Special Report

Change Is Slow at Turtle Bay

The next Secretary-General of the United Nations -- most likely an Asian -- is not likely to outshine the mediocre Kofi Annan.

By 4.18.06

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Kofi Annan's tenure at the United Nations is soon mercifully coming to an end. Those hopeful for genuine reform of the troubled body, however, should not hold their breath. The United States was recently one of only four countries out of the 191-member General Assembly to vote against the creation of a Human Rights Council that may prove just as ineffectual as the discredited and now defunct Human Rights Commission. All of the rhetoric and international public congruency on the necessity to repair the organization have predictably been exposed as a charade. Compromise, a founding principle of the United Nations to ensure peace and human rights the world over, has led to paralysis and mediocrity. As the next secretary-general of the UN is decided this fall, little else should be anticipated but more of the same.

Much of the international community accepts that it is Asia's opportunity to lead the UN. While the United States and some of our European allies dismiss the unwritten rule of regional rotation for the secretary-general, most developing countries embrace the idea as a means to increase their power and standing on the international stage. The Bush administration reasonably feels that the most qualified candidate should be given the job, regardless of the region from which he came. Even the Bangkok Post -- Thailand has one of the three leading candidates for the post -- recognized that the "unwritten UN rules favor an Asian candidate for the top post for no reason that has to do with competence [or] brilliance."

Standards aside, none of this will likely have a great deal of impact on who assumes the role of secretary-general beginning in 2007. Russia and China strongly support the premise that the next head of the UN should come from Asia. Although an Eastern European has never assumed the role of secretary-general, this is of little concern to most outside the region. In fact, the very real possibility that former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski could succeed Annan -- Kwasniewski had tense relations with Russia and was an ally of the United States -- makes an Asian candidate vastly more attractive to Moscow. As a result, the Russian Embassy in South Korea suggested that the continent compromise on one candidate "and give him full support" as that "will be more efficient" in ensuring an Asian secretary-general. China, for its part, has stated that it will only support a candidate from Asia.

With Moscow and Beijing each having veto power as permanent members of the UN Security Council and the support from 53 countries in Africa for Asian leadership, it seems virtually certain that the next secretary-general will hail from the continent of Asia. At this point, there are three leading contenders for the top post, yet none are without their flaws.

CURRENTLY, IT APPEARS THAT THE MOST LIKELY successor to Kofi Annan will be South Korea's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon. As foreign minister, Ban has been afforded the opportunity to campaign around the world while conducting diplomatic excursions on behalf of South Korea. His deep involvement in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program has resulted in expanded relationships with the United States, Russia, China, and Japan. With all four of these nations represented in the Security Council -- the fifteen member body submits their candidate to the General Assembly for approval -- this is a highly significant advantage.

Germany has expressed some support for Ban, and the South Korean candidate meets the requirement indicated by French president Jacques Chirac that the new secretary-general should be able to speak French. United States Ambassador to the UN John Bolton has spoken favorably of Ban: "I've known the foreign minister since he served in Washington in the Bush forty-one administration and have a very high regard for him." Bolton explained that they have talked about the campaign for general secretary, but no public commitment has been or will be made. Additionally, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has endorsed Ban, providing him with the backing of one of the central foundations of the Arab world.

President Mubarak is not the only autocrat who has embraced the Ban candidacy. According to the Seoul daily Chosun Ilbo, Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's post-Soviet strongman, recently expressed that "he 'highly values' Ban's experience as a diplomat and said it would be difficult to find a better candidate." Such praise from the butcher of Andijan is not only disconcerting, but also suggests that Moscow and Beijing -- which have considerable influence on Uzbekistan -- may be leaning towards Ban.

Such a development would not be surprising. The rivalry between China and Japan in Asia is certain to play a role as the continent assumes the leadership of the "world body." Ban has had his share of differences with Tokyo over the last few years and there is little doubt that Beijing views this as an opportunity to improve its interests in Asia and the international arena. As South Korea's foreign minister, Ban strongly opposed Japan's campaign to attain a seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Further fault lines in the Ban-Tokyo relationship were exposed earlier this month by the South Korean news agency, Yonhap. On April 7, it was reported that South Korea uncovered an internal document by Japan's foreign ministry that claimed Seoul was pursuing an anti-Japanese policy to increase domestic political support. The dispute led Ban's foreign ministry to state: "The South Korean Foreign Ministry called in a minister at the Japanese embassy in Seoul...to deliver its protest letter over the insulting internal report allegedly written by the Japanese foreign ministry." Further tensions have recently surfaced regarding the disputed islets of Dodka -- the islands have been claimed by Japan since the forced annexation of Korea in 1910 -- which led Ban to claim: "I can't help feeling infuriated as a South Korean citizen over the distortion of South Korea's justifiable exercising of its sovereign rights as a political tool." Thus, it would come as little surprise if Tokyo were to campaign against the South Korean foreign minister this fall.

Additionally, serious concerns arise when examining the record of Ban Ki-moon. The South Korean foreign minister has consistently refused to address the human rights situation in North Korea. Additionally, Ban has led a foreign ministry that has proven rather incapable of persuading Pyongyang to act remotely responsible in nuclear negotiations. Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, notes: "People are taking a very close look at the candidacy of a man who will be coming into office as the chief spokesman for policy that does not want to talk about human rights in the government that abuses human rights more than any other in the whole world." If Ban seems indifferent to human rights abuses right across his border to a people with whom he shares a common heritage, how is he going to respond to human rights concerns in far off corners of the world?

THAILAND'S DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER Surakiart Sathirathai will most likely be Ban's greatest challenger. Surakiart has gained the endorsement of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and claims to have the support of as many as 128 countries in all. The latter attribute is widely considered exaggerated or all-out false, but there is additional speculation that the Thai candidate could end up with the post. Both of Surakiart's parents were educated in France and his mother is a renowned professor of French literature. These qualities will inevitably endear him to Paris. Surakiart has also been relatively supportive of United States' efforts in the War on Terror. The Bangkok Post announced nearly a year ago that China had placed "its weight behind Surakiart's bid." However, this occurred during a Chinese trip to drum up opposition to an expansion of the permanent members of the UN Security Council to include Japan, India, Germany, and Brazil and was likely no more than inconsequential diplomatic maneuvering on behalf of Beijing.

Added cracks in Surakiart's support structure are also apparent. In fact, even in his own country, calls for Surakiart's withdrawal have come from everywhere from the media to government officials. On September 30, 2005, Kasit Piromya, former Thai ambassador to the United States, advised Surakiart to abandon his candidacy due to a lack of support from Washington and little experience on issues such as human rights and democracy. Former Thai representative to the UN Asda Jayanama expressed his case for a withdrawal when he noted: "Surakiart has never ceased to amaze me with his clumsy, eager-beaver diplomacy. His quest for the position of UN secretary-general amply demonstrates his bungling working style." As Surakiart's domestic support wanes, his chances for broad international backing will inevitably fade.

The final serious candidate for the top post at the UN is Sri Lanka's Jayantha Dhanapala. Dhanapala is a former under-secretary-general for disarmament at the UN, and it remains to be seen how much of an impact he can have on the competition for Annan's job. Widely considered a compromise candidate, Dhanapala appears similar to Annan before the latter assumed the post in that he has done little to distinguish himself, and, therefore, is uncontroversial. Nevertheless, Dhanapala has advocated new laws and institutions to ban all ballistic missiles; a step that is not only contrary to the interest of the United States, but is plainly delusional. The Sri Lankan candidate has also stipulated that the American invasion of Iraq without Security Council authorization "undermines international law and the unity of the UN system and opens the way to an anarchic global society with no internationally accepted norms." Thus, there seems little reason for Washington to throw its support behind what appears to be yet another potential secretary-general hostile to America's interests.

Unfortunately, a candidate that is qualified, capable, and willing to alter the culture of mediocrity at the United Nations is nowhere to be found. Currently, it appears that South Korea's Ban Ki-moon will replace Kofi Annan as secretary-general, and while he may emerge as a more inspiring leader than his predecessor, it is doubtful he will improve this uninspiring organization. Therefore, barring a Bolton miracle, comprehensive reform will not come anytime soon. Change is indeed slow at Turtle Bay.

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About the Author

Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.