UNSG BAN Ki-Moon – is there a critical mass of disenchantment?

A vigilant friend and colleague in Geneva has sent this translation by UNRIC’s Desk Officer for Spain of
the article that appeared in El Pais on Sunday, saying “the translation is not perfect but tells you what John Carlin [and Spain’s prominent newspaper El Pais! says about Ban Ki-moon:.


“The UN Secretary-General has remained absent from the great international conflicts and has blurred the role of the Organization. The United Nations therefore misses the opportunity to rebuild itself from the Iraq dump now that the upcoming changes in Washington come up.

El Pais, 07/09/2008
By John Carlin

“During a meeting with Palestinian leaders in East Jerusalem last year, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, began expressing his satisfaction ‘for being in Israel’.

While the Palestinians who were present showed astonishment, making efforts to repress their indignation, one of Ban’s advisers whispered him that calling the occupied territory where they were “Israel” was not the most diplomatic thing he could do, given the attendants. Ban agreed, continued and finished his remarks with a smile and a happy “it has been a great pleasure to be in Israel’.

The confusion that Ban caused that day among the Palestinians has extended today, 20 months after he took over the post of Secretary-General, to the majority of the member States of the UN. On the eve of 63rd Session of the General Assembly that will begin in New York on the 16th of this month, a yearly ceremony in which Heads of Government of the entire world meet, there is an increasing perception that it would not be advisable that Ban, in the past the Foreign Minister of his country, South Korea, be renewed in his present five-year mandate when it concludes. The usual thing to do would be to continue in the post that some have described as a ‘Lay Pope’. But the impression that ‘the glass is half empty’ increases, a former top UN official points out.

“He adds that (Ban) is not the right man to preserve the independence and the legitimacy of the United Nations at a time in which it suffers from increasing paralysis, although there is a slight opportunity –before the imminent change of Government in United States- to be able to rise from the remains of the war of Iraq and the animosity of the President George W. Bush, as the moral and political force of Human Rights and Peace, as it was intended to be when it was founded at the end WWII.

John Carlin’s article in El Pais continues. “In the last 20 months conflicts in which the Secretary-General could have tried to exert a political and moral leadership have followed one another -Sudan, Kosovo, Zimbabwe, Georgia-, but Ban has limited himself to issuing statements or ephemeral declarations. He himself, outside the world of diplomacy, is a character who remains almost unnoticed, whose name few people know.

“This newspaper has carried out interviews for this article in New York, London and Madrid, of 20 people on four continents. Some of them have spent a lot of time in his company and others follow him closely, but from the outside. Among the specific accusations against him, one is that he does not encourage debate and that he gets furious the few times his international advisers in the Secretariat dare to express opinions that are contrary to his. Another accusation is that he takes his decisions based upon a circle of trusted Korean colleagues who surround him and shelter him.

“According to a non Korean person who attends meetings with him on the 38th floor of the UN building in New York, the last one in joining (these meetings) usually finds that the chair in front of Ban (they meet around a long rectangular table with Ban in the middle) is empty. This is because when the Secretary-General gets furious, he takes it out on the person seated in that chair.

“Most of the people interviewed have spoken with the condition of remaining anonymous and all have insisted in doing it off-the-record every time they took the courage to express an opinion on Ban, even when their opinion was a positive one. The UN culture, where all staff members work under renewable contracts, conditions them. Some occupy at present high positions in the United Nations; others have occupied them until very recently, and others work or have worked for the UN in important operational positions all over the world. They all devote their time to being professional observers of the Organization. Some think that history will absolve Ban, who is an extraordinarily hard working man, sure of himself, capable, with great integrity. But the dominant opinion, expressed even by demoralized members of the political team of the UN, could be summarized in the following phrase, that, with little variations, has been pronounced time and again by many of the interviewed people: ‘He is more a Secretary than a General, and he does not have the vision, the intellect, the attention nor the leadership that are necessary to reactivate the United Nations’.

“The disappointment is bigger because we could be before a good opportunity in order to try (to reactivate it). A former US diplomat interviewed in New York who has advised Barak Obama on foreign policy says that, no matter who wins the Presidential elections in November, Washington will make an effort to deal with the UN in the same way that President Bush father did. Mainly, in the consensus that he managed to build around the first Gulf War, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Colin Keating, who was at the beginning of the 90s the New Zealand President of the Security Council -where the power of the UN concentrates- says that the United States has learnt a lesson from Iraq and that there are ‘strong reasons to believe that the next US Government will have a more a cooperating strategy’.

“There are more reasons to believe that this may be a good moment for the present Secretary-General to try to impose his will in the United Nations. The Organization itself, like the world it reflects, is in a period of flux, fragmentation and confusion that, according to many of those that study the new disorder of post Cold War period, is crying out for a clearly defined voice, both in practical terms and on principles. Among the great forces that are reshaping the world one has to count with the increasing role of China, India and Russia; terrorism and propagation of the lethal weapons; the energy crisis; the uncertainty on reserves of food and water; and the tyrant States or States in bankruptcy like Sudan and Zimbabwe. In addition to the permanent bloodshed and tensions in Iraq, Iran and the Near East in general.

“The most recent center of conflict is the one that opened last month after the deployment of Russian troops in Georgia. ‘In spite of it, Ban does not take initiatives’, says a top European diplomat in the UN. ‘He is a leader who is not willing to act, he hopes to obtain consensus before moving forward’. He did not interrupt his vacations when the crisis in Georgia took place, and his delayed statements on that conflict focused more on “the humanitarian crisis” that followed rather that in the political one. He has given over his international leadership to Europeans like Nicholas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown.

“As far as the political and economic catastrophe in which Robert Mugabe has sunk Zimbabwe , Ban Ki-moon ended his long silence only in the month of July when he declared the elections called by Mugabe ‘illegitimate”. But only after it was left clear that that was the shared opinion by the whole of the Security Council.

” ‘The disadvantage of the Security Council, with its 15 members, and of the General Assembly, with 192, is that consensus is hard to reach due to the paralyzing effect of the confrontation of too many interests. The consequence is that, in a situation like the one in Darfur, where the widespread murders and famine due to political reasons, are the norm for five years now. China’s – one of the five permanent members of the Security Council – interests, combined with the African principles of solidarity and a general aversion by many countries of doubtful legitimacy to interfere in other countries’ affairs, have prevented the application of international pressure that would correspond to the humanitarian aspirations of those who founded the United Nations.

” ‘The great factor of division’, says an important staff member of the UN Secretariat “is intervention, which in the language of the UN has become the “responsibility to protect”. As a former UN staff member who worked with former Secretary-General Kofi Anann explains more graphically, ‘the truth is that there are many UN member States, including some important ones, which accept raping of children on great scale rather than having to defend the principle of the intervention’.

“In this context there is the widely held opinion that a fundamental instrument in the effort to free the UN from its tendency to paralysis is persuasion and the pressure of the man who has more power than any other to speak on behalf of United Nations as a whole, its sacerdotal head, the Secretary-General; a person whose position entails in theory an enormous load of political capital and world prestige; this is, a great capacity of persuasion.

“The measure of what a Secretary General is capable of doing is still Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swedish diplomat who held the position from 1953 until his death in an airplane accident in 1961. He was always ready to undertake action and defend at all costs the principles of the UN against the politics of cynicism. Like a Pontiff who was defending his church, he was the one that stated on one occasion that the principles of the UN Charter were “much greater than the Organization in which they were incarnated, and the objectives that they protect were more sacred than policies of any nation”.

“The UN is today an Organization much larger than the one Hammarskjöld could have imagined. At present it hosts all types of organizations devoted to provide food and humanitarian aid, to take care of refugees and poor children, to promote health all over the world and –this is its biggest task- it carries out peace missions in 20 countries, with 100.000 soldiers at its disposal. However, the Commander-in-Chief of all this, Ban Ki-moon, only had international experience -before he took over his present position- in the three issues that define the South Korean foreign policy: the reunification of two Koreas, maintaining good relations with the United States and dealing with China. He has preferred, his defenders say, a discreet diplomacy, after seeing how the attempts by his predecessor, Kofi Annan, to build an independent political role, translated into the fact that both he and his closest advisers ended up being expelled from the UN by the United States.

” ‘The Bush people, who wanted to reduce the role of the Secretary General found in Ban Ki-moon the man (Bush) needed’, says an former US diplomat who observes the UN with a magnifying glass. ‘He was also the man who the Chinese and the Russians wanted, as they were fed up with Annan’s sermons and interference’. The Europeans point out that they did not want Ban. ‘Our opinion’, notes a European Ambassador, ‘was that we needed more a General, whereas the United States, Russia and China wanted more a Secretary’.

“An African Ambassador before the UN confesses that he personally likes (Ban). ‘But what happens is that the cordial agreements that one believes one has reached with him disappear when they penetrate what many of us call the Korean intimate circle’, in reference to the small group of fellow countrymen with whom he feels comfortable. ‘Ban is a like a transplant that is not adapting well’, notes a former UN staff member who is now a university professor. ‘He comes from a culturally uniform structure, homogenized, and he now tries to lead a structure culturally complex and varied, and he is not adapting as he should’. The head of this intimate circle is an old civil servant of the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a Stanford University graduate, Kim Won-soo, officially the deputy Chef de Cabinet, but, in the opinion of many, ‘the grey eminence’ of whom the Secretary-General depends more than any other person. Neither the un-loved Kim, one of whose tasks has consisted of firing the old loyals to Annan on the 38th floor of the building that hosts the UN Secretariat, nor the other Korean advisers, nor most of the multinational team that Ban had to create in order to follow the UN protocol, resemble neither in talent nor in experience to the ‘A team’ that Annan created around him, in opinion of most of the people interviewed for this article.

“ ‘Ban has covered correctly the quotas of nationalities in his team’, a veteran Ambassador to the UN confirms, ‘but definitively he has not placed the best people in the core positions’.

“Even some of the staff with a good reputation as competent who surround the Secretary-General feel demoralized by the way their boss works. Some say that not only he ignores their advice when it hits the intimate circle’s vision, but that he rarely offers the opportunity to receiving advice. However, a top official adds that the “intimate circle also includes the US Ambassador. It is commonly thought that Ban is very much in debt to the Americans, and that also explains why so many diplomats from what we called before non-aligned countries distrust him’.

“But the Americans are not the ones that set the tone in the internal meetings that Ban chairs. The model is the one that a civil servant who knows well the mechanisms of the 38th floor calls the non-written norm by which ‘a Confucian culture of harmony must prevail”. According to an expert, ‘that means that almost nobody says what he knows for sure Ban does not want to hear’.

For that reason, the conversations that take place in the meetings of the 38th floor presided over by Ban are usually empty. ‘He attaches an enormous value to hard work, to quantity over quality’, says one person who knows his way of working. ‘He makes a big emphasis on people keeping account of the number of miles that he has flown in UN missions, and once he got terribly upset because, by mistake, somebody provided a lower figure’.

“Nevertheless, he gives the impression that he is truly not frivolous in his dedication to the work and that he likes to set example. He wakes up every morning at five, and when he meets with his team, at 8:30, he has already made between 6 and 10 telephone calls and has carefully read the summaries. Later, his routine consists of working all day non-stop and to continue until midnight to prepare the agenda of the following day. ‘But in public he does not take any risk’, points out a political UN servant. One exception has been Climate Change, a subject in which he has taken a certain initiative. But his favorite philosophy is that the best way to obtain “results is to act by not moving too far.

However, his account of results still has much to prove. ‘To adopt a position on Climate Change is much easier than doing it on the delicate question of independence of Kosovo’, says a former US diplomat who does not get along with Bush administration. ‘(Kosovo) was an issue that was urgently calling for a determined statement by the Secretary-General and he disappeared. The Russians scared him away. They told him to remain silent and he gave in’.

On the other hand, in the Near East his attitude against Hamas has coincided in a shameless way with the one of the United States and Israel, according to several of those interviewed by this newspaper. Such (attitude) has fed to a great extent the sensation among many member States members that Ban is a puppet of Washington.

The biggest point of friction is always intervention, the “responsibility to protect “civilians threatened by their own governments. This principle has been seen seriously harmed by the invasion of Iraq headed by the United States. “The tragedy of this paralysis on the issue of the intervention is that what loses are both Human Rights and Democracy “, notes a top UN employee who has fought many battles in both fronts. A veteran Human Rights activist in New York shares this opinion: “Kofi Annan welcomed with interest our reports because we provided him with the ammunition for the moral positions that he assumed; Ban ignores them and he considers them annoying, because they place him in a context that he would prefer to ignore “.

In the opinion of Kieran Prendergast, Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs with Annan, what lacks today is a “great international compact”, a re-balance of the world order like the ones that took place at the end of the two world wars. “A new system that replaces that of the two superpowers that rebuilds the legitimacy of the Organization “, says Prendergast.

The base of such pact could be that “the United States accepts that, before acting against a new threat, it should give the Security Council the opportunity to say no, and in return, the international community would focus on the principle of non-intervention in the internal issues of the States”. This compact, or a similar formula adapted to the new world has not been possible with George W. Bush, but it could now count with the support of a new US President. Specially, if the Secretary-General uses his moral authority to establish a debate at the height of the new challenges, with the objective of increasing world-wide security and preventing new episodes like 9/11.

But to seize that moral scenario is not Ban Ki-moon’s style, according to the majority of those interviewed by El Pais. With the UN adrift, but the United States ready for change, they think that this is the time in which a charismatic voice like a John Paul II or a Nelson Mandela of world-wide diplomacy is needed, both to establish the global strategy and to react before each crisis.

“In the era of globalized media, when it is possible to see the crises that take place in distant parts of the world five minutes after they happened, a Secretary General capable of responding quickly, to establish the moral priorities and to therefore obtain the political capital to be able to convince and to lead, is needed” says a European Ambassador. “In other words, a political Secretary-General is needed. Ban is not. If he was more efficient in this sense, we would have a more effective UN “.

Colin Keating, the President of the Security Council of the United Nations
during the genocide of Rwanda in 1994, prefers not to directly refer to Ban, but he thinks that the post of Secretary-General entails high visibility. “The better you accomplish this, the more you talk to the public, the more you will control the criticism against the UN. You will accumulate credibility
and support will be obtained “, explains Keating. “A good communicator is needed because, often, good communication is the only instrument that
we really count on”.

Good communication added to a clear and forceful moral message, which does not seek the alibi of consensus nor takes refuge in the bureaucracy of the UN or in the “Korean intimate circle” or in the scrub of the Security Council. This is what many miss since the arrival of Ban Ki-moon to the
Secretariat of the United Nations.

“The problem -and we see it in a especially urgent way in places like
Zimbabwe and Sudan, and now Georgia- is that it is necessary that the Secretary-General takes the political initiative. And if he is looking forward to obtaining consensus, he can wait forever”, points out a high European representative in the UN.

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