Ban Ki-moon hits the ground stumbling, but at least Kofi is gone

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By John Metzler

Wednesday, February 2, 2007

UNITED NATIONS — “My name is Ban, Not James Ban. I am not called the name of 007. But I will take my office in ’07,” the incoming Secretary General told correspondents on the eve of his elevation to the United Nations’ chief executive position. But Ban’s stint at standup humor to the contrary, his early tenure has not been marked by breezy jokes, softball press questions, and a purring secretariat staff at headquarters. More than a month into his job, it’s the gaffes and political faux pas which are driving the news cycle rather than Ban’s persistent pledge to restore trust in the global organization.

After the tragic sleaze and acrimony of the Kofi Annan era, one could assume that any new Secretary General would have an initial political bounce back before the realities of the job set in. Instead, Ban Ki-moon inherited a political and management imbroglio, whose political undertow continues to challenge all who come into its vortex. And it’s little help that staff morale remains poor, though sometimes too unforgiving.

It’s an open secret that Ban owes his post to strong lobbying from Washington and Beijing; both wanted the new Secretary General to be more of a “Secretary” than a “General.” But to say, as many staffers sneer, that “Ban is America’s man” simply is not on the mark with this inscrutable bureaucrat, who served as Foreign Minister in Seoul’s current left-wing government. That he was a career survivor in the arcane labyrinth of Seoul’s Foreign Ministry may lend more clues than his cautious steps in the media limelight at the United Nations.

Sadly in his first month in office, the Secretary General got off to a decidedly awkward start in some statements, political appointments, and policy moves. The Financial Times called it “Ban’s Month of Muddle.” Others described it as “he hit the ground stumbling.”

“Driving such criticisms,” according to an article in the Australian, “have been inept media performances and baffling senior appointments that have raised doubts about Ban’s ability to lift the UN from its organizational and cultural rut.”

But let’s look at a the record thus far. When asked his reaction to the hanging of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Ban carefully responded that the decision to use the death penalty is a matter for each UN member state to decide for itself. Though his initial reaction to Saddam’s botched, although fully justified, death sentence was correct, many observers, especially among human rights groups and a swarm of NGO’s, wanted a touchy-feely response about opposing capital punishment and probably a sideswipe at U.S. Iraq policy, rather than his implied declaration that “ding-dong the dictator is dead.”

Though being well disposed to having a South Korean as Secretary General, I feel that this affable man could hopefully bring the lessons of South Korea’s socio/economic success story to a developing world, which let’s face it, makes up the overwhelming majority of the UN’s 192 members states.

Still his famously fumbled appointment of Tanzanian Foreign Minister Asha-Rose Migiro as the UN Deputy Secretary General (his number two) has produced a gale of criticism. Keeping in Annan’s tradition who appointed a Canadian, Ban wanted a woman to fill the post. Fine. So select someone from an accomplished mid-level country such as Singapore, or let’s say Brazil, Latvia or Argentina. Instead to run the UN’s entire management operation, he curiously chose Minister Migiro from Tanzania, a country whose post-independence path to socialism best evokes what’s wrong with the Third World. Women from Nigeria and Uganda with impressive management credentials were bypassed.

The UN Development Programme’s (UNDP)human development index (2006) which globally rates a wide range of quality of life (health, education, income, economic, etc) issues, rates Tanzania among the lowest in the entire world at number 162 out of 177 comparators! Moreover Tanzania stands in the top ten percent of countries receiving foreign aid! And this is the model?

On a better note, Ban acted decisively when a perceptive piece in the Wall Street Journal uncovered a smoldering scandal involving North Korean aid program from the UN Development Programme. Millions of dollars in aid were alleged to have been a cash cow for Kim Jong-il’s communist regime — surprise! To his credit, Ban acted with alacrity using his cultural expertise with fellow Koreans and political damage control skills, to immediately call for oversights, investigations and audits of the affected agencies. Fully aware of the Iraqi oil for food scandals which sullied the UN and his predecessor, Ban did the right thing before the story could become a scandal (which it still could).

Importantly Ban is staying focused at finally solving Darfur’s deplorable genocide by pressuring Sudan to deal with the deteriorating situation. He just returned from his first overseas summit as Secretary General. And as it’s very early in his five year term, there’s still hopefully plenty of time for a honeymoon.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for World