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Ban Ki-Moon poised to be the next Secretary General

3 October 2006 at 23:27 | 892 views

Ban Ki-Moon(photo), the man poised to be the next United Nations secretary general, is set to inherit an organization that’s been termed a "symbolic power" at a critical stage in its 61-year history. The United Nations could look a lot different when he’s finished.

The UN is in reform mode as it recovers from the oil-for-food Iraq scandal. It also faces questions on whether it is relevant in a world that has become so divided among political, economic and ideological lines. And for the first time in more than 30 years, an Asian is set to head the United Nations as the region touts its emerging and powerful role in world affairs.

With the support of most of the Security Council and of all of the permanent members, the UN General Assembly can appoint Ban to take over after current Secretary General Kofi Annan’s mandate is over at the end of the year.

In Ban, the Security Council, which has the ultimate say in choosing the new head, gets a balanced and neutral choice. His appointment would satisfy both the calls for an Asian secretary general and the United States, which considers South Korea to be a staunch ally.

"The Americans would certainly support the South Korean candidacy because that’s sort of a validation of South Korea, which has been under the American orbit since the 1950s," Dr. Arne Kislenko, who teaches history and international relations at Ryerson University and University of Toronto, told

Ban has indicated that he wants help steer the organization though change, noting that the "United Nations family must stay the course of reform."

How the secretary general is chosen
The council vote: The Security Council recommends a candidate for the General Assembly to appoint. The council uses straw votes to see who has the endorsement of at least nine members.

Veto: The five permanent members each have veto power. Therefore, the candidate for the post will need to be approved by all five.

Region: There is no rule about rotating the presidency according to region, but it was widely accepted that the next secretary general would be from Asia.
But critics of the UN have pointed to the makeup of the Security Council, which was created in the post Second World War period, as a possible problem. For example, notably absent from the council’s permanent members is Japan, among others. A secretary general from Asia, says Kislenko, could act as an agent of change.

American educated

Born in 1944, Ban entered a path toward politics and the land of diplomacy and his resumé marks him as a western-educated and influenced thinker. He has an international relations degree from Seoul National University and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard. He had served at South Korea’s Washington embassy and also held a post as the director-general of American affairs.

"He’s American-educated, he’s a very worldly guy," Kislenko said. "The government of South Korea has really changed in many ways and it’s really shaken the image of a largely militaristic state. Ban is kind of an illustration of that, very progressive, very western-educated."

At the United Nations, Ban traces his history back 30 years. He has worked for South Korea at the United Nations headquarters in New York and more recently served as the chef du cabinet to the president of the General Assembly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A look at his priorities reflect that he says the organization should "take effective action" against terrorism.

Ban’s reforms

A United Nations under Ban would address the threat of terrorism. He has said that the organization should pass a convention against terrorism. He sees the secretary general role as a hands-on position and said he’d act as a mediator in world events. He sees the position as being both a secretary and general, or as a manager and as a leader.

Also on Ban’s list of reforms would be to overhaul the management of the "UN machinery" and organize its priorities. He says the organization’s credibility will rely on whether it can meet its Millennium Development Goals on fighting such things as poverty and AIDS while improving development in third-world countries and maintaining a sustainable environment.

On peacekeeping, Ban says he would look for the organization to "produce real value on the ground." During a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, he brought up the example of the Rwandan genocide and the lack of action by the United Nations. "Greater political will must be mobilized to ensure that the tragic failure to protect innocent people should not happen again," he has said.

This underlines another key role of the United Nations. What power does the United Nations wield? "The United Nations’ actual power is of great debate," Kislenko said, "but its symbolic power is huge."

Regional politics

Ban’s appointment, a nod to Asia, may be of symbolic importance, but it may come to a head as world events converge on the region. The last time an Asian served as the secretary-general, U Thant of Burma, it was 1971. Since then, the political and economic weight of the region has grown considerably.

Past secretaries general
Kofi Annan, Ghana
1996 - 2006
Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Egypt
1992 - 1996
Javier Pérez de Cué llar, Peru
1982 - 1991
Kurt Waldheim, Austria
1972 - 1981
U Thant, Burma
Dag Hammarskj ö old, Sweden
Trygve Halvdan Lie, Norway

China has emerged as an economic and political heavyweight, Japan’s military is now being recast and North Korea’s nuclear ambition has caused much worry and interest from Asia and among the nuclear powers.

"It’s an entirely different world," Kislenko said. "In the last 30 odd years, Asia has gone from being a collection of developing states and trouble states to being forerunner in power."

The South Korean has never strayed far away from the politics in his region, in fact, he has been integral to them. He served in a nuclear control commission for North and South Korea in the early 1990s and more recently, when he was the Foreign Minister, he was a key figure in the six-nation talks on North Korea nuclear program.

His stature in the region and knowledge of the language and issues would place him as a key player, but he would have to be seen as a mediator, not as a spokesman for South Korea’s policies, Kislenko said.

’Artful dance’

"[Secretaries general] have to be willing and able step aside from their government and national interest and that is an artful dance that I think all UN heads have to do," Kislenko said, noting that there are always many issues for the United Nations, such as the simmering war of words between the United States and Iran over, again, nuclear power.

And Ban’s ascendancy marks a sort of coming of age for the United Nations. Just a few years after Ban was born, the United Nations first played an integral to the birth of South Korea in 1948 and later defended it during the Korean War in 1950.

"We Koreans have quite literally risen from the ashes of this war," Ban told the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this year. "We have done so through hard work, commitment, dedication and the help of friends, and particularly the United Nations."