For Ban Ki-moon, the past few weeks have arguably been the most dramatic he has encountered since becoming United Nations secretary-general nearly four years ago. In Côte d’Ivoire, UN peacekeepers are guarding the internationally recognised winner of this month’s presidential election while the country slides toward chaos. Meanwhile, in New York, the Security Council spent Sunday locked in fruitless debates on the simmering Korean crisis.
Ban, as South Korea’s former foreign minister, can do little to shape the council’s discussions of his home country’s security. He has based his tenure on maintaining good relations with both Washington and Beijing, and taking a forceful stance on the Korean situation would alienate one or both. Ban must focus on Africa instead.
That doesn’t just mean Côte d’Ivoire, though. Ban and his advisers are painfully aware that another crisis is in the making in South Sudan, which is slated to hold a referendum on independence from Khartoum on January 9. Unless the poll is delayed or rigged, it will almost certainly result in a vote for independence. The resulting tensions could tip into major violence, either immediately or later in 2011.
Ban has his detractors, but I found a lot to praise in his performance last month:
Ban has so far handled the Ivorian crisis well. He was quick to recognise the electoral victory of Alassane Ouattara over President Laurent Gbagbo, speaking out days before the Security Council could agree on a statement. This weekend, he flatly refused a demand by Gbagbo to pull UN forces out of the country.
Ban knows that Western and African governments are solidly on his side in this case: Even China backs Ouattara’s cause. Nonetheless, his firm line is a welcome break from his frequently stated preference for soft-spoken diplomacy. Ban’s many critics, both inside and outside the UN, believe that he tends to equivocate and has too little interest in the UN’s peace operations. He has raised his game.
Rather than address (or even mention) the Ivorian crisis and its wider implications or refer to Sudan (or anywhere else the UN is managing crises, for that matter), Ban’s piece maunders on about the “conventional wisdom” that the UN is useless and losing ground to the G20. The article climaxes thus:
Forty years ago, a great American statesman, Dean Acheson, looked back at the excitement he felt in helping to build the post-World War II order. Present at the Creation, he called his memoir.
Today, we find ourselves at an equally exciting moment, no less critical to the future of humankind. We, too, are present at a new creation. And the UN must constantly recreate itself as well. We must evolve and keep pace with a rapidly changing world. We must be faster and more flexible, efficient, transparent and accountable. In an age of austerity, resources are precious; we must make every dollar count.
People everywhere live in growing anxiety and fear. There is near-universal loss of trust in institutions and leaders. Amid such uncertainty, our future depends on a UN that brings together the countries of the world not only to talk and debate, but also to agree and to act; that mobilises civil society, business, philanthropists and ordinary citizens to help the world’s governments solve current problems; and that delivers peace, development, human rights, and global public goods – in a word, hope – to people around the world every day.
This is all very nice (or possibly just utter nonsense) but who on earth thought this was a good line to pursue at this particular moment? Yes, “people everywhere live in growing anxiety and fear,” but I imagine that Ivorians are more anxious and fearful than the global average right now. And while it’s great that the UN wants to deliver “hope” worldwide, I’m inclined to think that the hopes and fears of the people of South Sudan take precedence over those of, say, the good folk of San Marino.
So why didn’t Ban address the nastiest problems on his agenda? He is, as I noted in my piece last month, instinctively cautious when it comes to big crises:
Ban admits he is not the greatest orator, but he will need to speak out on Sudan. He should take comfort in the broadly positive reception that his statement on Côte d’Ivoire received.
In that spirit, I think it’s time to say this: Man Up, Ban Ki-moon!
(Or, as Ban is rightly a great defender of gender equality: Person Up!)
Of course there are multiple dilemmas facing the UN. Of course it faces challenges from other institutions like the G20. But today, the greatest threat to the UN’s credibility is not the G20 but Laurent Gbagbo in Abidjan. And as the year unfolds, the UN’s reputation will be defined by events in Sudan. The UN Secretary-General needs to be all things to all people – that comes with the job – but political reputations are made by seizing crises. Ban has done a better job than expected on that front in the Ivorian case. He should not shy away from talking and writing about that.