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Why the world is not over the moon on Ban

Last updated on: August 20, 2010 13:50 IST
T P Sreenivasan, a former Indian ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, identifies the issues that have made UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon such a controversial figure.

India suddenly remembered United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when an uncharacteristically bold statement about the failed India-Pakistan talks attributed to him was e-mailed by his spokesman.

What surprised Indian officials was the reference to the 'composite dialogue,' which is favoured by Pakistan, while India insists that the priority is dismantling of the terrorist outfits on Pakistan territory.

When India took up the matter with Ban's office, it turned out that Ban had not issued any such statement. The right hand did not know what the left was doing.

This was within weeks of a devastating attack on the secretary general by the outgoing chief of the UN's Oversight (audit and investigation) Division (OIOS), Inga-Britt Ahlenius for undermining her efforts to combat corruption and for leading the global institution into an era of decline.

Her 50-page, confidential, end of assignment report, which leaked to the press and published on several Web sites, characterises some of the secretary general's as 'not only deplorable, but seriously reprehensible.'

Ban Ki-moon is not credited with either charisma or global vision even by those who are responsible for projecting him in a favourable light. The best they say about him is that he is a man who attends to details and carries out instructions from the Security Council and the General Assembly, 'a carpenter rather than an architect.'

But the truth of the matter is that his term as the secretary general has been colourless to the extent that member States do not criticise him for any acts of omission or commission. With the major powers resorting to other fora for resolving global issues, the UN itself has become less relevant to the world today.

Even before the Ahlenius report came out, it was no secret in New York that Ban depends more on a coterie of Korean advisers than on the established structure of the secretariat for advice and implementation of instructions.

Transparency, accountability and reform that Ban had promised on his assumption of office have been absent and a culture of secrecy has been cultivated in his office.

The Ahlenius report not only confirms these impressions, but also reveals a bewildering array of actions by Ban's advisers to weaken institutions, particularly, the OIOS, which was created with an independent mandate to investigate corruption in the UN system.

Ahlenius catalogs a number of actions by Ban and his Korean advisers to stifle the OIOS and to deprive it of its integrity and independence. These may perhaps be seen as turf battles, to which departing officials refer in passing when they retire.

But the significance of her report is that it points out the larger issues of Ban's role and the rot that has set in, which she considers difficult to rectify. She believes that the moral authority of the UN is being eroded in the process.

The thrust of the report is that Ban has tried relentlessly to take over the OIOS's investigative functions for fear that an independent unit would bring out embarrassing truths.

The secretary general's office, on the other hand, can resort to selective investigations and take selective action without being accountable to the General Assembly.

She expresses frustration over her efforts to appoint a certain individual as the Director of Investigations which met with either objection or silence several times.

Ahlenius, a Swedish national and undoubtedly an admirer of Dag Hammarskjold, finds Ban a weak secretary general compared to Hammarskjold and Boutros-Boutros Ghali and points out that a weak SG weakens the system and strengthens the influence of the permanent members. This was to be expected as the P-5 (five permanent members) did not opt for any of the other candidates, who were likely to be strong, independent or innovative.

The only SG, who was offered a third term by some of the P-5 was Kurt Waldheim, who was reputed to have had a 'head waiter' image. Hammarskjold and Boutros Ghali, on the other hand, did not survive for long at the helm of affairs.

Hammarskjold died in suspicious circumstances and Ghali was denied a second term. By not performing the political role of the SG, Ban is playing into the hands of the P-5 and weakening the role of the rest of the membership.

Another allegation is that the most senior advisers to the SG, the Under Secretaries General (USGs), have been reduced to a group to take instructions and to implement them rather than to advise the SG before decisions are taken.

Their performance is monitored by people junior to them in the SG's office. No individual meetings are held by the SG with the USGs to discuss and follow up their spheres of activity.

This is indeed a sad state of affairs, particularly as most of them are people of his choice, many of whom he had known personally. She also alleges that, despite the air of secrecy, the SG's office is 'consumed by leaks', which must be a matter of satisfaction for those who need to know the facts.

Reform of the UN, ranging from administration to the expansion of the Security Council, is something that every SG is committed to. Ban's government is allergic to the expansion of the permanent membership of the Security Council, but he has stated that he will not be influenced by his national position.

But no one expects him to push for expansion. Even on administrative reform, he is said to have a narrow view. 'We do not do management here and reform, that is done', according to Won Soo Kim, a confidant of the SG.

Ahlenius has more to say about Ban's management style. Having changed everyone except one from Kofi Annan's executive office, he seeks comfort in the company of a small group around him.

'Being surrounded by these staff members, some of whom you knew well even before joining the UN may certainly give you comfort and confidence, but rather of an illusory character', she tells Ban.

Moreover, he lashes out openly against dissenting voices and dares those who do not like his style to leave. He has been giving only one year contracts to most senior colleagues to keep them on tenterhooks and, consequently, loyal.

Ahlenius is no ordinary official, who may be motivated by bureaucratic frustrations at the end of her tenure, but a highly respected individual, who is known for fairness and honesty. And that makes her criticism sharp and relevant.

She has also had sufficient experience of the UN system to qualify her to comment on the ills of the organisation.

The decline to irrelevance of the UN she refers to is not without a sense of its limitations and constraints as a world body.

Concern about the SG's lack of charisma, declining moral authority and ineffective leadership is widely shared in the diplomatic corps and the journalists within the United Nations.

Inter Press Service has characterised Ban having been beleaguered by the torrential criticism against him, particularly after the revelations in the Ahlenius report. Now there is documentary evidence of what was merely speculation and rumours.

At least one commentator has suggested that Ban should be denied a second term because of the allegations raised against him. But as long as the P-5 are satisfied with his functioning, Ban will continue as the secretary general.

South Korea, a country with a sense of determination and pride, will find any suggestion of denial of a second term to Ban extremely offensive. Honour is more valuable than life itself there.

The cloud, therefore is likely to clear sooner or later. It suits the P-5 to have a SG who rocks no boats, moves no mountains and confines his domination to his hapless victims in the secretariat.

Ban has already defended himself with vigour. 'If anybody or any member States within the UN system, or if any colleague of mine within the UN Secretariat, accuses me on the issue of accountability or ethics, then that's something I regard as unfair,' he said.

He added that he had personally ensured both accountability and 'the highest standards of ethics by the UN' and made 'unprecedented progress' on both fronts.'

India will get to know Ban closely when it enters the Security Council early next year. He has already shown that he does not want confrontation with India and we should be pleased.

As we grow stronger, we too will like a weak and inactive UN secretary general.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. He is currently the Director General, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, and a Member of the National Security Advisory Board.

T P Sreenivasan