New UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was known as “slippery eel” by journalists in his native South Korea for avoiding direct answers to difficult questions. But Ban landed himself in hot water on his first day at work over comments during a UN press conference about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s execution last week. Asked whether Saddam should have been hanged, Ban departed from traditional UN opposition to the practice by saying: “The issue of capital punishment is for each and every member state to decide.”
Ban’s spokeswoman said his opinion on the death penalty represented his own interpretations (LAT) rather than the UN’s stance. But despite his initial blunt comments with mass media, the former South Korean foreign minister has called himself a “harmonizer,” prized for his subtle style as he succeeds Kofi A. Annan. CFR Senior Fellow Lee Feinstein says Ban ultimately gained U.S. support during the selection process last fall because the White House “wanted an implementer, not a speechifier.” A new Backgrounder takes a look at the open-ended role of the UN secretary-general.
Century Foundation Senior Fellow Jeffrey Laurenti says the low-key Ban will likely please some conservatives rankled by Annan’s outspokenness. But Laurenti also says Ban may disappoint the Bush administration in other ways, such as his unwillingness to back down on aspects of the Millennium Development Goals set out at a 2000 UN summit. In a September interview with the Asia Society’s Nermeen Shaikh, Ban confirmed support for the UN goal that wealthy nations commit 0.7 percent of their gross national products (GNPs) to development assistance, a figure that both Democratic and Republican administrations have declined to sign on to.
In addition to development, Ban inherits several international crises. The most immediate concern is genocide in Darfur and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s resistance to allowing UN peacekeeping troops into the war-torn region. Ban said he will give his “highest attention” to the issue, and plans to meet with Bashir during an Africa Union summit in Ethiopia at the end of January. The secretary-general will also face conflicts in the Middle East, where the United Nations lacks the benefit of a regional partner like the African Union, says Columbia University UN expert Edward Luck in a discussion with the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh.
Ban’s experience working as Seoul’s negotiator in Six-Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear program could draw his office into a crucial role on that crisis. AsiaMedia columnist Tom Plate says that connection landed Ban the UN job. The first Asian to serve as secretary-general in more than three decades, Ban could also draw attention (European Voice) to other major Asian security issues, such as Taiwan and Kashmir, previously neglected by the Security Council, says Fraser Cameron, senior advisor to the European Policy Center.
But as the United Nations’ chief administrative officer, Ban’s mandates include taking over the UN reforms begun under Annan and restoring trust in an organization tarnished by the Iraq oil-for-food scandal. Patrick Cronin of the International Institute for Strategic Studies says the new leader is “taking the helm at an institution that increasingly appears to have lost its way.” While speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations last year before his selection to the post, Ban said the incoming secretary-general should “bridge the divide and rebuild the trust among [UN] memberships. This is critical for the success of the reform agenda and restoration of the United Nations’ vitality.”