Sometime very soon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban ki moon, is set to announce his intention to run for a second five year term. In this he is unlikely to face any serious opposition, although any good and proper election process should at the very least allow for serious reflection and debate. And in this it would do the Secretary General and the organisation he leads a serious disservice if there wasn’t that real debate about the role and purpose of the United Nations over the next five years.
Any large organisation actually needs some grit in the wheels, and the United Nations is no exception. Having been based there as a television correspondent a few years back, I have the utmost respect for those in the organisation and also those journalists who see their job as to test and to challenge. And many of the self same individuals are smart enough to spot the destructive forces that can be unleashed by those in the organisation who are motivated simply by self interest. A year ago, Ban ki moon was being assailed by some of these latter critics, finding it difficult to respond – quite rightly – in kind, and watching as some of the bigger Western media organisations reported all of this with such alacrity.
Doubtless some of this will be re-hashed in the days ahead. My hunch though is that it will have a tired and dated feel about it, because even some of Ban’s critics may acknowledge that the ground began shifting his way some months ago.
I interviewed him just before he assumed office and subsequently in the frenetic months that followed as he embarked on gruelling Middle East and African tours. Although English is not his first language, there is no doubt that the man has grown in stature in office and there is a confidence reflected in his refusal to simply be ‘biddable’. He has retained that self effacing humility that to many is one of his major appeals, but which also was mistaken in the early years for ineffectiveness. The early Ban operated as do many East Asian diplomats, quietly and without fuss, behind the scenes.
The United Nations Ban inherited from Kofi Annan was a slightly dishevelled, down at heel organisation, battered by the ‘oil for food’ scandals and from constantly being a target for elements of the Bush Administration. Of course Ban was seen by some as a safe pair of hands, an individual who could be trusted to do the bidding of perhaps the most powerful member, the United States. But it soon became apparent that this former South Korean Foreign Minister was his own man. He powerfully advocated the International Criminal Court, and he forced Climate Change right up the international agenda. Doubtless this will remain the key priority of his second term. Beyond that he was highly visible – and highly angry – at the Israeli shelling of UN buildings in Gaza, just as he was highly effective in communicating the plight of ordinary Burmese as their homes were swept away in the floods. The point also about Ban is that he doesn’t appear to revel in the trappings of office. I recall him wandering through the filthy shanties of Kibera Township in Nairobi with barely any security, surrounded by hundreds of ordinary Kenyans who had never thought to see a World leader championing their lot.
Much of Ban’s slow but steady progress goes unreported because it is incremental and not exciting enough for 24 hour news. That said, Ban – and the United Nations – are often slow to trumpet their case. Modern media relations are not the United Nation’s strongest suites.
The World is desperately short of real leaders of moral stature. Somehow they seem to be finding it more difficult to emerge. The World is also increasingly short of popular leaders whose moral voice is certain.
Having watched Ban ki moon grow over the past five years in office, I believe that he does have real moral stature, and he also has staying power. The best may be yet to come.