Ban Ki-Moon

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.

updates after leaving office

18 March 2017: Former Secretary General Ban Ki Moon will be heading to the United States on Mar. 24 to take up an assignment at Harvard University, reports Yonhap News Agency. He will not be teaching regularly but will chair occasional seminars.

Harvard University will be providing a secretary and residence but no pay, He will be accompanied by his wife Yoo Soon-taek, according to Korea Times, which also reported that he is expected to finish the job and return to South Korea in July. Before leaving for the Uniterd States, he will launch a book and attend a global peace forum hosted by supporters from Chungcheong Province.

Last month, Ban announced that he would not be a candidate for the presidential election scheduled for May 9. But there has been speculation that his public appearances imply his openness to being drafted.

Earlier Harvard Award

In 2014, Harvard Foundation named Ban as Humanitarian of the Year and presented him as a role model for students. (Grammy Award-winning Rihanna received the award this year for her philanthropic efforts.}

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. Those early controversies have been largely forgotten, but it is clearer now than ever that the issues of character and competence they flagged were real, and had a consistently negative influence on the work of the  United Nations.

The first of the controversies was the appointment of Asha Rose Migiro of Tanzania as Deputy Secretary-General. She was hired without any kind of selection process, not even a formal interview. When asked about that Ban told journalists that he had talked to her; then it came out that he had done so a year earlier, when they happened to sit next to each other on a flight into Addis Ababa. Ban’s assertions that Migiro was the best person for the job were hard to swallow, for she had no visible qualifications for the post, having been Tanzania’s Minister for Community Development, Gender and Children for five of the previous six years. The unkind construction put on this by UN insiders was that Tanzania, a member of the Security Council when it picked Ban to be Secretary-General in 2006, was being repaid for helping his candidacy.

Another slippery situation was precipitated by the appointment of Britain’s ambassador to France, John Holmes, as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, a post that requires hands-on operational experience, of which he had none. Non-governmental emergency aid organizations dismayed at the appointment were not mollified by the assurance that Holmes, a former private secretary to Tony Blair, was a quick study. They saw the appointment as payoff for the British decision to lift its opposition to Ban in the Security Council straw polls that preceded formal action on the appointment of the new Secretary-General.

Quid pro quo arrangements in personnel appointments continued to characterize a good number of appointments since then. The most visible case to come to light was the rejection of a search team’s recommendation that Gita Sen of India be appointed the head of UNIFEM, the UN Women’s development fund; the appointment went to Inés Alberdi of Spain. Non-governmental activists alleged publicly that Spain had offered money for UNIFEM to get its national appointed. No one alleged that any money went to Ban himself, but that possibility cannot be entirely discounted in view of the allegation that surfaced in a Seoul newspaper towards the end of 2016 that he had accepted a bribe when serving as Foreign Minister.    

During his first term Ban surrounded himself with a 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 were posted to key Departments as his eyes and ears. 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. The situation was on public display during meetings of the Security Council, when files for the Secretary-General's attention were brought to Nambiar and he would hand it over to his Korean understudy rather than to his boss. The  Nordic head of the independent Office of Internal Oversight Services also found herself in a constant chess game  with the so-called “Korean mafia.” It led to the mafia clipping her wings by holding up appointments to her staff. At the end of her single non-renewable term she submitted a stinging report to the General Assembly detailing these abuses.

Diplomatically too, Ban proved hamfisted. Shortly after taking office, he set off a noisy flap by trying to make major structural changes in the Secretariat without consulting the “Group of 77”, the influential caucus of developing countries. The G-77, which is convinced that UN top brass serve a handful of powerful countries, reacted with fury, and Ban had to reverse himself. He responded by eliminating the post of Special Adviser on Africa, saying that his High Representative for Least Developed, Land-locked and Small Island Countries could do the job. As the focus of the High Representative is on countries scattered around the world which have problems shared by many but not all African countries, the latter saw the move as a dilution of attention to their region, especially with regard to peace and security action by the Security Council. There was widespread outrage, and all of Ban’s subsequent initiatives on Africa, the region that accounts for some 80 per cent of UN activities, became more difficult.

Perhaps most astonishingly, Ban proved to lack basic communications skills. On his 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.

Ban’s incoherence in the Oval Office was not brought on by his awe of power. A written speech delivered in Seoul to the Korean University Presidents’ Forum 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 one formal luncheon he prefaced his recitation 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 …” and he launched into a UN version of  “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” It went down like a lead balloon but Ban seemed not to notice.

Despite an all-round disastrous performance – unquestionably the worst of any Secretary-General – the Security Council acted unanimously in June 2011 to give him a second term (2012-2016). It was rumored that the primary reason the Council did not consider any replacements was opposition from two Permanent Members with veto power, Britain and China. However, also according to rumor, the United States set some conditions, including disbanding Ban’s Korean mafia and appointing a new Deputy-Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson of Sweden. During Ban's second term Elisasson has assumed a far greater role than any of his predecessors in the post.

Ban's second term proved to be an ethical nightmare. It began with UN peacekeepers importing cholera into Haiti. The UN first denied responsibility and when that was established beyond doubt, took refuge behind its immunity and refused to be held liable. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Haitians were sickened and the death toll climbed into the thousands. As the death toll crossed the ten thousand mark towards the end of his final year in office, Ban finally seemed to have a change of heart and said the UN would help Haiti fight the disease. In his last month in office, perhaps impelled by the prospect that his successor would accept responsibility and make him look bad, he issued a public apology. His apologists have said off-the-record that his six-year reticence reflected opposition from the Office of Legal Affairs and the United States, both concerned about exposing the UN to claims for damages. That is nonsense, for the organization has iron-clad immunity. The fact that Ban ignored the overwhelming moral imperative to accept responsibility and initiate immediate remedial action will be lasting element of his legacy. 

In 2014, French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic who were not under UN command were accused of sexual abuse of children, including homosexual acts. Instead of helping the victims and informing the French government, the Secretary-General's Special Representative at the head of the UN Force (MINUSCA) tried to hide the matter. The head of MINUSCA's Human Rights unit led the effort to bury the scandal, reporting what had happened not as an urgent emergency but through routine channels, along with a slew of other occurrences. The UNICEF official who had interviewed the child victims sent them off to a local NGO which did nothing more than fill out a number of forms. No one did anything to rock the boat. The notes of the original interview of the children by a UN human rights officer in Bangui found their way to the Director of Field Operations in the Office of the UN High Commissioner in Human Rights in Geneva. When he made the information public, he was accused of "leaking" and the High Commissioner asked for his resignation, which he refused to submit. Ban's Chef de Cabinet helped in the High Commissioner's subsequent efforts against the whistle-blower, which failed because an investigation exonerated him. While all this was happening, the UN Special Representative overseeing the welfare of Children in situations of armed conflict did nothing. 

History will recall three main UN achievements during Ban's period of stewardship: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda for financing development, and the Paris Agreement to combat the global warming causing climate change. All three are deeply flawed initiatives.

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change is the most important of the three but it is hollow in that implementation is tied to massive financial and technological support to poor countries. At a time when most developed countries are in deep economic trouble, that is a dim prospect.  

The 2030 Agenda, a document of over 15,000 words, dealt with the critical issues of terrorism, drug trafficking and money laundering in just 23 words. That feat of compression was managed at a time when the African Union was trying desperately to get international action on the $50 billion+ illicit outflow from the region, when terrorism was the highest priority for many African, Middle Eastern and Asian nations, and Latin American leaders at the summit level were pushing for a major reorientation of international drug policy away from the prohibitionist approach that makes trafficking profitable to organized crime. That disregard of the interests of developing countries will ensure that the poor will know no peace and that their resources will continue to be stolen and laundered through offshore "tax havens" into the pockets of the rich. [Amina Mohammed of Nigeria, who Ban put in charge of steering the long process of shaping Agenda 2030, was the first appointment announced by Ban's successor, Antonio Guterres of Spain. She is now the Deputy-Secretary-General.]

The Addis Ababa Agreement on financing development was scheduled prior to the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and seemed to promise massive support for its implementation. In the year since its adoption that hope has been firmly laid to rest as aid levels have fallen, especially to the Least Developed Countries. The Addis Ababa Agreement's call for action on illicit flows of resources from developing countries has also proved to be hollow, for developed countries subsequently moved at the UN Conference on Trade and Development to block any consideration of the topic. In retrospect, the  Addis Ababa Agreement has proved to be an entirely pie-in-the-sky document. Our assessments of Agenda 2030 and action to finance it are here.    

In his final weeks in office Ban Ki-moon became a glutton for publicity. Even as he apologized for the cholera epidemic in Haiti and looked the other way as UN watchdog bodies barked at his lax supervision of peacekeeping and the UN Staff Pension Fund, Ban invited a slew of show business celebrities to dinner, organized an orchestral performance in the General Assembly hall to celebrate his years in office, and arranged to press the button to drop the ball marking the end of the year at the raucous festivities in New York's Times Square. CNN, which broadcasts the event live globally, deflected that final grab at publicity by cutting away from New York to New Orleans before the ball dropped.  

See also: Ban Ki Moon's Legacy in His Own Words