x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

UN chief's subtle style under fire from critics

As the UN's annual meeting of world leaders draws to a close, commentators have turned their sights on the low-key leadership style of the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

UNITED NATIONS // As the UN's annual meeting of world leaders draws to a close, commentators have turned their sights on the low-key leadership style of the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. During his 21 months in the job, South Korea's former foreign minister has demonstrated a markedly different approach to global diplomacy to that of his charismatic and sometimes outspoken predecessor, Kofi Annan. An article in The Washington Post this week accused the UN chief of "straining to make his mark as a diplomatic peacemaker" after slow progress in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Myanmar and other trouble spots. Mr Ban recently acknowledged that his subdued approach perhaps contributed to a lack of recognition of UN achievements. "I'm just seen as invisible," he said in an interview with The Washington Times. A case in point concerns his attempt to bring pressure on Omar al Bashir, Sudan's president, to negotiate with rebels in Darfur and accept a joint African Union and UN peacekeeping mission and political settlement. In the event, violence continues in the western province, talks have stalled and the blue helmet deployment is behind schedule. And attempts to charge Mr Bashir with genocide in an International Criminal Court trial are making Mr Ban's job more difficult. The UN chief's attempts to get Myanmar's generals to reform the country and release thousands of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate, have also met with limited success. Little progress has been achieved during the General Assembly fortnight, and the lack of success during the August visit to Myanmar by Mr Ban's envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, was underlined by Ms Suu Kyi's refusal to meet the UN representative. During Zimbabwe's election crisis, in which Robert Mugabe vied for president against his more popular rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, the UN was sidelined by negotiations led by African leaders. Critics compare Mr Ban unfavourably with Mr Annan, whose 2004 declaration that the US-led invasion of Iraq was "illegal" represented a more audacious claim than any statement from his successor. The Ghanaian diplomat's approach during his term as secretary general is often defined by a reference to his high-profile trip to Baghdad in 1998 for talks with Saddam Hussein, then Iraq's president, which temporarily averted a US-led air war. Mr Annan's trip was reminiscent of the style of the UN's most memorable secretary general, the Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld, who jetted around the world for talks on a succession of crises between 1953 and his death in a plane crash in 1961. As well as drawing criticism from outside, Mr Ban has been under fire from within his institution. His attempts to reform what many argue is a bloated bureaucracy have not won unqualified support from staff. During a retreat for senior UN officials in Turin, Italy, in August, the secretary general was reported to have told team members: "We waste incredible amounts of time on largely meaningless matters." Mr Ban, 64, added that his attempts to streamline the body had not been adopted by his staff, saying: "I tried to lead by example. Nobody followed." The secretary general's supporters, however, describe the UN boss as a tireless diplomat who took part in 172 bilateral talks and other engagements while 75 heads of state converged on Manhattan for the annual UN summit. Mr Ban's hectic schedule often includes breakfast discussions and late-night meetings, and he spends many weeks each year overseas meeting statesmen and addressing conferences. Admirers say he conducts tough diplomacy from behind closed doors, but prefers to avoid embarrassing leaders with publicly critical statements. Robert Orr, the secretary general's policy and strategy chief, describes his boss as "more active in the key issues of the day" than his predecessors, citing such subjects as climate change, food price hikes and water insecurity. "What is being written about is a perception, not necessarily the reality," said Nicholas Haysom, the UN chief's political adviser. "He issues statements, he is very visible, he works extremely hard. No one has contested that, so it is not the visibility as such, it is the perception of visibility." Mr Ban is only about one-third of the way through his five-year term in office. There has so far been little discussion about whether his mandate, like Mr Annan's, will be extended to a second term. While critics say the incumbent compares poorly with his predecessor, insiders note that Mr Annan was himself relatively restrained upon assuming the post and evolved into the character for which he is remembered. For Mr Haysom, the global power balance has already shifted, and what was a successful formula in the 1990s would bring little benefit to the UN in Mr Ban's era. "The times in which we now operate and the challenges that face the world and, accordingly, the United Nations, require of a secretary general and challenge his capacity to forge alliances, unities and to make the world work together in global alliances," Mr Haysom said. "What that might require, it's up to people to judge whether Kofi Annan ? or the Ban Ki-moon approach, which is often characterised as diplomacy, is better suited. But the world itself has changed, and the ? UN must change with it." jreinl@thenational.ae