With a cease-fire in Syria collapsing around him and bombs destroying precious relief supplies intended for the hungry, traumatized survivors of relentless government attacks on the once grand city of Aleppo, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used his last speech to open a UN General Assembly debating season to lash out at the government of Syria and its supporters.
“Many groups have killed many innocents, but none more so than the government of Syria, which continues to barrel bomb neighborhoods and systematically torture thousands of detainees,” Ban said on Sept. 20, in a rare outburst of anguish and anger from a secretary-general aimed at a member country in this most public of places, as the world watches. “Powerful patrons that keep feeding the war machine also have blood on their hands.”
“Just when we think it cannot get any worse, the bar of depravity sinks lower,” Ban continued. He did not mention Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, by name but said pointedly: “After so much violence and misrule, the future of Syria should not rest on the fate of a single man.”
And while Ban did not name Russia or its military either, he called the friends of Syria who bombed civilians and destroyed humanitarian aid “cowards” who have caused the UN to stop attempting to deliver lifesaving goods. He also said that “accountability for crimes such as these is essential.”
In late August, Ban took time for an interview during which he talked about the frustrations of working with UN member states in both the Security Council and the General Assembly, where procedural tactics and tricks could block steps in both international responses and internal management changes.
“Having served almost 10 years, I have learned a lot,” Ban said, as his second five-year term winds down by Dec. 31. A reserved South Korean career diplomat, Ban stepped into office in 2007 just as a series of unexpected global crises were beginning to unfold, taxing his reputation and that of the UN. That was the world he had to work with. Inside the UN, he said, he was frustrated by roadblocks to management reform erected virtually at the whim of member nations unable to grasp the meaning of consensus as a way to move forward. Much unfinished business would be left to his successor, Ban said. “The fires are burning still.”
He is bitter about criticisms of the UN under his leadership — not the first secretary-general to say that — especially the “America-centric” reporting by media in the United States, the UN’s host nation and most generous member, and to some extent by journalists in the UN’s international press corps. Successes are never news, he said.
“In the 1960s and 70s, there was a strong push about the monopoly of information by the West, and a strong push from the Third World that there should be some equitable flow of information between and among the countries,” he said. “But there has not been much progress. Even these days, most of the information is flowing from North to South.”
A UN secretary-general with no official plane or large traveling entourage at his disposal is invisible, he said. “For me, sometimes I have to wait six hours at the airport for another airplane. Then there’s undue criticism: the United Nations is not seen. What is the United Nations doing?”
Ban, who is 72, was no stranger to the UN (or to New York) when he was chosen as its eighth secretary-general. As Korea’s minister of foreign affairs and trade when he assumed office, he had 37 years of experience in diplomacy, national security and UN and American affairs. He served as the cabinet chief of a Korean UN General Assembly president in 2001-2002. In 1985, he received a master’s degree in administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and in the 1990s, he was chairman of a preparatory commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to curb and end nuclear testing.
Around the UN, he is often described as the American (George W. Bush’s) pick for secretary-general, but in Asia he is considered by some regional analysts to be a favorite of China, suggesting that it was a Chinese-American agreement in the Security Council that got him selected in 2006. As an expert in relations between North and South Korea, and a proponent of engagement with the north, Ban would likely envision China as central to future policy on the peninsula should he become the next South Korean president. He deflects questions about that subject.
At the UN, and generally in New York, Ban and his wife, Yoo Soon-taek, his companion since their high-school years, are not known as prominent socializers. His perceived self-absorption, low-key style and occasional stumbles in English have contributed to his aloof image: a man who prefers the company of a close circle of associates, many of them Asians. Is this image ethnic or racial stereotyping?
Kishore Mahbubani, a former ambassador of Singapore to the UN who is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore (and author of the book “Can Asians Think?”) suggested in an email that Western cultural arrogance may be involved. He calls the “Anglo-Saxon” media’s criticisms of Ban “cruel.”
In London, Dan Plesch, director of the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), wrote in an email that Ban was criticized for “not conforming to Western desires for film star charisma,” an attitude that, he added, “borders on racism against the slightly built Asian.”
When asked about these perceptions, Ban let those comments pass without responding. He is only the second Asian to occupy the secretary-general’s office. The first was U Thant of Burma, from 1961 to 1971. They were different people in many ways.
Ban was more interested in talking about his successes in the interview, on Aug. 26, as he prepared for the coming General Assembly opening in September, and also about the perplexing difficulties he encountered in working with an organization that resembled no other.
“Some issues, like the climate change agreement in Paris last year, was quite encouraging — the solidarity shown by the world community — but it has a long way to go still,” he said. Action on climate change was from the beginning Ban’s signature goal, his legacy. The evolution of public opinion worldwide on climate helped his cause but nations must still ratify the Paris Agreement. (For an update on its status, go here.)
“We have just agreed to a framework. This framework should be translated into action. It must be first of all 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. I convened a special summit meeting for Sept. 21 to really accelerate this process.”
“Same with Sustainable Development Goals,” he went on, taking credit for a new approach to framing international development policy. During his first year in office, he turned to rethinking the Millennium Development Goals, why there was not, in his view, much enthusiasm driving the agenda and how some targets were getting missed.
“I realized that there had not been much sense of ownership by the member states,” Ban said. “I appointed some global leaders [to] advocate. We had been holding a lot of regional conferences. In this process, I had been urging the developing world leaders to establish national organizations or agencies to monitor or oversee progress on the MDGs. We had been able to make some progress.”
He has more hope for the Sustainable Development Goals, formally adopted a year ago by member nations, which created the agenda for development from the ground up but handed down from the UN hierarchy.
“Now we have Sustainable Development Goals, adopted with the wholehearted support of member states. I’m much more hopeful, optimistic, that the SDGs will have a much faster implementation process [than the MDGs]. I have been asking, first of all in the G7, that they should lead by example: please establish your own national oversight or monitoring bodies under your direct leadership. Seventeen goals cover the whole spectrum of our life; therefore just one or two ministers cannot do it.”
His first positive response came from Japan. “Prime Minister Abe has established a Sustainable Development Promotion Headquarters,” he said. “I’m talking to all the developing country leaders and they are responding very positively. I have appointed an SDGs global advocates group, led by the prime minister of Norway and the president of Ghana. Twenty-two countries have already volunteered to be monitored by [other] member states.”
Turning to management, he talked of numerous hurdles he faced “to make this complex organization into a modern organization: more efficient, more effective, more accountable and more transparent.” He sees some progress.
“I have made many management reforms. First of all, when it comes to accountability, the ethics office is much strengthened. At the beginning of every year, I made sure that everyone above the rank of assistant secretary-general had to identify their priorities, and sign with me in person; and I established a performance review committee, which has been submitting [reviews of] the performance of our senior advisers every April. Those have become the basis of my extending or not extending the contract. We have to make sure that we are the example, showing a signal to the world.
“For the first time in 70 years, I have introduced this mobility system, which is now beginning to be implemented.” The system requires UN officials to rotate in and out of jobs with service in the field to prevent the sinecures for which the UN has been criticized. He has also called for voluntary financial disclosures by top staff.
“We have a General Assembly resolution that the appointment of UN staff should be based on personal merit and on equitable geographic consideration, and I added during my term gender balance. There was no such gender balance in the General Assembly. It is I who put that in as my own policy.
“On issues like the Syrian crisis and other crises where fires are still burning, I think we have to continue. . . . But [elsewhere] we have made some progress. For example, we see peace in Colombia. We see encouraging process in Cyprus. But this is really a very difficult time. I have been very conscious of what the many critics have been saying about the United Nations and why the United Nations has not been able to address all these issues.
“I’ll tell you something of my own personal reflections after 10 years. Sometimes there [is] criticism against this organization. But this organization is made up of member states: 193. It is a bit different from national governments and private companies,” he said, offering one concrete suggestion. “We can sharply reduce the current bureaucracies or decision-making if we really think about reforming the decision-making process, making a decision by consensus.”
He said that there was too much conflation of unanimity — a zero-sum game — and consensus, where there may have to be compromises. “So even a single country can block very good decisions and ideas.”
In the General Assembly, a sense of solidarity renders some delegations silent, though they may agree with a proposal from the secretary-general. “Then there’s only one or two who have a vocal voice,” he said. “That makes me angry.
“You know how long I got this mobility proposal adopted? Seven years! I had been speaking passionately, emotionally, to the member states, then only after seven years have they reluctantly agreed.”
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 chairman and a chief executive.
“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.”
In the Security Council, he said, there is not only the obstructive power of the permanent-five members with vetoes (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US), but also blocking tactics of nonpermanent members on how to report publicly on deliberations in presidential summaries or press statements, which rank in importance far below binding council resolutions.
“When it comes down to a presidential or press statement after discussions, every [one of the] 15 members has a veto power. One single country, whether they are speaking in their national interest or personal interest or some global [perspective] I don’t know.
“For example, when North Korea has launched a missile, the Security Council on several instances has not been able to do anything, even in a press statement,” he said. “I have been raising this issue to member states: If you continue like this, your authority will be challenged.”
“It is true that there are some political pressures,” he said, addressing the criticism surrounding some of his appointees. He said he had “been really sometimes firm with member states” in rejecting some nominees for good UN jobs. “There are many such cases where we have to almost fight and argue with member states.” Contracts of those who are appointed are reviewed against performance, he said.
Ban has been much stronger on social issues than is generally recognized. He has supported LGBT rights, though they are deliberately excluded from the Sustainable Development Goals because of pressure from homophobic governments and religious organizations beyond his control. He fended off an attempt in 2015, led by Russia and like-minded countries in the General Assembly, to reverse a decision by Ban to extend UN benefits to same-sex marriages. He has approved emergency contraception and other full reproductive health rights for women sexually abused in conflict areas or refugee camps, going beyond what the US can officially offer because of the influence of anti-abortion lobbies in Washington.
He has also stepped into controversial political issues, writing most recently an op-ed in The New York Times that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and expansion of settlements was viewed by young Palestinians as “harsh, humiliating and endless” and could lead only to more violence. In 2008, he talked his way into Burma, then under repressive military rule and closed to the outside world, to demand the right of the UN to send in relief supplies, which had been blocked by the generals after a devastating cyclone. In 2016, he admitted that the UN took Saudi Arabia off a list of killers of children in conflict, documented in the country’s attacks in Yemen, because of Saudi threats to cut off all humanitarian aid to other conflict areas.
Calling human rights “not just abstract ideas” but “the most powerful driver of peace and development,” Ban said in a General Assembly speech in July: “Some governments are sharply restricting people’s ability to exercise their rights, attacking fundamental freedoms and dismantling judicial institutions that limit executive power. Others are detaining and imprisoning human rights defenders and clamping down on civil society and nongovernmental organizations, preventing them from performing their vital work. . . . When does this end? The answer must be that it ends now.”
A longer version of the interview appeared in The Nation.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.