U.N. Chief's 'Quiet' Outreach To Autocrats Causing Discord

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in July.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in July. (By Mark Garten -- Associated Press)
By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

UNITED NATIONS -- U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has a message for despots and dictators: We can talk.

The world's top diplomat has had more face time with autocratic leaders than any of his recent predecessors, jetting off for tete-a-tetes with Burma's senior general, Than Shwe, and pulling aside Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir at summits for discreet chats.

Ban has said he is confident that his trademark "quiet diplomacy" can help nudge the most recalcitrant leaders to mend their ways. He says he has pried open the door for aid workers in cyclone-ravaged Burma, gotten thousands of international peacekeepers into Darfur and helped raise the international profile of climate change.

"It is human relationships which can make a difference," Ban said in a recent interview, adding that he doesn't find it productive to scold foreign leaders in public but won't shrink from delivering tough messages in private. "Some might think I have been quite soft, but I have been quite straight, very strong in a sense."

The approach, however, has recently exposed the U.N. chief to criticism that he too often remains silent in the face of atrocities by the very leaders he seeks to cultivate, and that he has exaggerated his accomplishments. His frequent contacts with unsavory leaders have contributed to the United Nations' reputation as a forum for grubby compromises, detractors say.

"The main image people have of him is sitting down with the bad guys and getting nothing," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said of Ban.

As the Obama administration explores the merits of engagement with its adversaries, including Iran, North Korea and Syria, Ban's diplomatic strategy offers insights into some of the political risks of haggling with the world's most difficult political leaders. Halfway through his first term, Ban is facing a leadership crisis as U.N. civil servants and diplomats here increasingly portray him as an ineffective administrator whose reluctance to hold outlaw leaders to account for bad behavior has undercut the United Nations' moral authority.

For Ban, perhaps the greatest test of engagement as a policy came earlier this year.

In Sri Lanka, where the government was pushing to crush the ruthless Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the secretary general reached out to President Mahinda Rajapaksa to persuade him to show restraint to protect the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians forced to serve as the Tigers' human shields.

In an effort to maintain a cordial working relationship with Rajapaksa, Ban and his top advisers withheld criticism of the government, advising U.N. human rights officials not to publish U.N. estimates of the civilian death toll in the conflict, arguing that they were not convinced of their credibility, according to officials familiar with the discussions. In the end, Ban's diplomatic intervention achieved a brief weekend pause in the fighting but did little to stem to slaughter, which cost the lives of 7,800 to 20,000 civilians.

Ban says he won commitments from Sri Lankan leaders to improve conditions for displaced people and to pursue reconciliation, but his handling of such crises has raised questions among some U.N. diplomats about his viability for a second term.

Norway's U.N. ambassador, Mona Juul, wrote that Ban is a "spineless and charmless" leader who has failed to convey the U.N.'s "moral voice and authority," according to a confidential memo to Norway's foreign minister. Juul, whose husband, Terje Roed-Larsen, serves as one of Ban's Middle East envoys, sharply criticized Ban's handling of the crises in Sri Lanka and Burma in the memo, which was first published in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.

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