Ban Ki-moon became the eighth secretary general of the United Nations in January 2007, in a world that was a much quieter place than it would soon become. Unforeseen ahead was the Great Recession, explosive civil protests in the Arab world and the deadly government backlashes that followed. The explosion of refugees from the Middle East, in the largest numbers since World War II, added fuel to the global rise of ultraconservative, xenophobic politics. The Islamic State was soon to rise as a major global threat.
As Ban’s 10-year tenure winds down, and the Security Council prepares to nominate his successor, he looked back in an interview with me for The Nation in his UN office and reviewed what he managed to do in these tumultuous years, and regretted that there were “fires burning still” beyond the UN’s control. But he also showed flashes of anger in describing the procedural obstacles and pointless blocking techniques that stood in his way in both the Security Council and General Assembly. He acknowledged the frequent criticisms directed at him and the organization by critics who get little news about the UN and then say, “Mr. Ban is not visible.”
“I learned a lot,” he said.
In his decade in office, which ends on December 31, Ban, a 72-year-old former foreign minister of South Korea, has never overcome his aloof image and the annoyance caused by the often uncommunicative style of his tight circle of aides. This has opened the door not only to negative coverage but also—and more important—to civil society advocates with more effective public-relations skills who have exposed the UN’s reluctance to engage or react quickly to numerous crises.
Among the most influential of these advocacy efforts is AIDS-Free World, co-directed by Paula Donovan and the Canadian diplomat Stephen Lewis, both with experience in the UN, who pursued relentlessly the story of sexual abuse in the Central African Republic by UN peacekeepers and French troops in the country with Security Council authorization. In Haiti, reports of UN negligence following the introduction of a South Asian strain of cholera by Nepali peacekeepers stayed in the news because of a long legal campaign by the Institute for Justice and Democracy. On the issue of civilian causalities in conflict, particularly children caught up in irregular warfare in the Middle East, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders is often the first to report atrocities.
There are other organizations, working on other issues, and many of them have forced the UN to confront its responses, which even if defensible, are often too late. Though Ban may not have been personally responsible for organizational failures when underlings hunkered down behind denials and cover-ups, he symbolizes the UN in the eyes of critics.
Yet Ban has been a quiet force behind significant policy changes, among them some on socially progressive issues facing the UN that are opposed by conservative governments and the Vatican. He has presided over the most ambitious global anti-poverty agenda in UN history, the Sustainable Development Goals, which were driven by national priorities, not handed down peremptorily from the UN hierarchy.
From the start of his tenure, Ban sought to make an international pact on addressing climate change a signature legacy. That came together last December in Paris. Almost.
“The agreement in Paris last year was quite encouraging, the solidarity shown by the world community—but it has a long way to go,” he said. “We have just agreed to a framework. This framework should be translated into action. It must be entered into force as soon as possible, preferably by the end of this year. I’m hopeful, I’m optimistic that this can be done.” He has called for a summit of world leaders on September 21 to make a final push
Ban has backed President Barack Obama’s efforts to advance arms control and nuclear nonproliferation, particularly the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which Republicans have blocked in Congress since its signing in 1996 (and a Senate vote against it in 1999). No other arms treaty in more than 80 years has met this shamelessly partisan roadblock.
On social issues, Ban has made emergency contraception universally available in UN operations for women raped in conflict areas and other crises. Defying opposition in the General Assembly, he approved benefits to spouses of UN staff in single-sex marriages. He has publicly supported LGBT rights internationally. When a group of nations tried to derail the establishment of an organization for women in the UN system—finally grudgingly creating it in 2010 as an “entity,” not a full agency or program—Ban held out for the appointment of Michelle Bachelet, the former (and now again) president of Chile, as its first executive director. Bachelet, a seasoned politician, turned down the offer at first, Ban’s aides say. But he declined to move on to other candidates, and she was persuaded to relent.
Ban’s biggest challenges have been in management reform. “We can sharply reduce the current bureaucracies or decision-making processes if we make decisions by consensus,” he said, adding that the frequent demands for unanimity, a zero-sum game, in the 193-member General Assembly and an unwillingness to accept a consensus, which may require compromise, has meant that “even a single country can block very good decisions and ideas. Then people outside simply don’t understand why the United Nations is not moving.’”
As an example, he mentions his “mobility system,” a plan to move UN staff around from place to place or job to job to prevent the kind of sinecures the organization is known for. “You know how long it took me until I got this mobility proposal adopted? Seven years! It takes only one or two voices to do this kind of damage,” he said. “That makes me angry. I had been speaking passionately, emotionally, to member states then only after seven years have they reluctantly agreed.”
“There are many issues for which I’ve been fighting to make this complex organization into a modern organization—more efficient, more accountable, and more transparent,” he said, listing the strengthening of the UN ethics office and the introduction of required annual reports from senior officials on priorities and performance. He also added a gender balance goal, not a popular issue in the General Assembly.
Modernizing a government or a corporation is much easier, Ban said, since both have centers of power—a president or prime minister and political parties in government, and a board of 20 to 30 members in companies, with a board chairman and a CEO. “Here in the United Nations, we have 193 board members,” he said. “The problem is that each and every board member seems to believe that they are the chairman. Everybody’s a chairman.”
Outsiders who study the UN say that in choosing and managing the staff Ban’s record is mixed. On the positive side they cite the rotation system as well the new practice of releasing (voluntarily) financial disclosure and declaration of interests statements. His appointments to top positions in the Secretariat and his choices of “Special Representatives of the Secretary-General” (SRSG) to oversee field missions or report on thematic issues such as children in conflict zones, food security, pandemic diseases and migration, have occasionally been bewildering, however.
In numerous appointments, he accommodated demands of regions and governments for good jobs though their nominees were not always the best candidates. His first choice of deputy secretary general, Asha-Rose Migiro, a lawyer and politician from Tanzania with virtually no credentials, hit a low mark. She was eventually replaced by Jan Eliasson on Sweden, a brilliant appointment.
“It is true that there are some political pressures,” Ban said. “But as a matter of fact, I have been quite firm with member states.” He said he has rejected nominees on occasion and has reconsidered and refused to renew contracts of people pressed on him who prove to be unqualified. But the demands from both big powers and small developing countries for UN positions continue.
Sam Daws, director of the Project on UN Governance and Reform in the Center for International Studies at Oxford University, wrote in an e-mail that while Ban has maintained good and non-controversial relations with member states, his decision-making was questionable. “He has made some good appointments, but also some poor ones, and decisions such as that on his first deputy secretary general were seemingly taken in haste and without proper consideration of a range of candidates,” Daws said.
Daws is among a majority of UN experts who believe that communication may be the organization’s weakest link with the global public, a serious drawback in an exploding media age, and that Ban has not given this high priority. “He has not come across as an articulate voice in the international media, and nor has he had much behind the scenes influence in conflict mediation,” Daws said. “The SG needs to articulate well what the UN is doing, and why it matters, to a global audience. If an SG is a good manager of people then he or she can use this to compensate for any weaknesses—e.g., in communications—by appointing USGs and SRSGs who can perform well with the media.”
There is the impression in New York that under the Ban administration, the UN has also withdrawn from its host city, to the organization’s disadvantage.
Stephen Schlesinger, the author of Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations and a frequent commentator on the organization’s evolution, said in an interview that Ban—not the first secretary general to keep a low profile—had the misfortune to follow Kofi Annan, a popular Ghanaian and his Swedish wife, Nane, who were celebrities in New York, known and admired in many circles and institutions. Annan also had skilled spokespeople and visible communications specialists on his staff. “They got out there and were talking to people and seeing people,” Schlesinger said in an interview. “You don’t have a sense that his [Ban’s] staff is doing that much, except for Eliasson, who has made a big effort to get out and about. “
It is well known that Ban often struggled with English and French, the UN’s two working languages, which may have curbed spontaneity and oratorical style. The view from Asia, however, challenges the critiques of Ban as shallow. Was Western cultural arrogance in play?
Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and a former Singapore ambassador to the UN—also the author of the famously provocative book Can Asians Think?—said this in an exchange of e-mails:
“Like the legacy of any other world leader, we will have to wait for the dust to settle before we have a clear idea of how Ban Ki-moon changed the world. Yet, a few points will stand out. He had the courage to speak out strongly for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, when everyone else dodged the issue. He was also forceful on climate change. That helped the Paris conference to succeed. He pushed for the creation of UN Women as a separate agency. More importantly, he promoted more women to leadership positions than any other UNSG.”
“He may also be recognized for an unusual reason,” he added: “The Anglo-Saxon media was cruel towards him. He handled this challenge with remarkable equanimity.”
Thalif Deen, a Sri Lankan who has been covering the UN since the 1970s and was until recently bureau chief at the UN for the Inter Press Service, which has a large following in the developing world, suggests that language has become a test in the secretary-general election, fairly or not. Deen, a former Fulbright scholar, said in an interview that while Ban “successfully maintained a policy of dodging tough questions at UN press conferences most of the time,” there was more going on in this story on the media side. “The lack of English skills should not be held against any UN secretary general, who heads an institution which recognizes six official languages—English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese.”
Dan Plesch, director of the Center for International Studies and diplomacy at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said: “Not conforming to Western desire for film star charisma that borders on racism against the slightly built Asian, he has nevertheless worked tirelessly under the political pressures of the P5 that crush almost any initiative. It is they and not he that carry the heavy responsibilities of the UN’s failures.” The P5 are the Security Council’s powerful permanent members: Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States.
In the interview Ban, who as a boy suffered with his family through the Korean War in the 1950s, described his distress at recurrent inaction in the Security Council. “When North Korea has launched a missile, the Security Council in several instances have not been able to do anything, even in a press statement,” he said, referring to the lowest level of expression to emerge from Council meetings. “I have been raising this issue with member states: If you continue like this your authority will be challenged.”
An Asian had been UN secretary general only once before: the contemplative U Thant, a Burmese educator who, colleagues remember, began every day with 30 minutes of meditation. Ban is not infrequently, if wrongly, compared with U Thant, who held the office from 1961 to 1971. Is this racial profiling? They were, in fact, very different in important ways. Ban, a Korean Christian, built his career in a hierarchical political and diplomatic system that some call Confucian. U Thant was a Buddhist who specialized in communications and wanted the UN to be more open to the world.
Samir Sanbar, a retired former under secretary general and head of the department of public information, said in an interview that U Thant created the daily UN media briefing in spite of opposition from numerous governments. As late as the 1980s, Sanbar recalled, the General Assembly denied him as head of the department of public information the funds he needed to develop a UN website. “Even in the secretary general’s office they were afraid of giving too much information to the public. I said: ‘This is what our job is! We need to reach the public; we need the public to support us.’”
Ban did assemble noteworthy, credible independent panels to examine what had gone wrong—the most damning of which was the report in December 2015 on the sexual abuse allegations in the Central African Republic. That study, led by a former Canadian Supreme Court justice, Marie Deschamps, described an institution hobbled by secrecy, buck-passing, and general dysfunction.
Ban also began to make more pointed public statements. In February 2016, Ban wrote an opinion article in The New York Times calling Israeli policies in Palestinian lands “shortsighted or morally damaging,” which drew vitriolic criticism from Israeli leaders. In June 2016, he surprised everybody by saying publicly that Saudi Arabia had been scratched from a list of countries whose military kills and maims children—documented in many reports from Yemen—because the Saudis had threatened to withhold financial support for several UN missions.
Each new secretary general not only takes on a truly diverse, multicultural mandate but also brings with him (they have all been men so far) a distinct personal political, cultural, economic, and operational background. There have been others as reticent or seemingly uncommunicative as Ban.
In her book Lonely at the Top: What It’s Like to Be the UN Secretary-General, Lucia Mouat, a former UN bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor, quotes Brian Urquhart, a legendary UN figure who worked early in his career with Dag Hammarskjold, the second secretary general, an aristocratic Swede who was killed in a plane crash while on a personal peace mission in Congo.
“He was a shy, quiet, awkward intellectual who was spectacularly bad at dealing with people,” Urquhart said of Hammarskjold. “But the most amazing thing about him was that you could go to Rio, New Delhi, or Cape Town and the taxi driver would have heard of him and have an astonishingly clear idea of what he was trying to do.”
American intellectuals seem to have lost interest in the UN, said Jeffrey Laurenti, who has analyzed the organization for the United Nations Association after the end of the Cold War (UNA-USA) and the Century Foundation. “It remains off the radar screen to which is was consigned two decades ago, when the Clinton administration soured on it in the Balkans,” he said in an interview. “It had a bit of a resurgence when Bush’s blunder in Iraq made it seem that maybe the UN was right. But I don’t see the UN now as the subject of serious academic research or interest.”
Jean Krasno, a political scientist who curated and published Annan’s official papers and will do the same for Ban, has seen the latest surge and then collapse of support for the UN in academia, due often to the influence of external factors beyond a secretary general’s control. An upward trend started after the end of the Cold War, when hopes were high. “For example, at Yale, United Nations studies was established in 1993-1994 with a huge grant from the Ford Foundation,” she said. “Foundations play a role in this, because if you can get grants to do things related to the UN, then academia is interested.”
By the mid-1990s, Krasno was teaching courses on the UN at Yale. She was also president from 1999 to 2003 of the Academic Council of the UN System (ACUNS), created in 1988 to encourage academic research. Then grants dwindled and disappeared. The rotating headquarters of ACUNS, after terms at Dartmouth, Brown, and Yale, migrated to Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada and has never returned because no American campus offered to support it as generously. “Now nothing is being offered at Yale related to the UN.”
Krasno, now teaching at Columbia, says that a new generation of more cosmopolitan students is very interested in the UN, and are flocking to UN studies where they can be found.
Interest among young students of international affairs is a start. But the issues surrounding a revitalization of the UN both inside the organization and—probably more important—in the general public demands a very broad effort among multiple sectors if the institution and what it stands for will have anything to celebrate on its 75th anniversary in 2020.
First, the UN, where many member nations do not come from open societies, needs to revamp the Department of Public Information and appoint a professional media head as the under secretary general in charge. That position has most often been occupied by a political appointee; i.e., someone foisted on the secretary general by a government seeking a plum job for one of its citizens. This is grossly inadequate in a fast-changing media age.
Leading national and international media organizations are frequently in thrall to government officials and, over the decades since the UN’s founding, have stopped treating the UN as a valuable beat in its own right. This is unfortunate, given the wealth of talent and knowledge within the organization and the unique diplomatic corps based in New York, now the center of international diplomacy. Instead–and here I write from years of direct observation as UN bureau chief of The New York Times—when an American president comes to the UN, as Barack Obama will in a few weeks, a press corps of spoon-fed reporters come with him from Washington, and the result is inevitably a US, not UN, story. Ambassadors and even presidents from around the world are rudely ignored, and UN officials are pushed out of the way. Editors take their cues from the traveling pack.
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There are many NGOs working with the UN in the world’s most dangerous and heartbreaking places. Their staff understand well what is possible and what is not when dealing with societies unlike those in the rich, industrial world. They are the realists (often regarded unfairly as cynics) and are effective in what they do. But their stories are rarely told. The UN could use its resources in public relations better to demonstrate to the American public, which knows little to nothing about the organization, how intertwined Americans are in the UN’s work. There are no strong, genuinely nationwide civic organizations doing this in the United States, to judge from community groups I have spoken to around the country—ordinary people who come out to hear the UN story, but come loaded with accusatory questions when a talk ends. As Krasno noted, it takes money to mount campaigns on behalf of the UN, and foundations as well as private donors appear to have lost interest.
In arms control and on a crucial issue like climate change, hard-working citizens groups have been very effective in martialing wide public support, and have succeeded in affecting international policy. Advocacy groups on important world issues are indispensable and a force for accountability and transparency when the UN is engaged in a cover-up. However, on progressive social issues advocates sometimes fuel strident opposition that can slow progress of local NGOs in cultures not able or ready to meet their demands. If these well-meaning, often legally based Western advocates, particular in women’s and LGBT rights, humanitarian responses and freedom of expression feel thwarted, they may blame the UN. Their support for the organization is lost.
Yet the UN itself has often advanced these rights, and met the same backlash from member nations, who accuse the organization of intrusions into their sovereignty or neocolonialism. The UN is not the only focus of criticism. It should be no surprise that numerous governments are closing the space for foundations and other NGOs in places as different as democratic India, or thinly veiled dictatorships like Cambodia. This is a situation that demands more attention from civil society everywhere.
In 2016, an unprecedented effort to bring nations together across divides and put the UN on the media map was led successfully by a dedicated president of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark. With only minor opposition to overcome, he created the first openly transparent election campaign for a new secretary general, with hearings and vision statements and meetings with reporters. Half the candidates nominated by their governments were women. The campaign got international attention, with public forums and a televised town-hall broadcast around the world by Al Jazeera. The UN has the interest and the tools to revitalize itself, Lykketoft told me in an interview. But, he said, the UN, its member nations and its supporters need to make better use of them.