Step forward, Ban Ki-moon

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Series Details 12.10.06
Publication Date 12/10/2006
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On Monday 9 October the UN Security Council formally nominated South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon as the next secretary-general of the United Nations, to replace Kofi Annan who steps down at the end of the year. The only previous Asian incumbent was Burma’s U Thant from 1961-71.

The secretary-general is appointed by the UN General Assembly although the reality is that the candidate must have the seal of approval of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC). Some of the permanent members have used their veto in the past, most recently the US opposing an extension of Boutro Boutros-Ghali’s mandate in 1997.

In the past, back room discussions generally ensured the nomination of a single candidate, usually from a small- or medium-sized power and with little prior reputation, who was appointed by acclamation for a five-year term. While high-profile leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are frequently touted for the job, these are always rejected as unpalatable to some governments. In addition, informal rules often influence the selection process. Nationals of permanent members of the Security Council are not put forward for the post as it is feared this would give that country extra influence.

Although there is technically no limit to the number of five-year terms a secretary-general may serve, by convention they serve two terms in office and are chosen on a rotational basis among the world’s geographic regions. There have been three secretary-generals from Western Europe, two from Africa, and one each from Latin America and Asia. While the practice of rotation has led to an Asian being selected this time round, there were rumblings that Eastern Europe has not fielded a secretary-general in the organisation’s 60-year history. Former Czech president Václav Havel and former Polish president Alexander Kwasnievski were both floated as possible candidates. Latvian President, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, was nominated at the last minute but she too found little support. No woman has ever been appointed secretary-general of the UN.

The UN charter provides little in terms of details regarding the selection process. Suggestions for reforming the process often arise prior to each new selection.

Most reformers point to the lack of clear criteria for the job and the absence of any process to evaluate the relative merits of the candidates, their approach to the office and their vision of the UN. Among the proposals which have been put forward are a fixed 5-7-year term, a formal search committee producing candidate lists, informal candidate panels or interviews, concrete timetables, and a standardised system of background checks.

The UN is currently embattled, rocked by the oil-for-food scandal and unable to agree on many of the major points put forward at the Millennium summit. Reform of the Security Council has stalled due to wrangles including China’s de facto veto of Japan and India and European failure to back Germany’s bid for a permanent seat. True, the new Human Rights Council has started operating but in a weakened state. The terms of reference for the proposed Peacebuilding Commission remain contentious. The internal management reforms have stalled causing the US to threaten again to withhold its budget contributions. One proposal gaining ground is to have a deputy secretary-general for internal management of the UN.

At the same time the UN is involved in more peacekeeping operations - currently 19 - than at any time in its history. The UN played an important role in ending the Lebanon conflict and remains a key player in disputes ranging from Cyprus to Kashmir. UN agencies are leading international efforts in areas as diverse as the environment, health, poverty, humanitarian assistance and tackling the spread of weapons of mass destruction. It may well be confronted with the highly sensitive Iran dossier in the coming weeks. It is a daunting agenda for the next secretary-general.

Asia and the UN

An Asian head of the UN reflects the shift in international power towards Asia and could increase respect for the UN in the region. The two Asian mega-states - China and India - with nearly two and a half billion people between them, have been among the fastest growing economies over the past decade. The major Asian powers, however, have had an ambivalent relationship with the UN. It is estimated that about 70% of the secretary-general’s time is spent on the Middle East and Africa.

None of Asia’s major security challenges - a divided Korea, Taiwan, Kashmir - is discussed in the Security Council. The strict view of state sovereignty adopted in most Asian capitals and the emphasis placed on the norm of non-interference keeps the UN at arm’s length. The silence from Asia on the reform of international institutions speaks volumes.

The three major Asian powers have complicated relations with the UN. China, which took over Taiwan’s seat in 1971 in a major diplomatic victory, has moved from a generally low-key defensive attitude towards a more outward and active role in today’s UN. Japan is the second largest contributor to the UN regular and peacekeeping budgets, leading some critics to allege that Japan is trying to buy a seat on the Security Council. Japan has also sent increasing numbers of its forces to UN peacekeeping missions (Cambodia, Mozambique, East Timor). But its aggressive behaviour in the 1930s and 1940s and the continuing controversy over its history books and official visits to the notorious Yakusuni shrine have made it easy for Beijing to block Japan’s Security Council aspirations. Japan was also disappointed at the lack of support from other Asian nations. While professing a commitment to multilateralism, India has always been selective in its approach to the UN, refusing to allow it to become involved in conflicts in its neighbourhood (Kashmir and the dispute with Nepal). Indian views of the UN were further soured when the Security Council unanimously condemned New Delhi’s nuclear test in 1998. At the same time, India is one of the major troop contributors to UN peacekeeping operations.

The emergence of new threats in the region - including infectious diseases (in particular bird flu, SARS and AIDS), resource scarcity, environmental catastrophes, trafficking in drugs and people and state failure - have increased the salience of the UN’s operations in the region. Asian capitals have traditionally been more open to international co-operation in these areas than in the realm of hard security, and as these threats increase so will the work of the UN and its specialised agencies.

It is regrettable that there has been no real debate about the qualities required to lead the UN in 2007 as opposed to following traditions established in 1945. The secretary-general is formally the chief administrative officer of the UN but the charter also accords him implied political powers. Kofi Annan has made use of these powers, intervening when possible in conflict prevention and peacekeeping situations. Within inevitable limits, Annan has sought on occasion to speak over the heads of government directly to the world’s citizenry. The major powers will wish to ensure that the next secretary-general is not too outspoken but on occasion they can miscalculate. Ban Ki-moon’s background would indicate a cautious approach but he may surprise us all.

An Asian secretary-general should provide the opportunity for a re-launch of the debate on multilateralism in Asia, a debate that the EU should contribute to. But this pre-supposes a greater effort by the EU to speak with one voice in international affairs.

Ban Ki-moon

The 62-year-old Ban Ki-moon defeated four other serious candidates, all Asian, including two UN insiders from India (Shashi Tharoor) and Sri Lanka (Dhanapala Jayantha), and the deputy prime minister of Thailand (Surakiart Sathirathai). Although many assumed that a Korean could not lead the UN while the peninsula remains divided, Ban’s supporters argue that the continued separation of north and south gives Koreans a unique understanding of the complex issues that the UN faces. Certainly the government in Seoul has lobbied assiduously for the job with particular attention on Washington and Beijing. The US seemed to have accepted Ban Ki-moon following the meeting between President Roh Moo-hyun and George W. Bush last month. China has raised no objection to the veteran Koran diplomat who has an intimate knowledge of the UN, having served there as ambassador.

  • Fraser Cameron is senior adviser to the European Policy Centre. He writes here in a personal capacity

On Monday 9 October the UN Security Council formally nominated South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon as the next secretary-general of the United Nations, to replace Kofi Annan who steps down at the end of the year. The only previous Asian incumbent was Burma’s U Thant from 1961-71.

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