United Nations

Undermining the chief will only damage UN

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 August, 2009, 12:00am

Surely the United Nations, terribly flawed though it is, offers the world enough benefit that sensible people should want to contribute to its chances of success. This necessary instinct is particularly palpable in Asia, where the UN's work in economic and social assistance is viewed as vital, and where it is widely known that the prominent organisation is now headed by a fellow Asian for the first time in decades.

To be sure, no one here is under any opium cloud of delusion that, politically speaking, the UN is the second coming of some institutional Batman. Everyone knows that the cranky Security Council, the UN's chief political arm, retains its debilitating and antediluvian, second world war genetic inheritance: former powers France and Great Britain, after all, still have veto power, while comparative giants like India, Japan, Brazil and Nigeria do not. How absurd is that!

Nevertheless, the UN still counts for something. And, in 2007, it perhaps meant a little more than usual in Asia. For the first time since the Vietnam war days of U Thant, then from Burma, the organisation has an Asian as secretary general. He is Ban Ki-moon, the UN's eighth secretary general and a proud South Korean.

Mr Ban was a very sensible and, at the end of the selection process, very unanimous choice. The respected and hard-working career diplomat rose through the ranks of Asian diplomacy to become his nation's foreign minister. And South Korea is not just some pretty Asiatic stamp collection of a country: It is one of the world's most industrialised states, with an increasingly modern economy and a key geopolitical role to play as a close neighbour of China while also remaining a long-time ally of the US.

As foreign minister, Mr Ban proved the diplomat's decorous diplomat: never the showboat or the outspoken scold or the headline-seeker - but always the behind-the-scenes consensus-cooker. It was these qualities, among others, that so impressed Beijing and Washington, which had grown to loathe his predecessor, the charismatic but maverick Kofi Annan.

But now Mr Ban, at the halfway mark of his five-year term, finds the prospect of a second term mysteriously up in the air. In effect, the general criticism at UN headquarters in New York is that Mr Ban is, well, too much the humble secretary and not enough the hard-charging general. He is under fire for not being more like Mr Annan, which is to say that Mr Ban is being slammed for being more or less exactly what the twin towers of China and the US thought the UN most needed.

What's worse, Mr Ban is being unfairly tarnished not by any actual evidence of performance deficiencies, but by the UN's (widely acknowledged) institutional defects that transcend individual and personality.

Many of the criticisms against Mr Ban are unfair, says George Yeo Yong Boon, Singapore's foreign minister: 'He can only do what is within the limits of his powers. He is not the emperor of the world. He has to take into account the views of the permanent members of the Security Council.'

In many respects Mr Ban, with his extensive diplomatic background, may well be the most qualified man ever to get the job. His steely integrity in this age of official corruption is a powerful attribute; and his indefatigable globe-trotting energy ought to be celebrated for its commitment and stoicism, not denigrated as 'UN Headquarters absenteeism', a knock heard in some circles.

There's something about the Ban criticism that is creepy and uncomfortable. For if you sincerely support the UN and care about its future, why not get behind Mr Ban and watch his back, rather than bash and push him from behind. It's past time to give this decent and hard-driving man some breathing room and respect.

Undermining Mr Ban with corrosively poisonous criticism could set in motion an acidic chemistry that winds up eating away at the UN itself.

Tom Plate is a syndicated columnist. Copyright: Pacific Perspective Media Centre