Ban in first year struggles to raise U.N. profile

  • World
  • Sunday, 30 Dec 2007

By Patrick Worsnip

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Flying 346,000 km and visiting 39 countries, Ban Ki-moon has put tireless energy into his first year as U.N. secretary-general but has struggled to raise the profile of the much-criticized body.

While pursuing an agenda headed by climate change and the crisis in Darfur, Ban Ki-moon has spent an unwelcome amount of time fending off critics of a closed management style they say comes from his native South Korea.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is seen in Dili, East Timor, in this December 14, 2007 file photo. Flying 346,000 km and visiting 39 countries, Ban has put tireless energy into his first year as U.N. secretary-general but has struggled to raise the profile of the much-criticized body. (REUTERS/Lirio Da Fonseca/Files)

As the year ends, diplomats and analysts give Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, good marks for persistence, but say many member states find his decision-making secretive and the man himself lacking in vision -- charges he rejects.

"The overall image of the U.N. and the secretary-general himself is still scoring quite low on a scale of one to 10," said one Western envoy who asked not to be identified. "That is a real challenge for all of us."

Ban, 63, is seen by U.N. staff as a workaholic but has suffered from communications problems, his fluent but strongly accented and at times clumsy English contrasting with the suave and eloquent manner of his predecessor, Ghanaian Kofi Annan.

Chosen for the job over six rivals by the 15-nation Security Council, with strong support from the United States and China, Ban came to office vowing to restore trust in the U.N. secretariat and raise ethical standards.

That was widely seen as a slap at the Annan administration, stained by findings of corruption and mismanagement in the $64 billion oil-for-food program for Iraq and in U.N. procurement.

In practice, Ban has put his most visible effort into raising awareness of the threat from global warming and seeking to put in place a 26,000-strong peacekeeping force to end the 4-1/2-year-old conflict in Sudan's Darfur region.

He championed a 190-nation climate change conference earlier this month in Bali, Indonesia, which ended with negotiators speaking of a historic breakthrough and promising urgent action. In a self-assessment a few days later, Ban called that the "key achievement" of his first year in office.

Analysts said it had taken courage for Ban to push the environmental agenda, given that his backers in Washington are the chief opponents of specific greenhouse gas emissions caps.

"He's managed to position the bully-pulpit role of the secretary-general quite well to give U.N. leadership at a time when it was needed," said Colin Keating, executive director of the influential online newsletter Security Council Report.

But diplomats questioned whether he could pursue that role as the climate change negotiation phase gets under way. "I'm not sure how much more he can continue to do in the year ahead," said one.


On Darfur, Ban persuaded Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to agree to the proposed U.N.-African Union peace force and on a visit to the region in September announced peace talks the following month between Khartoum and Darfur rebels.

But the talks, boycotted by key rebel groups, got nowhere and the peace force, supposed to assume authority on Tuesday, is beset by a lack of key equipment and by bureaucratic hurdles posed by Sudan that are seriously delaying deployment.

Critics say Ban should have used the good relationship he says he has developed with Bashir to press the Sudanese leader far harder to smooth the way for the peacekeepers.

Ban's Middle East policy has drawn fire from a different quarter. His Middle East envoy, Peruvian Alvaro de Soto, quit in May charging that "a premium is put on good relations with the U.S. and improving the U.N.'s relationship with Israel."

Ban would not be the first secretary-general to be caught between the non-aligned majority, who see the world body as one place where they count, and rich countries who feel that as they pay the bulk of U.N. dues they should call the tune.

Diplomats from both sides, however, have queried what they see as his habit of making policy just among a close coterie of advisers. One example was his early and unpopular decision to split the peacekeeping department into two.

Keating said developing states felt "a huge amount of surprise and anger about lack of consultation and what they see as the task of a secretary-general to work with member states and implement their agenda rather than have his own agenda."

Ban calls himself a pragmatist. According to Edward Luck of the International Peace Academy think tank, recently appointed a part-time adviser to Ban, "The secretary-general made clear at the outset he was more interested in focusing on results rather than rhetoric, performance rather than headlines."

But one Western envoy said: "We need an overall picture from him as to what he wants to do with the organization over the next couple of years. We don't get that overall picture."

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