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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)

"The Secretary-General was a powerless observer to thousands of civilians losing their lives and becoming displaced from their homes," Juul wrote of Ban's role in Sri Lanka. "The moral voice and authority of the Secretary-General has been missing."

Ban has been stung by the criticism and said he is striving to improve his performance. But he suggested that the criticism stemmed from a misunderstanding in the West of his Asian diplomatic approach. "We need to be able to respect the culture, tradition and leadership style of each and every leader," Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, told reporters in a visit to Oslo on Monday. "I have my own charisma, I have my own leadership style."

Mission to Burma

Despite the criticism, Ban still enjoys the support of the United Nations' most powerful countries, including the United States, China and Britain, and of the U.S. Congress, which has recently voted to pay off American debt to the United Nations.

Ban's advisers say the criticism is patently unfair and does not take into account his willingness to speak out against abuses. Ban infuriated China by criticizing its treatment of ethnic Uighurs in western China, he has spoken out against Iranian President Mamhoud Ahmedinijad's nuclear ambitions and his frequent anti-Israeli remarks, and he has publicly scolded the powerful Group of Eight industrial powers for not committing to steeper emissions cuts.

Still, U.N. officials and diplomats are concerned that the criticism of Ban's political mediation is overshadowing what they believe is his most important accomplishment: rallying international support for a treaty that would reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

The Obama administration has publicly praised Ban's performance. But before joining the administration, Samantha Power, the White House's top U.N. specialist, was a sharp critic of Ban's diplomatic style, characterizing his handling of the Darfur crisis as "extremely disappointing."

"Can we afford to do without a global figure, a global leader?" she told the New Statesman, a British magazine, last year.

U.S. officials say that Power's comments do not reflect the views of the administration and that they were made before she had an opportunity to work closely with Ban.

"Secretary General Ban has one of the most difficult jobs in the world," Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement. "I believe he is principled, hard-working, cares deeply and is willing to take risks to carry out his mission." Rice also credited Ban with increasing the number of women in senior posts and "bringing countries together to tackle challenges such as climate change and global health."

But Rice has differed with Ban over his engagement strategy, and she cautioned him against traveling to Burma in July. Rice argued that a high-profile meeting with the Burmese military ruler would make him look weak unless he extracted a clear commitment to democratic reform, according to U.N. officials.

During his visit, Than Shwe bluntly rejected Ban's appeal to release opposition leader Aung San Su Kyi; Ban's request to meet with her also was denied. Five weeks later, a Burmese court sentenced Suu Kyi to 18 additional months under house arrest, ensuring that she will not participate in the country's national elections next year.

But Burma's ruler subsequently allowed another visitor, Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), to meet with Suu Kyi and to take home a U.S. citizen, John Yettaw, who had been sentenced to seven years in prison for paying an unauthorized visit to her villa.

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