Can UN wrest control from US and Other 4?

July.09 : At the midway point of his term, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is facing a stern test, with murmurs in New York and world capitals growing about his eligibility for the traditional second term. The rebuff he received from the ruling military junta in Burma in turning down his request for a meeting with the Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi facing trial has done nothing to enhance his reputation.

The UN Secretary-General’s post is one of the most impossible jobs in the world, but the understated personality of Mr Ban and his propensity for globetrotting have compounded his difficulties. He has received low marks in reforming the gargantuan UN set-up in New York and has invited criticism for his inability to forcefully articulate the problems his organisation faces and in conceptualising the crises around the world.

Looking back on the year 2008 last December, Mr Ban said it was a "year of multiple crises" and described his organisation’s record as mixed. He said it was up to the member states to decide whether he should have a second term, declaring, "It’s just impossible. I need more support. I need more resources of the member states".

One problem is that the United States as the pre-eminent power and the largest contributor to UN resources wants a pliable man in the Secretary-General’s post. The experiences of Mr Ban’s two predecessors are instructive. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, perhaps the most brilliant of recent Secretaries-General, was blackballed by the Clinton administration because, although willing to give the US its due, he refused to run the organisation for the benefit of one member.

Kofi Annan, a UN insider, was the American favourite to succeed Mr Boutros-Ghali and he repaid the debt not merely by favouring the American approach to then Balkans crisis but also endorsed the problematic concept of "humanitarian intervention" unveiled by Washington before the 11-week bombing run over Yugoslavia without UN sanction.

But Mr Annan did have a presence, appeared unflappable and developed a spine towards the end of his second term knowing that he had nothing to lose. Washington chose Mr Ban as his successor precisely because of his personality traits and his pliability, belonging to a country that was a military ally. It was foolish of India to endorse Shashi Tharoor, who was losing his job of under-secretary general, and was seeking a parachute to return to home ground after a long spell abroad.

The contradictions in the UN Secretary-General’s job description are apparent. When UN member states at a summit famously asked Mr Boutros-Ghali to frame a bold vision for the future, he took them at their word and gave an admirable blueprint proposing, among other things, that the Secretary-General should have funds and earmarked national forces quickly to respond to crises. The permanent members poured cold water over the proposals and nothing changed. And in an inimitable description of the job, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, commenting on Mr Ban’s failed Burma visit, called him the "international figurehead who best embodies them (UN principles)".

Indeed, a Secretary-General has as much power as he can wrest from zealous member states (those who count) and speak over the heads of the P-5, as his wide international community knows the five permanent members. The paradox is that no man in the post can be effective without the cooperation, however grudging, of Washington and yet he must outmanoeuvre the US to be faithful to all member states, particularly the smaller and weaker members.

Before he set out for Burma, the UN Security Council was split between those against the visit (the US and France) and Russia and China supporting the venture. Perhaps Mr Ban was betting on the fact that a high-profile visit while Ms Suu Kyi was standing trial would force the military junta’s hand, opening a window for the Opposition leader to the outside world. In the end, the sceptics were proved right, and Mr Ban ended up looking like a supplicant to the State Peace and Development Council. His previous Burma visit after Cyclone Nargis did yield results in persuading the junta to allow international aid to mitigate a natural catastrophe.

Mr Ban’s Burma setback comes after his much-criticised visit to Sri Lanka following the defeat of the Tamil Tigers on the battlefield. Many in the West, including non-governmental organisations, criticised him for not visiting the displaced Tamils in camps outside of symbolic conducted tours and being lenient towards the government in Colombo over the controversial civilian deaths.

Left to them, the United States and, to a lesser extent, the other permanent members always prefer what Mr Brown calls a figurehead. If an effective Secretary-General appears, it is so only by stealth. Consider the two greatest Secretaries-General, Dag Hammarskjoeld and Boutros-Ghali. In the first case, Washington thought it was voting for a safe Scandinavian bureaucrat who would do its bidding on important matters only to discover when it was too late that the bureaucrat had a will of his own and a vision for an international organisation with immense possibilities. Hammarskjoeld’s untimely death cut short the promise of the United Nations taking the high road.

Mr Boutros-Ghali too appeared a safe pair of hands to Washington, belonging as he did to a country beholden to the United States for brokering a peace treaty with Israel and receiving some $2 billion a year in annual assistance. In office, Mr Boutros-Ghali sought to do his job conscientiously and honestly, taking the interests of all member states into account. In his memoir, he has made amply clear how Madeleine Albright, then the US representative, struck up attitudes instead of arguing her case. Although he was willing to defer to America’s special status, he refused to be bound head and foot by Washington’s interests negating the interests of all other members.

Perhaps Mr Ban will write his own memoirs at the end of his term, but he faces a difficult time during the remainder of his first term to convince the world that he can surmount the built-in constraints of his office to wrest the initiative from Washington and other heavyweights.

S. Nihal Singh

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