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.