United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon poses for a selfie photo with one of his staff members on his last day at the UN headquarters. Picture: Mary Altaffer/AP
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon poses for a selfie photo with one of his staff members on his last day at the UN headquarters. Picture: Mary Altaffer/AP

Ban leaves legacy as America's man in the UN

By OPINION Time of article published Jan 8, 2017

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Ban Ki-Moon stepped down as UN secretary-general after 10 years on Friday, leaving behind a legacy marked by almost total obedience to Washington, says Joe Lauria.  

The UN’s legitimacy rests on its neutrality, and a secretary-general’s on the ability to navigate a course independent of the major powers and in defence of the world’s population.

That’s how Dag Hammarskjöld defined it. The second secretary-general set the standard against which his successors are judged. Despite his elite background, his defence of the “common interest” distinguished Hammarskjöld and alarmed the world’s elites. His championing the common interest of Africans and other colonised people put him at odds with apartheid South Africa, the US and colonial Britain.

When Hammarskjöld also angered the Soviet Union, which demanded his resignation, he responded: “It is very easy to resign. It is not so easy to stay on. It is very easy to bow to the wishes of a Big Power. It is another matter to resist.”

No other secretary-general has come close to Hammarskjöld’s independence or his inventiveness in creating peacekeeping and personal mediation.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s insubordination to Washington in defending developing countries in the face of America’s post-Cold War, unilateralist expansion into spaces vacated by the Soviet Union cost him a second term.

Kofi Annan, the only sub-Saharan African secretary-general, was a major proponent of US initiatives: the controversial responsibility to protect doctrine of military intervention and a UN partnership with private corporations, giving UN cover for neoliberal and multinational misdeeds.

Though a darling of Washington, Annan crossed the line when he told a BBC interviewer that the 2003 US invasion of Iraq was “illegal”. The Bush administration made the rest of his second term miserable.

By contrast, the South Korean Ban was seen by the Americans as their man from the start. We “got exactly what we asked for”: an administrator and not an activist, said John Bolton, America’s irascible UN ambassador when Ban was elected in 2005.Ban said his “biggest blunder” until then had been in 2001 when, as South Korea’s chairman of its nuclear test-ban treaty organisation, he wrote a letter in favour of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty just a few months after George W Bush pulled the US out of the treaty. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung issued an apology and fired Ban for his impertinence.Once he was installed at the UN, Ban broke with tradition by naming Americans - two former State Department diplomats - to be his chief political officers. They brought with them a State Department perspective to the most politically influential job in the organisation.

Ban toed the US line in public. Though he privately fumed over Saudi behaviour in Yemen and in its dealings with the UN, he never dared blame America’s ally. Likewise, when Ban criticised Israel for its bombardment of UN schools in Gaza, killing scores of people, he spoke only after the State Department had made the same criticism, almost word for word.

When the whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed US mass surveillance of people all over the world, Ban condemned him rather than defend the common interest.

In 10 years, he failed to distinguish himself on a single African issue, merely endorsing whatever the US, Britain and France were up to on the continent.

Ban entered office as the geo-strategic battle of our times was heating up: America’s unilateralism versus an emerging multipolar world, led by Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA.As the premiere multilateral organisation, the UN would seem like a natural ally.

But Ban backed the US in every geo-strategic question against Russia and China during his time in office. On Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea, Ban parroted Washington and made no effort to mediate.Antonio Guterres is inheriting crises that bedevilled Ban. Guterres is smart and outspoken.

It won’t be long before it’s known if he will cross swords with the Trump administration, in the tradition of Hammarskjöld, or go the way of Ban.

Independent Foreign Service

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