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What Role Will Ban Ki-moon Play?
[Analysis] The struggle over reform at the U.N.
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2007-02-15 01:21 (KST)   
As soon as Ban Ki-moon took office as the 8th secretary general of the United Nations, his comments sparked controversy. A statement about Saddam Hussein's execution, namely that capital punishment was a decision to be made by each nation, drew condemnation from those who compared it with previous U.N. statements, while it was supported by John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., who praised Ban's statement about capital punishment as the "right instinct."

Kofi Annan, Ban's predecessor, had been willing at times to condemn what he deemed violations of the U.N. charter. For example, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Annan warned that such "a military action would violate the U.N. charter."(1) Similarly, during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Annan stated that Israel's "'disproportionate' use of force and collective punishment of the Lebanese people must stop."(2) This was a means of condemning Israeli actions as illegal.

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Such actions earned Annan praise for being willing to tell "the truth to the powerful", from Dumisani Kumalo, the South African Ambassador to the U.N., speaking on behalf of the Group of 77. These actions, on the other hand, were condemned by Bolton who criticized Annan as the U.N.'s "chief moralizer," whose activities "were not ultimately helpful to the world body."(3)

Even before he took office, Ban had said he would be open with the press, promising that he could be "a pretty straight shooter when I need to." Coming to the U.N. from his former position as the foreign minister of South Korea, Ban brought with him a reputation for dodging questions from the press when he deemed that beneficial. This trait led South Korean journalists to nickname him "slippery eel."(4) Already during his short term in office, there have been several instances when Ban praised the powerful and dodged questions from reporters when asked to explain the basis for his praise.

One example occurred after Ban met with the U.S. President George Bush in Washington on January 16, 2007. At the press conference following the meeting, Ban referred to Bush as a "a great leader." When Ban returned to the U.N., a reporter asked him why he had used these words to describe Bush Ban responded: "In diplomacy, it is appropriate to address any Head of State or Government with due respect and courtesy. I hope you will understand what this diplomatic practice is."(5)

Such comments have earned Ban a reputation as someone who "is an enigma to media and diplomats alike"(6) and whose "statements" are as hard to follow as "a Delphic Oracle." Bolton, on the other hand, has expressed his approval for what Ban has done or has freely offered his advice on what to do differently. For example, Bolton characterized as a "courageous decision"(7) Ban's call for the resignations of 60 senior-level officials in the secretariat. Since the contracts of these officials were to expire anyway at the end of February, several reporters wondered why Ban asked for their resignation. When Ban was asked for his response to Bolton's comments, Ban responded that he agreed with some of them. He did not elaborate.

One of the first promises of the new Secretary General was that he would carry out reform at the U.N. There are different views among the member nations of the U.N. on what reform is needed.

For the U.S. government, as Bolton explains, the purpose of reform is to make the U.N. a better tool among others "to implement American foreign policy."(8)

For a number of other nations, the purpose of reform is to foster a multilateral process(9) to prevent war and hostilities among nations. Nations which are part of the group known as the G-77 define a reform agenda quite differently from the agenda promoted by the U.S. and what the G-77 describe as "other developed nations from the North."

The G-77, originally formed in 1964 when 77 developing nations signed a Joint Declaration at the end of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), has a reform agenda that focuses (10) on development issues and on promoting the importance of the UN as the preeminent international institution. There are now 130 nations that are part of the G-77. Many of these nations are also part of the Non-Aligned Movement.

During Ban's first few weeks in his new position, he has appeared to vacillate between the reform agenda of the G77 and the reform agenda supported by the U.S. and other powerful developed nations. The U.S. wants the U.N. to be run more like a business, with business processes and management goals, Bolton said in a talk(11) he gave at Columbia University in April 2006. Other nations differ.

Describing how the U.N. differs from a business organization, in a talk also given at Columbia University, Choi Young-jin, the Ambassador to the U.N. from South Korea, explained that there are 192 nations belonging to the U.N. and "every one is on the board of governors."(12)

Choi maintained that you can't run an organization with 192 members on the board the same way you can run a business. While a business has a goal of generating profit, "the strongest point of the U.N.," Choi said, "is its moral authority. The focus of any reform has to be on that moral authority, not on 'efficiencies.'"

Another characteristic of the differences in the reform agenda of the different nations is the importance with which many nations view the need for a reform of the Security Council. In December 2006 there was a debate in the General Assembly about reform of the Security Council that drew 70 speakers and substantial proposals for changing its composition and working methods.

Subsequently at the first meeting(13) of the new year of the Security Council on Jan. 8, 2007, several of the non-permanent members raised(14) the need for Security Council reform. One nation's representative explained that the issues taken up by the Security Council should be more carefully chosen so they do not to encroach on the mandate of other U.N. organs. Similarly, he proposed that the Security Council should not fail to act in situations consistent with its mandate, situations that pose a threat to international peace and security, such as in the "Palestine-Israeli issue." Other issues raised during the Jan. 8 meeting included the desirability of involving regional and subregional groups in solving problems when feasible, that diplomatic solutions should be utilized before resorting to sanctions, and that nations like Iran and North Korea should not be denied the right to undertake research and development for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

This meeting was also Ban's first official meeting with the Security Council. He gave a brief presentation.(15) Though he spoke about U.N. reform, he didn't mention Security Council reform. Later at a press conference(16) with Ban's spokesperson, a reporter asked if Ban deliberately choose not to mention Security Council reform. The spokesperson responded: "I don't think it was deliberate. I think he is certainly interested in the issue -- definitely concerned about the issue. He has talked about it before, but as you know with Security Council reforms there was a proposal made, and now, it is in the hands of the Member States."

In general, the mainstream U.S. media provides little coverage of the controversy over reform at the U.N. Allegations of U.N. mismanagement, however, are pursued with a vengeance, just as they had been in the "Oil for Food" scandal.

More recently articles by Fox News(17) and in The Wall Street Journal(18) alleged that tens of millions of dollars of hard currency had been subverted by the government of North Korea from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and used to fund North Korea's nuclear program. Also the press reports charged that the UNDP had kept the scam secret. Fox News asked if Kim Jung Il "subverted the UNDP program" and possibly stole "tens of millions of dollars of hard currency in the process." In their article "United Nations Dictators Program", the WSJ alleged that "the hard currency supplied by the UNDP almost certainly goes into one big pot marked 'Dear Leader' which Kim can use for whatever he wants."

These allegations were made without any actual evidence to back them up, but just in time to coincide with the UNDP Executive Board meeting that was to approve the programs for 2007 and on. The result of the articles was to block the approval of the 2007-8 UNDP program in North Korea, and to exert pressure so that the Secretary General recommended an external audit of all U.N. programs, beginning with the North Korean UNDP program. Headlines alleging North Korean abuse of UN programs quickly spread in the U.S. and international media.

Subsequently, the U.N. announced that their audit plans were focused on North Korea. There is to be an external audit of all U.N. programs in North Korea. The audit is "to be completed by the Board of Auditors within a three-month time frame, as per the Secretary General's proposal of 22 January 2007."

Both the U.S. and the Group of 77 supported Ban's candidacy for the position of Secretary-General. Now that he is in the position, he is faced with the ongoing struggle of contending forces over the U.N.'s reform agenda. How he will handle the different pressures is one of the important challenges he and the U.N. face in the coming months and years of his term.


(1) "Iraq war was illegal and breached UN charter, says Annan,"The Guardian, Sept. 16, 2004.
(2) "Kofi Annan Addresses Middle East Violence" (Transcript), The Washington Post, July 20, 2006.
(3) "Don't Ban Your Instincts, Ban Ki-moon," The Washington Post, Jan. 14, 2007.
(4) "Press Conference by Secretary-General-designate," Dec. 14, 2006.
(5) "Secretary-General's press encounter upon entering U.N. Headquarters following visit to Washington, DC" (unofficial transcript, New York, Jan. 17, 2007).
(6) "Spinning the Moon," The Guardian, Jan. 18, 2007.
(7) The Washington Post, Jan. 12, 2007.
(8) "John Bolton: UN Reform Remains Vital But Unlikely," Human Events, Jan. 22, 2007.
(9) U.N. General Assembly document, Sept. 15, 2005 (pdf file).
(10) "A Commentary on
'Renewing the United Nations: A Programme for Reform,'"
policy brief prepared by the South Centre at the request of the Group of 77.
(11) "John Bolton Says Proposed UN Reforms Do Not Go Far Enough," Columbia News, May 31, 2006.
(12) "Conceptual Framework for International Relations," OhmyNews International, April 24, 2006.
(13) U.N. Security Council document, Jan. 8, 2007.
(14) "States Call for Security Council Reform," OhmyNews International, Jan. 10, 2007.
(15) "Secretary-General's remarks at the Security Council meeting on Threats to International Peace and Security," Jan. 8, 2007.
(16) U.N. Spokesperson's news briefing, Jan. 8, 2007.
(17)Fox News.
(18) "United Nations Dictator's Program,"RealClear Politics, Jan. 19, 2007.

This article appears in Telepolis
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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