Ban Ki-moon’s legacy
On Jan. 15, 2016, Australian lawyer Philip Alston paid a visit to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on his 38th-floor office at U.N. headquarters. Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, was preparing a report that would castigate the United Nations for skirting responsibility for introducing cholera into Haiti more than five years earlier. If Ban hoped to salvage the world body’s good name, as well as his legacy, he had better move fast to right a historical wrong.
“It would be a great pity to go out on this note,” Alston said he later told Ban in what amounted to a thinly veiled warning.
For a man weighing a likely run for the South Korean presidency, the hint of a potential scandal proved persuasive. Ban, 72, subsequently ordered a review of the U.N.’s response to Haiti’s cholera epidemic, which has killed more than 9,000 Haitians.
And so on Dec. 1, after months of deliberation, Ban offered an extraordinary apology to Haitians on behalf of the U.N., ending years of denials about the organization’s complicity in the cholera epidemic. In a carefully crafted statement that acknowledged the U.N.’s moral, if not legal, responsibility, Ban said he was “profoundly sorry” and pressed U.N. member states to cough up as much as $400 million to treat and cure Haiti’s cholera victims.
The effort marked the first stage in an intensive effort to shore up Ban’s legacy before he [stepped] down as the world’s top diplomat at the end of December.
Having endured a withering barrage of attacks on his leadership from his earliest days at Turtle Bay, Ban notched some noteworthy late victories. He browbeat states into ratifying the Paris climate accord well ahead of schedule, and promoted gay rights within the U.N. bureaucracy and with conservative governments.
But the list of crises he will leave for his successor, former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres, is daunting. Syria is in free fall, North Korea’s nuclear arms program is advancing, South Sudan faces the specter of genocide, unprecedented numbers of refugees are on the run, and Islamist extremists are spreading terror throughout the globe. “We have collectively failed the people of Syria,” Ban told reporters at his final news conference on Dec. 16. “Aleppo is now a synonym for hell.”
The organization Ban set out to reform 10 years ago, meanwhile, is in many ways in worse shape than when he started, handicapped by great power divisions that have thwarted peace efforts from Syria to Ukraine and raised the specter of a new Cold War between Russia and the West.
Ban’s U.N. has also been beset by self-inflicted wounds: a glacial personnel system that has confounded the efforts of United Nations peacemakers and staff missions. A broken patchwork of watchdog programs that could not dependably root out corruption, expose sexual misconduct by U.N. blue helmets, or protect whistleblowers. And, indefensibly, the U.N.’s denial of responsibility for Haiti’s cholera epidemic.
“The most telling things about his legacy are the things he has the most control over, are the very things that have experienced some of the greatest failures,” said Bruce Rashkow, a former U.S. and U.N. legal advisor who has championed U.N. oversight reforms since the early 1990s.
Critics also faulted Ban for lacking the qualities — charisma, intellectual agility, and creativity — to make a great peacemaker. He has largely subcontracted mediation to a succession of special envoys, including former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to tackle peace efforts from Kenya to Syria. “Thank God he did delegate because as you can see, he is very weak on thinking on his feet,” said a top advisor. “That’s not his thing.”
Ban has bridled at the criticism, telling his aides that he has long been unfairly maligned by Western media because he doesn’t speak “Oxford English.” But his anger often gets taken out on his subordinates: Ban frequently erupts into fits of anger when things go wrong at staff meetings or if he is being challenged by subordinates, leaving aides to keep their heads down to avoid catching his eye.
“It’s like when you’re told ‘Don’t look a bear in the eye, or he’ll think you’re challenging him,’” said one advisor.
As secretary-general, Ban has retained the habits of that diligent student, reading stacks of talking points and briefing papers late into the night, underlining key passages in green, yellow, and red markers. Ban prides himself on keeping a taxing work schedule and forgoing vacations.
In March, Ban’s staff urged him to take advantage of a four-hour break in his Middle East travels to tour Jordan’s Petra, one of the world’s most famous archeological wonders. King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein would be there to accompany the U.N. chief. But Ban declined. Instead, he arranged a visit with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim to see the Zaatari refugee camp on the Jordanian border with Syria.
In his wood-paneled office towering over Manhattan’s East River, Ban has been packing his boxes for the move back to South Korea and reflecting on the next stage in his political future.
Ban told FP that he is “seriously considering” a run, suggesting he felt an obligation to lead his country out of a series of crises. The South Korean economy is buffeted by new economic headwinds and the prospects of the country’s first democratically elected leader to be impeached in disgrace. The election of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who has raised questions about America’s commitment to its security agreements with allies, has introduced new uncertainty.
Ban acknowledged that there are serious hurdles to a successful campaign. The ruling party, he said, is on the verge of collapse, or splitting into two warring factions of Park loyalists and those who oppose her. Ban said it would be “extremely difficult” to start his own party at this late stage. But he said there is a move afoot to create a third party, presenting a possible platform for a Ban campaign.
“I’m becoming more and more serious now,” Ban said in a Dec. 16 interview with FP. “There are a lot of people asking for me to positively consider and work for the country. I have to be seriously thinking … how best I should contribute to my country.”
“The Korean government and country is going through a very, very difficult situation in terms of change of administration in the United States,” he added.
In assessing Ban’s tenure, some observers noted that on matters of war and peace, from Syria to Ukraine, the secretary-general is largely only a figurehead — a cheerleader at best, but often a bystander to the decisions of the world’s biggest powers. However, Ban deserves credit for doggedly pressing from his first days in office for international action to limit greenhouse gases and helping usher the Paris climate accord’s swift entry into force in November.
“Climate is the crown jewel of Ban Ki-moon’s legacy,” said Bob Orr, a senior advisor for the U.N. chief, whom he credited in 2007 with persuading then-U.S. President George W. Bush, a skeptical Texas oil man, not to derail climate negotiations. “He hauled climate change out of a ditch.”
Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, agreed.
Ban “had very little to show for himself at the end of the first term,” Gowan said. “He would probably have been written off as a C-grade secretary-general. Because of climate change, he will be remembered as a B-grade secretary-general. I think historians will quibble over whether his role was decisive. I don’t think you could say no deal without Ban, but he did put his shoulder to the wheel.”
His climate achievements are at risk under the incoming U.S. administration. In his campaign, Trump dismissed global warming as a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese to hinder U.S. industry. And he has threatened to withdraw from the Paris pact.
Ban said he pressed Trump during a phone conversation, three days after the Nov. 8 election, to reconsider his position on climate change. Ban said Trump was mostly in a listening mode, but that he assured him he was keeping an “open mind.”
“I’m hopeful that as a successful global business leader, he will understand that business communities are already changing and retooling their way of doing business” to limit global warming, Ban said.
Ban is the first U.N. chief to extend benefits for spouses of employees in same-sex marriages. And he has used his bully pulpit to urge conservative governments, particularly in Africa, not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
“This advocacy did not come naturally to me,” he said in a November speech before the Elton John AIDS Foundation. “I grew up long ago in a deeply conservative Korea.”
In a farewell ceremony before the U.N. General Assembly, Power praised Ban’s contributions to LGBT rights, and for investing “all of his diplomatic energy” in coaxing governments into signing the landmark Paris agreement on climate change and helping to see it brought into force “far swifter than any of us had thought possible.”
Ban’s public profile improved in his second term, and he displayed a willingness to speak out more frankly on human rights. He incurred Israel’s wrath in January 2016 by saying it is “human nature to react to occupation.” He also showed a willingness to back a more muscular approach to peacekeeping.
During his final year in office, Ban has taken forceful stances on a number of other fronts, excoriating the U.N. Security Council for its failure to halt mass atrocities from South Sudan to Syria. On Nov. 1, Ban summarily fired a Kenyan general whose forces failed to protect civilians, in what one top aide characterized as the secretary-general’s final “mic drop” before ending his term. But Kenya’s government dismissed it as scapegoating. “The secretary-general, in lame duck season, seems to have found the courage that has eluded him throughout his tenure,” Kenya’s U.N. Ambassador Macharia Kamau told reporters.
But critics say Ban’s tough medicine has been unevenly dispensed, and that he has been unduly influenced by powerful countries. South Korea, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, for example, are among the states that contribute to a discretionary trust fund Ban uses to cover pet initiatives or travel beyond what his budget allows.
South Korea alone deposited about $1 million into the account this fall to supplement Ban’s travel costs through the end of the year, according to two senior U.N. officials. But Ban instructed that the money be put into a separate account to fund cholera relief programs in Haiti.
He has tended to tread lightly over the excesses of big powers like China, remaining silent when Liu Xiaobo, a pro-democracy advocate who served 11 years in jail, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Ban, who at the time was seeking China’s support for a second term, didn’t even bring up Liu’s case when he met with then-Chinese leader Hu Jintao.
Ban has also yielded to pressure from Israel and Saudi Arabia to remove both countries from a blacklist of governments or armed groups that have killed or maimed children in the course of conflict. In a meeting in September 2016 with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on the sidelines of the General Assembly, Ban neglected to respond to concerns about Cairo’s crackdown on the press and perceived political enemies. Instead, Ban devoted the first couple of minutes of the meeting to presenting Sisi with a copy of a book highlighting his legacy. The briefing proved so awkward for Ban’s staff that they decided not to issue a standard readout of the meeting for the public.
Critics also say Ban was less than persistent in seeing through a raft of reforms aimed at rooting out corruption and transforming the U.N. into a more efficient institution.
The U.N.’s top political advisor, Jeffrey Feltman, complained in an internal email that the world body’s effort to streamline its IT system was undermining its ability to pursue peace. And Anthony Banbury, an American official who headed the U.N.’s peacekeeping logistics unit, said the U.N.’s “sclerotic personnel system” normally required 213 days to hire a new recruit. But a new reform implemented in January 2016 was likely to extend that period to over a year.
“If you locked a team of evil geniuses in a laboratory, they could not design a bureaucracy so maddeningly complex, Banbury wrote in the New York Times.
The U.N.’s internal oversight division, which is charged with rooting out waste and corruption in the world body, imploded under Ban’s leadership. An auditor he chose to run the oversight agency left after an independent panel accused her of abusing her authority by pursuing a senior Swedish human rights official who exposed the U.N.’s failure to respond to sexual abuse of children in the Central African Republic.
Ban also struggled to win the respect or loyalty of the U.N. staff, who contend he was in over his head.
The Haiti cholera epidemic continues to leave a cloud over Ban’s legacy. In October 2011, cholera-infected waste from the U.N.’s Mirebalais peacekeeping camp leaked into the Meille River, a tributary of the large Artibonite River, triggering an epidemic that still confounds Haitians.
In the FP interview, Ban largely evaded questions about his role in refusing to extend compensation to cholera victims, or to disclose the advice he received from the United States and other big powers who feared the cost could reach into the tens of billions of dollars. The U.N. lawyers, he said, were very “strict” about not admitting responsibility for the crisis in the face of “legal attacks” by lawyers seeking billions in legal claims for Haitian cholera victims.
“We were very much defensive on this matter, it’s true,” he said.
In the end, Philip Alston welcomed Ban’s apology as an “important step in the right direction,” according to a Dec. 1 statement. But he said Ban’s refusal to accept legal responsibility for introducing cholera into Haiti means that any compensation would amount to charity. “As a result, there remains a good chance that little or no money will be raised.”
Bruce Rashkow, the former U.S. and U.N. legal advisor, also faulted the U.N. for stonewalling for so many years, and refusing for more than six years to acknowledge its responsibility.
“Apologies are cheap. It’s the right thing to do, but it doesn’t take away the blemish on his legacy,” Rashkow said. “In fact, it reinforces the blemish.”
This article was written by Colum Lynch for Foreign Policy. It was published on December 28, 2016.