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.
"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.
Ban bridles at the suggestion that his trip was a failure, saying he has established a vital personal channel to the Burmese leader. Ban said he also prevailed upon Than Shwe to allow him to address a gathering of Burmese officials, academics and relief groups, where he sharply criticized Burma's human rights record and publicly chided Than Shwe for rebuffing his request to see Suu Kyi. "That was unprecedented," Ban said.
Burmese opposition leaders say that while they appreciate Ban's efforts, they do not think he has moved the country toward democracy. "I don't want to say it was totally nothing," Burma's exiled prime minister, Sein Win, said during a recent visit to U.N. headquarters. "When you look at the immediate impact, of course, we could not see anything."'Spotlight' on Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, Ban and his advisers sought to perform a delicate balancing act. They pressed the country's leader in private to halt the shelling of civilian zones, while avoiding an open confrontation with cautiously worded public statements about the violence.
Human rights advocates faulted Ban for not pressing hard enough to hold Sri Lanka accountable for its actions. Days after the war ended, the secretary general signed a joint agreement with Rajapaksa committing Sri Lanka to pursue political reconciliation with ethnic Tamils and to release hundreds of thousands of displaced ethnic Tamils in government-controlled camps.
In exchange, Ban dropped a U.N. push for an independent investigation into war crimes, leaving it to Sri Lanka to determine whether its military was responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians in the final offensive. Two days later, Sri Lankan diplomats, citing the agreement, quashed a proposal by the top U.N. human rights official to create an independent commission of inquiry to probe war crimes in the country.
Some diplomats have defended Ban's handling of the crisis, saying he pushed far more aggressively to protect Sri Lankan civilians than did any government, including the United States, India, China, Russia and key European powers.
"He put a spotlight on what was happening in Sri Lanka," said John Sawers, Britain's U.N. ambassador. "So it's not perfect in Sri Lanka; far too many civilians got killed and there is still an outstanding problem with the civilians in the [Internally Displaced Persons] camps. But I believe Ban's engagement made the situation less bad than it would otherwise have been."