October 6, 2006 | TCS Daily

Going South

Whatever else can be said of the United Nations, it is remarkably predictable. Later this fall the organization will anoint a successor to Secretary-General Kofi Annan who is due to step down after ten years. The UN's unique mélange of arcane diplomatic conventions, opaque institutional mechanisms, and jealously-guarded member prerogatives threaten to ensure a negative outcome for the search process.

According to the body's sacrosanct principle of rotating positions between the world's geographic regions, the next occupant of the 38th floor at Turtle Bay must be an Asian. According to informal rules, he or she must hail from a middling nation — for it is considered ill-advised to entrust the office's leverage to a citizen of a great power. Finally, and ironically — given the moral posturing by secretaries-general over the years — high profile candidates are almost always rejected as unpalatable, lest they bring with them into office enough stature to be able to shake up the UN's bureaucracy.

Since the UN Charter provides little guidance regarding the selection process and no provisions as to the qualifications of the organization's chief administrative officer, international consensus has settled on the “lowest common denominator” candidate for the job — usually a mediocrity. Take the current secretary-general: Annan was elected in 1996 largely because it was still Africa's “turn” after the Clinton administration signaled its intention to veto a second term for urbane Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Kofi Annan happened to be standing nearby.

Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life inspiration for the heroic character portrayed by Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda, devastatingly indicts the pre-1996 Annan in his remarkable memoir, An Ordinary Man:

“On January 11, 1994 [the commander of the UN troops Roméo Dallaire] sent a cable to his superiors in New York informing them of his intention to raid the arms caches…I believe it would have inflicted a devastating psychological blow to the architects of the genocide. They would have seen that somebody was paying attention and that genocidal actions would be met with reprisals. But the response Dallaire received from his UN bosses nicely summarized just about every cowardly, bureaucratic, and incompetent step this organization was to make in a nation on the brink of mass murder. Stockpiling weapons may have violated the peace accords, Dallaire was told, but going after them was “beyond the mandate” of the United Nations. But was instead encouraged to take his concerns to a man who surely would be the last one in the world to care: President Habyarimana. The UN official who directed General Dallaire to take this deferential action was the chief of peacekeeping, Kofi Annan, who would one day serve as secretary-general.”

The legacy of mediocrity continues.

The military coup in Thailand has essentially torpedoed the prospects of Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, who had been endorsed by the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) and purportedly backed by China. The man left standing, and current frontrunner for Secretary-General after the informal Security Council vote on Monday (which will be formalized next week), is South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon. In Mr. Ban the world body will have one-upped Kofi Annan: whereas on the eve of his election the latter had been guilty of past dereliction, the former stands before the world community in 2006 complicit in ongoing horror.

At a time when one of the major challenges to international security is Kim Jong-Il, the UN is set to get as its chief an appeaser of and apologist for the North Korean despot. From 1992 to 1995, Mr. Ban did a stand-up job as his country's representative to the Joint Nuclear Control Commission, established pursuant to the “Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” (a scrap of paper we now know the North Koreans never tried to honor). Then he was appointed national security advisor to the South Korean president. He obviously did well there too, and was promoted to the position of vice-minister of foreign affairs and trade just in time to be caught flat-footed by North Korea's 2002 admission that it had continued to pursue its nuclear program.

Nevertheless, Ban's career prospered, especially after Roh Moo-hyun ascended to the South Korean presidency with promises of even friendlier relations with the North. Ban became the new president's foreign policy advisor and, since 2004, his foreign minister. Since then, two milestones in particular stand out as indicative of the man.

In 2005 the UN General Assembly, in an almost unprecedented display of moral courage, actually passed a resolution censuring North Korea for “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” including “torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, public executions, extrajudicial and arbitrary detention, the absence of due process and the rule of law, the imposition of the death penalty for political reasons, the existence of a large number of prison camps, and the extensive use of forced labor” as well as “all-pervasive and severe restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion and expression.” Things have to get bad if international diplomats are willing to use words like those found in that resolution. Where was Foreign Minister Ban in the midst of this? Instructing his envoys to abstain, and sending out a spokesman to explain that his approach was necessary “for the sake of more urgent and important policy goals integral to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.”

Earlier this summer, as Kim Jong-Il's regime prepared to test its missiles, Ban's foreign ministry insisted that Pyongyang was only planning to launch a civilian satellite. When Kim decided to celebrate the Fourth of July by firing off seven rockets — all of which are fully capable of hitting anywhere in South Korea — Ban's government's turned its ire on those who made an issue of incident, criticizing “the creation of a state of needless tension and confrontation by the excessive reaction of certain parties” which would “not be conducive to problem-solving.”

Is this the mettle one is to expect from the eighth secretary-general of the United Nations? If so, it won't be long before we'll be looking back nostalgically at the relatively courageous “Annan era.”

J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University. Both are academic fellows of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Michael I. Krauss is professor of law at George Mason University School of Law.



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