Low-Profile U.N. Chief Struggles as Diplomatic Peacemaker

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has encountered some setbacks in his more than 20 months in office.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has encountered some setbacks in his more than 20 months in office. (Frank Franklin Ii - AP)
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By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008

UNITED NATIONS -- In the days after Georgian and Russian troops marched into the separatist province of South Ossetia, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon frantically telephoned key leaders and offered the United Nations' diplomatic help in stemming further violence. But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev refused to take his calls for more than a week, say senior U.S. and U.N. officials.

The rebuff highlighted Russia's displeasure with Ban, who had clashed with Moscow over Kosovo's independence drive and riled it again by issuing a statement supporting the territorial integrity of Georgia, a nation Russia intended to carve up. It also provided another example of the humbling struggles of the world's top diplomat to prod foreign leaders to embrace peace.

After more than 20 months in office, Ban is straining to make his mark as a diplomatic peacemaker as his efforts to stem bloodshed in Sudan's Darfur region have faltered and Burma's political players refuse to meet with his special envoy. The United Nations has been relegated to a supporting role in many of the world's diplomatic flare-ups, including in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

Ban convened a meeting of key foreign ministers Saturday on the sidelines of the General Assembly session to energize efforts to press Burma's generals to democratize the country and to secure the release of nearly 2,000 political prisoners, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

But the meeting, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not attend, produced no breakthrough, and Ban canceled plans to speak to the media. Instead Ban issued a statement, pressing Burma to release the prisoners.

Behind the scenes, Ban has resisted calls from the United States, Britain, Singapore and other countries to travel to Burma to meet with military ruler Senior Gen. Than Shwe in December, fearing it might end in failure. There is a risk of Ban "going and coming back empty-handed," a close aide said.

"No one is going to make a case that we are in the middle of a big diplomatic breakthrough on some of these cases you've mentioned," said Robert Orr, a special adviser to Ban. "But the fact is that is not the nature of this business. These things move quietly until they break into the open. The secretary general's style is to work very hard, persistently, behind the scenes" to achieve that.

Orr and other U.N. officials say Ban has had far greater success in prodding governments on some long-term threats such as climate change and the global food and energy crises and in helping to secure billions of dollars in commitments to fight poverty during the world's worst financial crisis in a generation. They say his persistence paid off after Tropical Cyclone Nargis in May, when he traveled to Rangoon, the former Burmese capital, to persuade Than Shwe to pry open the borders for relief workers.

But Ban has been pushed into the background in Africa, where local powers have taken the lead in solving regional problems. South Africa effectively blocked a U.S. and British initiative to grant the United Nations a more central role in mediating an end to an election crisis in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe cracked down on opposition leaders to prevent his more popular rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, from winning the election.

At the height of the crisis, Mugabe told Ban to butt out of his country's affairs and accused him of carrying water for the region's formal colonial power. But Mugabe ultimately agreed to a compromise that gave the United Nations a supporting role in a diplomatic process led by his friend Thabo Mbeki, who was South Africa's president at the time.

Ban's low-profile diplomatic style contrasts with the activism of his predecessor, Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian national who sought to expand the authority of the office. At a similar stage in his tenure, Annan had carried out a high-profile trip to Baghdad, where he temporarily averted a U.S.-led air war by persuading Saddam Hussein to open his presidential palaces to U.N. inspectors. That peace was short-lived, and the United States and Britain launched Operation Desert Fox, a four-day air war against Iraq, several months later in 1998.

"It is possible that Ban's decision, for whatever reason, to keep away from those extremely melodramatic settings may be prudent," said James Traub, author of "The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power." "But it also has the effect of reducing his size in the world. There can't be any question he is a smaller figure than Kofi in his secretary generalship. That's just a fact," Traub added.

When violence erupted in Kenya after a disputed presidential vote, the African Union recruited Annan to help restore calm. He assembled a team of former aides and helped hammer out a power-sharing deal.

"To his credit, Ban asked Kofi what he needed, and Kofi said, 'Staff.' Ban said, 'Take what you want,' " said Fred Eckhard, a former U.N. spokesman brought in by Annan to handle the media during the Kenya crisis. "It was indeed an all-U.N. effort but led by Kofi."

In Darfur, Ban has been in control, cultivating a relationship with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to help secure support for a U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission and a political settlement. But fighting has resumed, political talks have stalled, and the peacekeepers' deployment is months behind schedule.

Ban's ability to engage in direct talks with Bashir, meanwhile, has been curtailed since the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor requested an arrest warrant for the Sudanese leader on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Ban's attorneys have instructed him to limit contact with Bashir unless it is urgent, a senior U.N. official said. "We have to be very careful about our dealings with him," the official said.

The setbacks have begun to take a toll on Ban, who lashed out at his senior advisers during a retreat in Turin, Italy, for failing to make the organization more responsive to the challenges of the day.

"Our job is to change the U.N. -- and through it, the world," Ban told his staff members last month. "This is the big picture. I am frustrated by our failure, so often, to see it."

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