Ban Ki-Moon: the best of all available options

Few sing the praises of Ban Ki-Moon, the Korean secretary-general of the United Nations, but it is difficult to find someone who would be a better fit.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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In the more paranoid delusions of the American far right, the Secretary-General of the United Nations is a sinister figure bent on world domination with a secret fleet of black helicopters at his instant command. With a Persian cat on his lap, he would be a man more at home in a secret bunker on a tropical island than the crumbling modernist complex on Manhattan's East River.

Those who take a higher view of the United Nations entertain a slightly different fantasy. As the fleet of gleaming alien space ships descends, the Secretary General is the only man on the planet who truly answers to the command "take me to your leader." And then there is the reality. Ban Ki-Moon. Ban suffers from two deficits in both of these illusions: he is neither all-powerful, nor is he very popular. That is to say, he is neither particularly popular nor unpopular. As shades of grey go, he is without doubt bang smack in the middle of the colour chart. An éminence grise, although with rather less of the éminence.

This, of course, is exactly what was intended when the South Korean Mr Ban was given the job. His predecessor, Kofi Annan, was (depending on your perspective) charismatic or outspoken. Annan's opposition to the Iraq war did not endear him to the Americans, and the involvement of his son in the Iraqi Food for Oil scandal did more damage. It was the US, in the shape of the Bush administration, that pushed for Ban's election in 2006, helped by an unofficial consensus that it was "Asia's turn." Although in the early stages few backed him as the likely winner, he eventually secured the support of all five permanent members of the Security Council.

Still, there were rumblings of discontent from inside the UN from the start. On the eve of the Security Council vote, The Guardian newspaper in Britain quoted an anonymous official who described Ban as "Pretty faceless and does not have much charisma." Another questioned his lack of experience and authority on the world stage, saying: "It is going to be a nightmare." Yet four years later, Ban is still in the job. If he has not exactly made waves during his tenure, then neither has he sunk without trace. Given the intractability of most of the world's problems - Palestine, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, climate change, HIV etc - this might be regarded as an achievement.

Then, this week, the simmering discontent in at least some quarters from within the UN erupted in the open. Ban was returning from an aid conference in Kabul that he had co-hosted with the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, breaking the return leg of his journey in Abu Dhabi. It was here that aides probably brought him news of a 50-page memo leaked to The Washington Post. The author was Inga-Britt Ahlenius, a Swedish auditor whose title of under-secretary general of the Office of Internal Oversight Services made her responsible for the fight against fraud and corruption within the UN.

Mrs Ahlenius, who is leaving her post, did not pull any punches. Ban, she said, had undermined her authority by setting up a rival fraud unit and had blocked several key appointments to her own division. In the process, she question Ban's fitness to serve. "Your actions are not only deplorable, but seriously reprehensible, "Mrs Ahlenius wrote. "Your action is without precedent and in my opinion seriously embarrassing for yourself."

Under Ban, she continued, the UN secretariat was "drifting into irrelevance." She concluded: "Rather than supporting the internal oversight, which is the sign of strong leadership and good governance, you have strived to control it, which is to undermine its position." Those who rushed to Ban's defence pointed out that the author was an isolated figure who did not represent mainstream opinion in the organisation. At the same time, the memo echoed another attack last year, also leaked, from Mona Juul, Norway's UN ambassador, to her country's foreign minister.

Ban's handling of events in Burma and Sri Lanka had exposed him as "spineless and charmless", she wrote. "The Secretary-General was a powerless observer to thousands of civilians losing their lives and becoming displaced from their homes." What might be more fairly asked is whether it is Ban, or the UN itself, that is suffering from a credibility problem. Is he simply a scapegoat for idealists who still believe that an under-resourced and frequently undermined organisation can still set the world to rights?

Put it another way. Despite all the criticisms and reservations, is Ban still the best man for the job? The Secretary General was born in a small farming village South Korea in 1944, the eldest of six children, when Korea was still under Japanese occupation. The early years were tough; first his father's business went out of business, then the family were forced to flee during the civil war. Still, the young Ban did well at school and in 1962, at the age of 18, he won a Red Cross essay competition that allowed him to visit several US cities, including San Francisco, where he improved his English (although he still struggles for fluency). As part of the trip, he was introduced to President Kennedy, an encounter that is said to have inspired him to become a diplomat.

After graduating in international relations from Seoul National University, in 1970, with the highest grade in his year, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The following year he married his high school sweetheart, Yoo Soon-taek. The couple have two daughters and a son. At the foreign ministry, his nickname was Ban-jusa, losely translated as a low ranking, but meticulous, bureaucrat. Even in his early career, he seems to have gone out of his way not to cause offence or tread on toes. After being promoted ahead of 120 foreign ministry officials, he wrote letters of apology to each of them, explaining later: "With that, I was able to lessen the sorry feelings of my senior colleagues."

His first overseas posting was to Delhi; he chose India ahead of another position in the US because the lower cost of living meant he would be able to send more money home to his family. Rising through the ranks, he became ambassador to Austria in 1998, making here perhaps the biggest blunder of his career. As part of negotiations for the nuclear test ban treaty, he inadvertently praised the anti-ballistic treaty made with Russian in 2001 even though the Americans had decided to abandon it. To appease the Americans, Ban was fired.

Expecting to be posted to Siberia ( figuratively if not literally), he was instead given a senior job as chief of staff to Han Seung-soo, the Korean foreign minister who was serving as president of the UN General Assembly. In 2004 Ban became foreign minister, where he played a leading role in talks with North Korea. None of this made him an obvious candidate for the UN leadership, but his self-effacing personality and reputation as a conciliator slowly won him points among the major powers, to whom he was a familiar face from the negotiations between North and South Korea.

His instinctive nature to play down almost anything he is involved in has not helped his reputation as a leader. A quiet diplomat, almost to the point of being inaudible, his supporters would point out that he has worked ceaselessly behind the scenes to bring peace to the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iran. His detractors would point out that he has achieved almost nothing. In the Middle East, he has appeared particularly toothless. The Goldstone report, commissioned by the UN, and which reported evidence of war crimes by the Israelis in the assault on Gaza, appears to be going nowhere. The announcement of another UN inquiry into the deaths of nine people on the Mavi Marmara aid ship has also largely been received with indifference.

All this might lead some to conclude that Ban might once again find himself unemployed when the vote comes for his second term of office next year. Ban's response to the question is typically self-effacing: "If the member states want, I am ready to serve." Those who hope for a change might remember that of all the candidates last time, he was the only one that did not get a veto in the Security Council. He might not be everyone's first choice, but he is still the man most of the major powers can live with.