Tough-minded new chief for UN

As a “nervous and thrilled” Ban left South Korea for New York last week, Wolfgang Hoffman said the sceptics had misread Ban.

“He can be tough and knows his mind,” asserted Hoffmann, who was executive secretary at the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) when Ban chaired the Vienna-based body in 1999.

People should not interpret his “soft approach” as a sign of weakness, said Hoffman. He recalled that Ban was “very result-oriented”, with “an analytical mind, and could see through people and situations very easily”.

When Ban takes over from Annan in January 2007, he will be the eighth secretary-general in the UN’s 60-year history and the first Asian to occupy the office since U Thant of Burma, who held the post from 1962 to 1971.

The new UN head is a quiet worker with a consensual style, according to Hoffman. He pointed out that Ban assumed chairmanship of the CTBTO when efforts to raise the profile of the body were underway, the Test Ban Treaty was only three years old and few countries had ratified it.

“He did help to build up the CTBTO; he showed leadership as he went around lobbying for support from other states,” said Hoffman. He felt Ban would again be able to draw from a pool of “calm inner strength” in leading the UN.

Jo-Ann Koch, personal assistant to Ban when he was CTBTO executive secretary, remembers his fondness for classical music: “He used to attend concerts here in Vienna quite regularly.”

Almost a decade later, Koch still remembers Ban as “kind and caring”, and the only official ever to have thanked her with a gift ‘ “a silk scarf”.

At a recent UN Press corps briefing, the incoming secretary-general provided a glimpse of a calm and balanced individual who could adopt a strong position when the need arose.

Spelling out his approach, he said: “I have always been saying that we need to take a two-pronged approach. While we take sometimes a bit strong and stern positions, there needs to be always room for dialogue. It is absolutely necessary. I think that is what diplomacy is for.”

Ban, 62, grew up while Korea was at war with Japan. The South Korean government used its success in dealing with a conflict-ridden past as motivation for Ban’s candidacy for the top UN job.

“In the process of building the 11th-largest economy in the world upon the ruins of war, of surmounting authoritarian rule to realise democratisation, we overcame many of the challenges in nation-building, development, and peace and security that the global community is faced with in many corners of the world today,” said the South Korean government at its official announcement of Ban’s candidacy.

After graduating from the Department of International Relations at the Seoul National University in 1970, Ban gained his masters in public administration at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

He first considered a diplomatic career after he met former United States President John F. Kennedy while visiting the White House in 1962 as an 18-year-old student on an American Red Cross programme. His home town of Chungju in Chungcheong province was apparently so proud of his selection to the programme that a local girls’ school sent him on his way with traditional symbols of good luck. One of the students who presented him with bamboo strainers, Yoo Soon-taek, became his wife.

Ban reportedly has a wry sense of humour. When he enrolled at the Kennedy School in 1983, he introduced himself as JFK. When eyebrows were raised, he said: “Just From Korea.”

Ban’s first overseas posting was in New Delhi, but he later served in Washington, at the UN and in Vienna before becoming South Korea’s foreign minister in 2004.

Sam Daws, executive director of the UN Association-UK, an independent authority on the world body, said Ban brought a reputation of “calm confidence, astute judgment and quiet but effective political achievement” to the job ‘ qualities he will need to articulate a clear vision of the organisation.

Ban said his first priority would be to rebuild trust among all stakeholders, and the second to keep ongoing reform of the secretariat management on course. But a comment last month in the “New Yorker” magazine that Ban would not even apply the word “genocide” to Rwanda, stirred up controversy and upset Rwandan Foreign Minister Charles Muligande, who accompanied Ban last year to the genocide memorial outside the Rwandan capital, Kigali. If the “New Yorker” had not “misquoted” Ban, he said, the comments were “shocking ‘ he (Ban) can’t be saying this”.

Muligande said he found it “hard to believe” that Ban could have turned into a genocide denialist, because “after he (Ban) visited the memorial, he had commented that he couldn’t believe how the UN had failed to take action to prevent the genocide”. Ban had come across as a “kind and caring man. One of his daughters works for one of the UN agencies (the UN children’s fund, Unicef) in Sudan, and I understand he follows the situation (in Sudan) quite closely”. Ban has another daughter and a son from his decades-long marriage to Yoo.

Ban’s office is yet to respond to the New Yorker, but at a Press briefing this month in Seoul, the South Korean capital, he acknowledged that the UN had mishandled crises in Africa, such as the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which about 900,000 people were killed in just over three months, according to Rwanda’s government, and went on to pledge his full attention and passion to solving Africa’s problems.

The incoming secretary-general also sought to allay concerns that Africa would slide from the UN agenda after two of his predecessors from the continent, Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Annan, had run the world body since 1992. “I feel strongly attached to the African continent,” Ban told four African presidents at the first Korea-Africa Forum. “I will literally pour my attention and passion towards Africa to resolve the problems inherent on the continent,” he promised.

“It is vital that the UN under Mr Ban’s personal leadership keeps up the momentum on Darfur,” said Hilary Benn, UK Secretary of State for International Development. “I urge him to show the same commitment and tenacity as Kofi Annan to resolving the crisis . The conflict has gone on for far too long, and it is time to bring this tragedy to an end.”

Daws said Ban’s first official visit should be to Africa, where most of the UN’s peacekeeping operations are and where the risk of failing to achieve the Millennium Development Goals is greatest.

Ban received strong support from the US during his election campaign, representing an “auspicious start in his relationship with an indispensable member state and the UN’s major funder”, said Daws, but the new secretary-general would have to reassure developing countries, “many of whom are sceptical about US intentions towards the UN, that he understands their concerns and priorities”.

However, according to the BBC, analysts have pointed to the support Ban has received from China, which suggests that the Asian giant may feel he would counter US influences.

On his arrival in New York, Ban met Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, president of the UN General Assembly, an office he knows well, having served as chief of staff to one of her predecessors. His mission at this time, he told reporters, was to take charge of the transition period.

Ban has indicated that he will choose a new team; most of the UN’s top officials ‘ the under-secretaries-general ‘ have contracts that will expire at the end of January 2007. ‘ UN/Own/IRIN.

December 2006
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