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Is Ban Ki-moon getting a raw deal?

His critics berate him as ineffective, uninspiring and a poor communicator, but UN chief Ban Ki-moon’s entourage says he is getting a raw deal from people who misunderstand him and his mission.

world Updated: Jul 20, 2009 12:26 IST

His critics berate him as ineffective, uninspiring and a poor communicator, but UN chief Ban Ki-moon’s entourage says he is getting a raw deal from people who misunderstand him and his mission.

Half-way through his first five-year term, the UN secretary general has been subjected to a barrage of criticism, mainly in the Western media, over his handling of crises in Darfur, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In the latest swipe, The Wall Street Journal last week described him as “the UN’s invisible man.” The UN chief’s most recent international mission -- a trip to Myanmar -- only served to fuel his critics.

Ban lamented the fact that his hosts refused to let him see democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and ignored his call for the release of political prisoners, but his detractors saw it as an indictment of his quiet diplomatic style.

Roberta Cohen, a human rights expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said Ban is “overly deferential” to governments.

She said the UN head has preferred to bow to the mandates of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- “rather than try to lead the world community in defense of the international protection of civilians,” she said.

“As the head of the UN, Ban Ki-moon must also be the chief advocate for its values and principles including those values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Iain Levine, a spokesman at New York-based Human Rights Watch. “And that means being prepared to speak out -- clearly, passionately and uncompromisingly -- in support of those values.”

“Too often, including in Sri Lanka and Burma, the secretary general has held back from a truly principled stance. He must remember that his primary obligation and loyalty is not to member states, especially abusive ones, but to those whose rights are so often violated,” Levine told AFP.

Abiodun Williams, a former UN policy-maker now with the Washington-based think tank United States Institute of Peace concedes that Ban, a 65-year-old South Korean former foreign minister, is playing an important role on issues such as climate change.

“But he clearly could do more despite the political, bureaucratic and other constraints of the job,” he said.

“The capacity to communicate is one of the qualities required for the job,” Williams said. “Action may speak louder than words, but words do matter and clearly the message is not getting through effectively enough about the significant role the UN is playing in many areas: peacekeeping, humanitarian work, refugee relief.”

The softspoken Ban is often compared unfavorably with his charismatic predecessor Kofi Annan. But Ban’s aides view some of the criticism against their boss as grossly unfair and portray him as a compassionate workaholic whom they admire for his decency, integrity and fierce dedication to his job.

Nicholas Haysom, a South African who is one of Ban’s key advisers, thinks the issue of Ban’s lack of charisma is overblown.

And “suggestions that he’s not outspoken, not very visible are simply wrong and not borne out by the evidence,” Haysom said.

“On humanitarian crises and conflicts, he has been extremely active. The truth is that he’s not always reported, not always heard.”

Much has been said about Ban’s struggle with the English language. “English is not his mother tongue so he sometimes appears scripted, stiff and uninspiring,” his spokeswoman Michele Montas admitted. “But he communicates in ways that are unfamiliar in the West and I think there is a cultural gap here,” she added.

Robert Orr, an American who is one of his top policy-makers, says of Ban’s English: “It’s a handicap but not a fatal flaw.” “I’m not worried by the fact that he is not the most eloquent as long as he produces results,” he added.

“He is influenced by his diplomatic background,” says Haysom. “He put a premium on direct engagement. Face-to-face, he is effective, direct and straightforward.”

Orr said Ban’s major achievement is that he has brought the 21st century issues of climate change, global health and food security into the heart of the UN agenda.

He added that his boss deserves credit for his willingness to take risks in undertaking missions that no other world leader could.

Orr said relations between the UN and Washington have significantly improved in large part thanks to Ban.

“He has already produced a very different approach from the US Congress toward the UN both in terms of funding and a dramatic uptick in US payment to the UN,” Orr added.

“So that we don’t have the arrears problems of yesteryear and also the anti-UN attacks have subsided and that’s largely due to the fact that there is confidence in the US Congress that the place (UN) is being well run.”