When South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon emerged as the Security Council’s pick to be Kofi Annan’s successor as Secretary-General he seemed like a reasonable choice even though he did not converse easily in either of the two working languages of the UN (English and French). The first inkling the UN Press corps had that he was an oddball was at their year-end black tie ball in the splendid Delegate’s Dining Room overlooking the East River, to which he was invited as Secretary-General elect. Following Kofi Annan’s graceful farewell speech he took the floor and proceeded to sing “Ban Ki-moon is coming to town” to the tune of the Santa Claus song, Things went downhill from there.
After Ban took up his new job in January 2007, a story in The New York Times noted that the Press corps in Seoul had nicknamed him “slippery eel”. Ban then took to referring to himself at Press conferences as the slippery eel, obviously trying to pull the sting of criticism with his openness. The strategy did not work, for his early days in office resounded with a number of high-profile controversies that reinforced his unflattering image. Nearly two years later, the controversies have been largely forgotten, but it is clearer now that issues of character and competence are real, and could stand in the way of any real reform of the United Nations.
Quid pro quo arrangements in personnel appointments have continued over the past two years. The most visible case was that of Gita Sen of India, who a search panel picked from a field of over 150 candidates to be appointed the head of UNIFEM, the UN Women's development fund. Sen has a sterling background in public policy (she teaches at the Indian Institute of Management at Bangalore and at Harvard), and is a respected activist on women's issues. The panel made its recommendation in November 2007, but nothing happened. Then after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had attended the Ibero-American Summit in Santiago, it was given out that he would initiate a fresh review of the six candidates the panel had short-listed before picking Sen. He set aside the panel's recommendation and chose Inés Alberdi of Spain. Non-governmental activists who had been looking forward to having a live wire at UNIFEM erupted in anger, charging that Ban had nixed the panel's recommendation because Spain had offered money for UNIFEM. One NGO representative told me: "The Spaniards have just bought themselves a UN job."
As an administrator Ban has proved to be secretive, building his own little clique of officials imported from the South Korean Foreign Service. Although brought in as members of his Executive Office (thus avoiding the normal recruitment process) they have been posted to key Departments as his eyes and ears, short-circuiting established hierarchies. The most senior of them was made deputy to the Secretary-General’s Chef de Cabinet, Vijay Nambiar of India, who was thus put in the unenviable position of being constantly second-guessed and sidelined by a Ban confidante.
In the years Ban has held office his reputation has been ground into the mud by repeated scandals involving high-level appointments, which he and his team seem to consider tradable chips in peddling influence. He has also suffered from an astonishing lack of communications skills. Journalists accompanying him on a visit to Libya had the opportunity to witness – out of earshot – a tete a tete between the Secretary-General and Mouamar Qaddafi. It lasted an hour during which Ban talked non-stop and the Libyan dictator, leaning forward at the beginning, slowly eased back until he was pushed back on the two legs of his chair as far as he could get.
On Ban’s first visit to the White House he told President George W. Bush that the “United States is the country with the most ability for technology and financing capacities.” The UN's partnership with Washington, he enthused “is the crucial and important element in carrying out my duty as Secretary General, and also making the United Nations organization more strengthened in carrying out the common challenges we share together.” The UN Press Office has dutifully issued the text of such statements with seemingly little regard for Ban’s public image.
A speech in Seoul to the Korean University Presidents’ Forum on Climate Change and Sustainable Development in Asia and Africa was titled “We can catch two birds – climate change and economic growth – with one stone.” The text contained numerous interesting observations. Sample: “Asia’s scholars should be taking their rightful place under a larger sun. And to the presidents of Africa’s great universities, I would say the same. Your voices should be heard. Your influence should be felt, far and wide. You are a force for social, economic and political advancement – a force for change – at home and within our world community at large. I often describe this as the age of multiple crises. Food. Fuel. Flu. Financial. Each is something not seen in years, even generations. But now they are hitting all at once. These crises are compounded by others of greater human dimension and consequence.”
The UN Press Corps has repeatedly brought out the songster in Ban. At an annual luncheon meeting of journalists to raise funds for the Dag Hammarskjold Scholarship Fund he prefaced a labored UN rendition of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” with the following: “A few of you have advised me that I should improve my technique in delivering remarks. Warren Hoge of The New York Times even told me I had a wooden style of delivery. I’d like to answer the charge by paraphrasing Elvis Presley. For you, the correspondents, breaking my heart in two is not hard to do. If you abandoned me, I know that I would cry – maybe I would die. After all, you were the first people I saw on the morning of my first day in office. It was always you from the start. And I’m not a man with a wooden heart. Nor do I have a wooden tongue. Let me prove it to you. Allow me to offer holiday greetings by borrowing from the traditional poem of the Season …” His recitation went down like a lead balloon but Ban seemed not to notice.
Notwithstanding his performance -- unquestionably the worst of any Scretary-General -- the Security Council unanimously gave him a second term in June 2011. The action, a good six months ahead of the end of his term, and without considering other candidates for the UN’s top job, was not seen by anyone as support for Ban. The primary reason he got a second term (2012-2017) was that Beijing – which is enormously pleased with his studied silence about the incarceration of the 2010 Nobel laureate – would entertain no replacement.