“I want to put on the table today a major and much-needed reform for fairness and effectiveness in the UN. Far too often, I have seen widely-supported proposals blocked, in the name of consensus, by a few or sometimes even just one country.”
— Ban Ki-moon (Former UN Secretary General)
After racking up the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stepped down on December 31. Ban leaves behind a world that is engulfed by more protracted and complex armed conflicts than a decade ago when he took the reins of the world organization. Although he deserves credit for his hard work, and his commitment to fighting climate change in particular, yet it is an undeniable truth that he struggled with significant parts of his portfolio, and was especially weak when it came to crisis management. Some observers opine that he should have done more to follow in the footsteps of former secretaries-general such as Kofi Annan of Ghana or Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden who are admired for their ability to stand up to UN member states when needed.
Looking back at the world in 2016, crises continued unabated in Middle East and Africa, including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and Yemen. Millions of people were displaced in the crises that are deepening in the Sahel region. In Asia, tension has been higher than before on the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea has conducted nuclear tests and test-fired ballistic missiles. And more countries have been subject to the growing threat of international terrorism. The world has indeed become a less safe place to live. And, as a two-term Secretary-General, Ban cannot entirely dodge responsibility for the world body’s poor performance in this regard. Global media branded him as a “powerless observer” or a “nowhere man” who was seen as absent when his intervention was called for. His diplomatic intervention was left mainly to his envoys and representatives to undertake, rather than conducted by himself.
In statements and appeals, Ban often repeated his usual mantra of “expressing concerns” and “urging” protagonists to make efforts to resolve the issues.
On April 9, 1953, the first Secretary General of the United Nations, Trygve Lie, greeted his successor, saying, “Welcome, Dag Hammarskjöld, to the most impossible job on this earth.” The job of UN’s “Chief Administrative Officer” is rightly called the most difficult in the world due to the difficulty that is in the job description itself. Kofi Annan, for example, considered an activist, “world moderator”-style Secretary General, who though won a Nobel Prize for encouraging global cooperation on peace, was subjected to scathing criticism for his management of the UN’s Oil for Food Program in Iraq, and other issues.
But despite all that a Secretary General can play an active and vigorous role in making the world better, if he wants to. The legal instrument that allows a Secretary General to choose between playing an activist’s role, in the tradition of Dag Hammerskjold, or more of a bureaucratic role, as did Austria’s Kurt Waldheim is Article 99 of the UN Charter which empowers the Secretary General to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”Given this power, the job can serve as a “perch” used “to rally world public opinion around issues that wouldn’t necessarily have been addressed otherwise.”
A look at the 10 years of Ban Ki-moon as the UN Secretary General reveals that given the chance to stop wars, forge peace and foster international fraternity, to make the world safer and more equitable to all, he accomplished precious little. When he took over in 2007, his primary goal was to bring lasting peace to the Middle East. In this too he failed. Ban’s achievements in the area of environmental protection, specifically the Paris Protocol on climate change, allow him a legacy that is mixed at best.
One might sympathise with Ban after what he aptly described as a decade of unceasing challenges. Conflicts constantly boiled up around the world and more often than not resisted all efforts at resolution—in Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Congo, just name a few. Critics also faulted Ban for lacking the qualities — charisma, intellectual agility and creativity—to make a great peacemaker.
Syria, in particular, demonstrated the ineffectiveness of Ban’s UN. Just hours before he left office a truce in the fighting suddenly became possible–not through the auspices of the UN but through agreement within a coalition of combatants (Russia, Turkey and the Syrian government) and Iran, a sponsor of the war. All four are now regarded as foes of the West and its regional allies. The UN resolutely failed to get the warriors negotiating and Ban was hapless in pushing members of UN Security Council to work out a solution.
It is difficult to fairly gauge Ban’s inability, over the course of his 10 years in office, to muster the necessary cooperation for such resolutions among world leaders, and yet there was failure elsewhere too.
Most worryingly, North Korea is today more of a nuclear threat than ever. Myanmar army is involved in atrocities that some describe as genocide. More by luck than design, the squabble over territory and sovereignty in the South China Sea has calmed, though, again, no thanks to the UN but rather to the good sense of the belligerents themselves.
In Asia and elsewhere, it is the shared desire for peace and stability that prevented conflict, not the authority of the UN or its once-vaunted peacekeeping troops.
It is interesting that Ban devoted much of his second term to human rights in Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Post-coup Thailand has, rightfully, come under strenuous criticism from the UN regarding rights, especially the curtailing of free speech.
It appeared that Ban had decided, as an Asian, that his lasting legacy should entail the safeguarding of democratic rights in Southeast Asia (certainly a goal more easily accomplished than pacifying the Middle East). In pursuing this aim, however, Ban rarely took non-Asian countries to task for similarly trampling on basic freedoms. Their exclusion from his diatribes was sorely noted here.
Ban’s legacy, if any, was also tarnished by his lackluster response to the sexual abuse scandals involving UN peacekeepers in Africa and the cholera outbreak in Haiti, also caused by UN peacekeepers.
Given that the UN is an organization composed of sovereign states, its member states in general, and the Security Council in particular, are primarily to blame for the organization’s ineffectiveness in maintaining world peace. However, as a two-term Secretary General, Ban cannot entirely dodge responsibility for the world body’s poor performance.