong, be it the invasion of another country or a policy of ostracism which UN members have not approved.
He needs to speak up and speak out. No chance of this from Ban, to judge by his record thus far.