Secretary General Faces a Backlash

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon got a warm reception last month from President Bush, but Ban's attempt to reorganize the U.N. bureaucracy has been stonewalled by developing nations.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon got a warm reception last month from President Bush, but Ban's attempt to reorganize the U.N. bureaucracy has been stonewalled by developing nations. (Pool Photo By Ron Sachs)

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By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

UNITED NATIONS -- When U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon paid his first official visit to Washington last month, he received the White House version of a seal of approval: a presidential pat on the back and an invitation to phone President Bush whenever he needs help in responding to an international crisis.

Ban's warm reception appeared to signal an end to an era of U.S. confrontation with the United Nations that was marked by quarrels over the Iraq war, Republican-led corruption hearings on Capitol Hill and relentless threats of funding cuts.

But such a turn of fortune in Washington comes at a price: Ban is facing a diplomatic backlash from developing nations, which suspect the former South Korean foreign minister of seeking to reshape the United Nations to accommodate U.S. interests and the desires of other wealthy member nations. They have stonewalled his early attempt to reorganize the U.N. bureaucracy.

The standoff has weakened Ban barely a month into the job, as he faces one of the top challenges confronting every U.N. leader: how to strike a balance between the organization's most powerful member and an influential bloc of developing countries that instinctively resist policies that appear to track with U.S. interests.

"There is always suspicion no matter what the U.S. does because it is such an overwhelmingly powerful player," said Munir Akram, Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations and chairman of the influential Group of 77, a Third World bloc. "I think that's a natural function of being a big power, of being the biggest power."

Developing nations have already quashed a proposal to broaden the powers of the United Nations' chief diplomatic arm, the Department of Political Affairs. The proposal generated fierce opposition after it was reported that the department might be headed by an American, former ambassador to Indonesia B. Lynn Pascoe, for the first time in a generation. The United Nations on Friday announced Pascoe's appointment, along with those of other senior officials from China, Egypt and Japan.

Another powerful Third World bloc -- the Non-Aligned Movement, currently chaired by Cuba -- is taking aim at Ban's plans for disarmament and peacekeeping. The secretary general proposed reorganizing the expanding U.N. peacekeeping department to better handle the largest increase in peacekeeping missions in the organization's history while downgrading the disarmament department.

The latter office is particularly popular among poor countries concerned with the nuclear arsenals of powerful nations.

"There is a lack of clarity," Akram said of Ban's initiatives. He said it is unlikely that the General Assembly, in which every member nation has a vote, would move quickly to take action on Ban's initiatives.

"It's quite natural the secretary general wants to get his reform or restructuring proposals done as soon as he can," Akram said, "but I think the processes in the General Assembly are such that do not lend themselves to fast-track decisions."

Alejandro D. Wolff, acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said international fears that Ban is doing Washington's bidding are baseless and are hampering sincere efforts to carry out "concrete and practical and apolitical" reforms. But it has been difficult to counter the perception, he added.

"The conspiracy theorists out there are convinced this is an American agenda and that this is a secretary general who is essentially responding to American demands," Wolff said.

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