Ban Ki-moon is presently being considered for a second term as UN Secretary-General. Given the widespread criticism that he has received on many fronts, much of it severe, his odds might seem long. But this is a decision that will be made largely by three wary members of the Security Council: China, Russia, and the United States. And their criteria for assessing job performance reflect nothing so much as their own geostrategic interests, which are often directly in conflict. This has the effect of producing a ?lowest common denominator? candidate, a competition in which Ban Ki-moon excels. As one critic has put it, these three Security Council members ?have conscientiously vetted for dynamism? since the early 1960s, and anodyne Secretaries-General like Ban, Kurt Waldheim, and Javier Pérez de Cuéllar have been the result. The same dynamic gives Ban a better than even chance of a second term, especially since the United States announced this week its support for Ban?s reappointment. This decision should be reconsidered.
Ban?s nickname in his native South Korea was ?Ban-chusa,? suggesting both someone bureaucratically fastidious but also, as the Economist put it shortly after Ban?s election, hampered by a ?lack of charisma and a supposed willingness to bend to the will of his superiors.? It is notable that several of Ban?s most prominent critics from within the UN have also repeatedly cited his lack of ?charisma,? going so far as to call him ?spineless? and ?repulsive.? In the eyes of many, he has failed so profoundly as a leader of the world body that there are barely enough words available to account for his miserable performance.
One outraged senior official, Inga-Britt Ahlenius of Sweden, when resigning last summer from her post as UN undersecretary general of the Office of Internal Oversight Services, left behind a scathing, fifty-page memo characterizing Ban?s job performance: ?Your actions are not only deplorable, but seriously reprehensible….Your action is without precedent and in my opinion seriously embarrassing for yourself….I regret to say that the secretariat now is in a process of decay.? Oversight reform was one of the issues on which Ban campaigned, so Undersecretary Ahlenius? criticism cannot be dismissed lightly.
Another diplomat?Mona Juul, Norway?s deputy permanent representative to the UN?had the previous year (2009) made criticism just as tough on Ban in a confidential memo to the Norwegian foreign ministry (it was leaked shortly thereafter). She describes him as ?spineless? and merely a ?passive observer? to the crisis in Myanmar; she judged him to have been no better on the human destruction in Sri Lanka. He lacks ?moral authority? and leadership qualities, Juul wrote, and has made the UN irrelevant on a host of important international issues where its role is vital:
Common to all of this is the fact that high-profile aides cannot compensate for a bland secretary-general who is lacking in charisma….Apart from Afghanistan, Ban has generally chosen special representatives and secretariat chiefs who don?t make much of an impression either.
My purpose in offering this brutal summary (and there are a great many accounts that could be adduced on each of the issues raised) is to suggest that Ban has proved just as feckless and disappointing in leading the UN response to Darfur, a vast human catastrophe that he promised would be for him a signature issue. He has nothing to show for his efforts in Darfur, despite various efforts at self-puffery. The conflict and suffering seem more intractable than ever, and the atrocity crimes by Khartoum and its military forces are endless (see this June 6, 2011 report from Human Rights Watch). The catalog of his missteps, moments of moral failure, and misrepresentations of the genocide in Darfur is a long one, much longer than any indictment I might render here. But let?s take brief stock.
Since Ban assumed his position on January 1, 2007, more than 1 million civilians in Darfur have been newly displaced?more than 600,000 in his first two years in office. If we want a crude measure of the failure of the UN/African Union ?hybrid? peacekeeping force (UNAMID) that Ban has so continually touted, this is it. During his entire tenure, security has continued to deteriorate, both for humanitarians and civilians. Ban and his disastrous special representative to UNAMID, Ibrahim Gambari, have had no success in pressuring Khartoum to permit freedom of movement for the peacekeepers and their military investigators, or in securing unfettered access for humanitarians seeking to reach critically underserved areas in Darfur.
Typical was Ban?s response to Khartoum?s expulsion of half the humanitarian capacity in Darfur in March 2009 based on the absurd charge of espionage. Ban claimed ?things will be alright? and minimized the impact of the expulsions. A year later, in his April 28, 2010 report to the Security Council, Ban was still arguing that the?humanitarian operation in Darfur has been successful in stabilizing the situation in the food security, health, nutrition, and water sectors.?
But in fact the populous Jebel Marra region of central Darfur was under a total humanitarian embargo, imposed by Khartoum in January 2010 (the embargo continued throughout the year and is still largely in place). There has been much cruel suffering as the regime?s military and militia forces resumed scorched-earth destruction of villages throughout eastern Jebel Marra. Camps for displaced persons, many of which had suffered terribly for lack of food, water, and primary medical care, were clearly not part of Ban?s assessment. Three months later Ban finally acknowledged that the absence of skilled humanitarian workers, like those who had maintained pumps providing clean water to many hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, was biting deeply: ?The scarcity of water in Darfur is growing, with reports of a significant number of wells drying up.?
Ban?s account made no mention of the fact that UN agencies and aid organizations were flying blind in many respects because of Khartoum?s refusal to allow the production and distribution of reports on malnutrition. There was evidence, however, that food shortages were rising sharply in some areas: anecdotal reports and scattered statistical data suggested that the emergency level for Global Acute Malnutrition (15 percent) had been reached in a number of populations. Yet Ban has never criticized or challenged the UN?s chief relief coordinator for Sudan/Darfur, Georg Charpentier, despite his failure of nerve in confronting Khartoum?s leaders and his disingenuousness about humanitarian conditions. UN agency leaders and NGOs, almost without exception, are fearful of speaking out about conditions before Charptenier and are thus obliged to accede to his distorting comments about humanitarian access and the size of the population in need.
Ban has also done nothing of significance to further the Darfur peace process, which Khartoum has determined will be ?domesticated,? with a heavy emphasis on premature and unsafe returns of displaced persons. Ban indulged in factitious optimism on this score, declaring in July 2007, ?During the last six months, we have made slow but credible and considerable progress in helping resolve this Darfur situation.? But peace talks, which have now found an apparently indefinite home in Doha, Qatar, have dragged on for years. Despite various ?agreements? there is no tangible progress on the ground, and the main rebel groups have not joined the talks. The most recent agreement leaves unsettled the key issues of representation in the national government, human security for the region, and the administrative division of Darfur–an especially important issue for non-Arab Darfuris, the Fur in particular (the largest ethnic group in Darfur).
Instead of a focused diplomatic process, with the UN secretariat orchestrating broad international support, there has been a succession of negotiating venues and actors, as well as unseemly wrangling among the UNAMID?s Gambari, the UN/AU joint mediator for the peace process, Djbril Bassolé (who is leaving his post soon to return to Burkina Faso), and Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa, representing the AU. Ban has done nothing to bring order to this diplomatic mess or to bring pressure to bear on Khartoum to negotiate in good faith. Instead, by celebrating diplomatic non-events, Ban has provided the regime with cover: in February 2009 Ban declared that ?the [Doha] agreement of goodwill and confidence-building [signed by the Justice and Equality Movement and the Khartoum regime in Qatar on February 17] represents a constructive step in the ongoing efforts to negotiate a peaceful conclusion to this long-running conflict.? The Justice and Equality Movement would shortly thereafter abandon the talks in Doha as a betrayal of its cause.
Critically, Ban has done nothing of consequence in persuading China to play a more active role in Darfur, even as China?s obstructionism on the Security Council is acknowledged by virtually everyone. China?s attitude toward the human catastrophe in Darfur, governed entirely by its oil interests in South Sudan and Kordofan, was one of unsurpassable indifference. In April of 2007, as insecurity was accelerating and conditions in the camps becoming more difficult, Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Zhai Jun said, ?My general impression is that the current situation in Darfur is basically stable, the local government runs normally, the refugee camps are well managed with sound health conditions and the basic living of refugees is guaranteed.? This surreal assessment served as the basis for an aggressive push to enervate the robust peacekeeping force that had originally been proposed by the Security Council in August 2006, a force that would instead become in July 2007 the disaster that is the UNAMID. Unsurprisingly, China?s views remained unchallenged by Ban, who knows that Beijing?s leaders are almost certainly the key to any second term. Bronwen Maddox of the London Times put the matter best, declaring, ?When Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, said that China had played a ?constructive role? in the process, and that he was ?satisfied? with its contribution, he was being polite to the point of dissembling, or has standards which are inhumanely low.?
If Darfur has been a signature issue for Secretary-General Ban, as he insisted at the beginning of his first term, then he must be held accountable for the massive UN failure in the region. Whether this–along with his mishandling of the crises in Burma and Sri Lanka, his lack of leadership, and his failure to bring accountability and oversight to the UN–is enough to block his reappointment is a judgment that will be made in Moscow, Beijing, and Washington. It has been reported that the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, has strong objections to Ban?s continued leadership of the secretariat, but given the White House?s announcement of support for Ban, Rice will need to find outside political support. This should come from domestic political and human rights constituencies, as well as the other two permanent members of the Security Council, France and the United Kingdom. U.S. acceptance of Ban?s reappointment will reflect the survival of a ?lowest common denominator? selection process and set back for years the chances for true reform of the secretariat.