UN must move from sound bites to action
- UN must move from sound bites to action
Steve Crawshaw* | International Herald Tribune | January 24, 2007
During his first few weeks as UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon
seems to have had a hard time treading the line between his
diplomat's desire to be Mr. Nice, and the requirements of a job in
which speaking truth to power is essential.
Ban's reluctance to condemn the death penalty outright was
dismaying, especially in the context of Saddam Hussein's execution
though he subsequently discovered stronger language. On other
issues, he has made the right noises, but he must move from sound
bites to action.
This week, Ban embarked on his first foreign trip as secretary
general arriving first in Brussels and Paris before heading on to
Kinshasa and then Addis Ababa for the African Union summit meeting
next week. This trip will give him the opportunity to show he
intends to be a real leader on human rights even at the risk of
With the continued killing in Darfur, real pressure is needed on
Khartoum including from the secretary general himself. Even now,
despite Sudan's resumption of indiscriminate bombing, and the
spillover of violence into eastern Chad, there has been too little
pressure for Khartoum to end its abusive polices. Instead,
shamelessly, Sudan is even seeking to be elected as chair of the
African Union at the meeting next week.
Some of the necessary diplomatic skills will come easily to Ban, who
was South Korea's foreign minister before taking on the UN post. But
gentle words only go so far. Outspokenness is needed, too above
all from the secretary general, with his international authority.
Sudan continues to resist efforts to strengthen the African Union
force in Darfur with UN troops. That must change. For huge numbers
of civilians across the region, caution has already proved deadly.
In Congo, too, Ban must not mince his words about the scale of the
problems still facing the country, though many will be eager for him
to do so. After a series of wars resulted in millions of civilian
deaths, elections last year brought some hope for stability. But the
situation remains deeply unstable. Any weakening of the UN
peacekeeping force, in size or mandate, could risk Congo slipping
back into chaos.
On his return to New York, Ban must emphasize that human rights
cannot be sidelined. So far, his much-repeated mantra has been on
the importance of UN reform. Few would disagree that management and
structural reform is needed. But what price better management if Ban
does not provide a voice for the unheard victims of abuse around the
world? Ban talks of the need for "harmony." So far, so genteel. But
there is also the danger of a false harmony, achieved by placating
powerful and abusive governments.
In some areas at least, Ban has sent positive signals, including an
emphasis on women's rights. A United Nations panel recently
acknowledged that the UN's own contribution to achieving gender
equality has seemed "incoherent, under-resourced and fragmented."
That can change. But Ban's own commitment will be needed to make the
panel's recommendations happen including a more streamlined
approach and the creation of a unified body responsible for gender
equality which could at last be more effective in working, for
example, towards the goal of achieving girls' full access to
Above all, Ban must help move things from fine words to tangible
reality. World leaders agreed in 2005 on their shared responsibility
to protect civilians from serious war crimes and genocide. So far,
that policy remains mere rhetoric, as the continuing nightmare in
Darfur vividly reminds us. With sufficient determination, Ban could
move the policy towards reality for the first time.
He can also help reinvigorate the new Human Rights Council, which
during the past year has been entangled in politicking of the most
Human rights are not a fringe issue, to be dealt with only once
the "grown-up" issues of peace and security are out of the way. On
the contrary, the protection of human rights promotes peace and
security. In theory, Ban accepts the linkage, which his predecessor
frequently emphasized. But in practice that means that boldness will
sometimes have to trump caution. If Ban wants to be favorably
remembered by history, he will do well to bear that simple truth in
*Steve Crawshaw is United Nations advocacy director at Human Rights