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Ban Ki-moon: a Hero, or an Invisible Man?
Lee Arim  |
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승인 2016.12.01  18:41:27
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▲ Ban Ki-moon at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2011. Provided by the World Economic Forum
The eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) Ban Ki-moon, who has held office since 2007, is facing the end of his term. António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres, a Portuguese politician and diplomat, has been selected as the next Secretary-General, and Ban plans to return to Korea in January 2017. However, Ban’s performance in the role of Secretary-General has not been assessed favorably within international society. It is time to look back upon the last ten years and think about how the Korean society should judge Ban Ki-moon.
When Ban Ki-moon was first elected as Secretary-General in 2006, Koreans were thrilled to be represented by a prominent figure in international politics for the first time. He is still praised for his leadership, enough to be considered a potential presidential candidate after gaining a great deal of political support. However, was his success in making his way to the UN and in remaining in office simply the result of outstanding performance?
In periods when Ban was first offered the highest position in the UN, and when he was reappointed five years later, the Korean media offered his good-hearted character and enthusiasm for diplomacy as the key reasons for his selection. However, the general opinion is that he was chosen because there were no significant reasons for the member states to object. Experts assumed that the new Secretary-General would come from Asia because the continents usually take turns at leading the organization.
The Korean government provided significant support in the elevation of Ban to the head of the UN. The government gave up on becoming a non-permanent member of the Security Council, introduced Ban to leaders around the world, and promised the UN an extensive financial boost. It was expensive, but many Koreans welcomed the birth of an individual who proved that Korea was keeping up with the trend of globalization.
▲ The UN Emblem. Provided by the UN
Reflecting on the Last Ten Years of the Ban Administration
As the Ban’s reign at the top nears its end, many journalists worldwide have given their opinions regarding his performance. In articles from The Economist written in May, Ban Ki-moon was judged to be “a failure in both administration and governance,” and “the dullest—and among the worst.” Jonathan Tepperman of the New York Times pointed out the incompetence and passiveness of Ban in his article, “Where Are You, Ban Ki-moon?” in 2013. He said that Ban has been called a “powerless observer” and a “nowhereman” as he remained resolutely anonymous, in contrast to his predecessor Kofi Annan.
The major reason for this criticism has been that Ban has not fulfilled his duty as the head of the largest international organization in the world. The role of the Secretary-General is to control and arbitrate conflict between countries, and to raise awareness of neglected and isolated issues so that they can be put on the agenda for international society. However, he declined to tackle any grave issues.
▲ The Cholera Epidemic of Haiti. Provided by the UN
Ban Ki-moon has admitted that he removed the Saudi-led coalition currently bombing Yemen from a blacklist of child killers in the UN’s 2015 “Children and Armed Conflict” report, under the pressure from the Saudi government. After receiving much criticism, he explained his reason for the decision, saying that if countries start defunding the UN programs, more children would be in danger.
In response, Thomas Weiss, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, criticized him in an interview with OhmyNews. “He always wants everyone to like him. He does not attempt to irritate even the smallest countries, or the mid-size countries like Saudi Arabia. The only weapon the UN Secretary-General has is that, based on his high moral plane, he can let everyone know the issue. If he gives up on it, it is no different from being dead,” he said.
Also, Ban has been criticized for avoiding humanitarian responsibilities during the Haiti cholera epidemic, one of the worst outbreaks of disease in modern society. The cholera plague, which is known to have been caused by UN peacekeepers when they were transferred from Nepal to Haiti after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, killed more than 10,000 people, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
In 2013, Ban made a call to the President of Haiti, Michel Martelly, and told him that the UN was not willing to compensate any of the claimants. He quoted a convention laid down in 1946, which addresses immunity from legal action, as the basis of his claim. Ban visited Haiti in 2014, and mentioned that he would try to help Haiti eradicate the pandemic disease to fulfill his moral duty.
In addition to his obscurity, Ban has been criticized for his inappropriate speeches. During his visit to Algerian refugee camps in March this year, he used the word “occupation” to describe Moroccan rule in the disputed Western Sahara territory, from which Sahrawi people have been displaced. His statement, which should have been neutral on the matter, generated anti-UN sentiment in Morocco, and prompted Morocco to order the withdrawal of UN officers.

▲ A Ban addresses General Assembly in 2006.
B Ban appointed to second term in 2011.
C Ban visits Child and Maternal Health Hospital in India, in 2012.
D Ban visits Tomping Civilian Protection Site in Juba, in 2014.

Accomplishments in the Most Impossible Position in the World
Despite all the criticisms, Thomas Plate, the founder of Asia Media International, who has been in frequent contact with Ban as a journalist, praised Ban’s honesty and hard work. “In the political public arena, of the many VIPs access to which the profession of American journalism affords, Ban may be the single nicest person I have met. Yes, he is not charismatic, but he seems unusually honest, keeps his word 100%, and is an extremely hard worker,” he said.
Indeed, Ban has amassed some notable achievements working in “the most impossible job in the world”, which means that he has a lot of work to do and little discretion with which to do it. Though he was condemned for being too obedient to powerful nations, he did exhibit examples of strong diplomacy in his position. On October 20, 2016, Ban criticized the UN Security Council for neglecting Syrian civilians under the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Russia has rejected the council’s call for a ceasefire and provides military support for the regime. He also raised his voice in denunciating the bombing and blockade of Gaza by the Israelis and their settlements in the West Bank.
One recognized success has been the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, with Ban securing a global consensus to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and widely publicizing the issue of climate change. A similar attempt earlier in his tenure, the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009, was disrupted by a collision of interests. However, Ban’s continued efforts eventually led to a general agreement on the issue in 2015, one which became effective on November 4. He also helped to establish another policy initiative with Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in 2015, which aim to eradicate poverty and inequality throughout the world in the next 15 years.
Ban also fought for sexual minorities, stressing the need to ensure the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals. In 2014, he encouraged President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi to rescind the punishment for a gay couple who spent 14 years in prison. He revealed his wish that his successor be a woman as he supports the empowerment of women and hopes to eradicate the existence of glass ceilings for high-profile positions.
According to Plate’s evaluation on Ban, Ban did his best in a nightmarish job. Ban accomplished important goals with regards to many issues, such as the conflict over the climate agenda, entrenched sexism in bureaucracy, and the “intervention indecisiveness” of the Obama administration. He also set high standards for himself. This meant failure to meet expectations, like not improving the situation within the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), was as much of a disappointment for him as anyone else.
▲ E Ban speaks to unveil the HeForShe IMPACT 10X10X10 pilot initiative with Emma Watson, in 2015.
F Leaders’ Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, in 2015.
G Ban Addresses Climate Change Conference in Paris, in 2015.
H Ban Meets António Guterres, in 2016. All Provided by the UN.
The Possibility of Ban Marching Toward the Blue House
Ban’s professional experience as the Secretary-General of the UN made him to be nominated as a potential presidential candidate in Korea. Ban has not completely denied that he harbors such aspirations. “I understand that there are naturally some expectations from many people in Korea that I should make myself available for a better future of Korea that I am conscious of,” he said in his interview with Reuters on October 21.
However, there were voices of concern regarding Ban’s run for presidency. According to the UN General Assembly Resolution, the Secretary-General should refrain from holding a governmental position immediately after retirement. While many of his predecessors entered government four or five years after retirement, Ban’s presidential term would begin only a year and two months after stepping down from the UN. Thus, some may say his candidacy is in violation of the convention, but the resolution of the UN has no binding force, and there are no fixed standards for the phrase “immediately after retirement.”
Certainly, his predecessors have followed a variety of paths after they left office. Kurt Waldheim, the fourth chief of the UN, became the president of Austria, whereas the third chief U Thant worked as a senior fellow for the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs, writing about and advocating for the development of a true global community. Though Kofi Annan has been mentioned as the next president of Ghana, he founded the Kofi Annan Foundation in 2007 to promote better global governance and world peace, and has been helping with the management of the Syria-Kenya conflict.
▲ Ban Ki moon (second from the left) and Thomas Plate (first from the right) together.Provided by Thomas Plate.
While Forbes stated on November 4 that Ban is fit to lead for the next five years in Korea, Professor Weiss expressed feelings of uncertainty about Ban running for President. He said, “If I were the Secretary-General, I would work on solving more serious global issues rather than being the head of a single nation. But it is up to the individual’s choice to decide what he will do after the retirement.”
Looking back to the ten years of Ban’s regime, it is undeniable that he remained quite obscure and passive, failing to fulfill the expectations of him in 2007. However, considering the tough international conditions, with the world during his tenure full of terror and conflict, his establishment of a cooperative global environment is worth recognition. As the first Korean to take a leading role in global politics, he demonstrated the difficulties and limitations people from a relatively small country have once they enter the global stage. It is the role of Korean people to learn lessons from his experience and smooth the path toward the wider world.
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