Despair at UN over selection of 'faceless' Ban Ki-moon
as general secretary
· Officials 'glum' over choice to succeed Kofi Annan
· Staff believe US pushed for weakest candidate
Ewen MacAskill and Ed Pilkington in New York, and Jon
Watts in Beijing
Saturday October 7, 2006
Senior officials at the United Nations expressed
despair yesterday at the prospect of Kofi Annan being
succeeded as secretary general by Ban Ki-moon, the
South Korean foreign minister.
"The mood among staff is glum," one of the officials
said. "We are not very excited about the outcome."
With morale low at the UN after five years dominated
by divisions, deadlock and corruption, they are
sceptical about Mr Ban's ability to turn the
organisation round or provide the strong,
inspirational leadership they had been hoping for.
Another official, who has met Mr Ban several times,
said: "He is pretty faceless and does not have much
charisma. Kofi, for all his problems, is a man of
considerable dignity, political insight and wide
Officials, who requested anonymity on the grounds that
they would be working for Mr Ban, portray him as more
secretary than general, happier with the minutiae of
administrative detail than broad strategy, and a man
given to platitudes.
But the South Korean foreign ministry claimed the
perception of Mr Ban as weak is misleading. Park
Soogil, a veteran diplomat put forward by the ministry
for interview, said: "In the Oriental culture
leadership is assessed in a different way. One can
look very affable, very gentle, but inside his mind he
has a strong conviction ... appearance is one thing,
his firm beliefs and readiness to make tough decisions
Mr Park, who worked with Mr Ban, added: "He knows how
to disagree without being disagreeable."
The 15 members of the UN security council are
scheduled to vote on Monday to confirm Mr Ban, aged
62. He would take over on January 1, initially for a
five-year term, although most secretary generals are
offered the chance to serve a further five years.
The vote is a formality, given that 14 out of the 15
members of the security council backed Mr Ban in a
straw poll last week. Crucially, all five permanent
members of the security council, who each have a veto
that could have ended his chances, supported him.
After the security council his selection goes to the
192-member general assembly for a further vote,
expected about the middle of next week. The general
assembly is expected to rubber-stamp the security
council's choice, as it has done in the past.
Mr Ban will confront a range of problems on taking
office, ranging from conflicts worldwide to
long-overdue UN internal reforms. "It is going to be a
nightmare," an official said. "There is no time to
Although Mr Ban was supported by Britain and France in
the straw poll, they did so reluctantly, according to
one UN insider. In private both countries wanted the
selection process to run for another month or so in
the hope that a more impressive candidate might come
forward. In the end, they concluded it was not
feasible to hold out against the enthusiastic backing
of the US, China and Russia.
A senior western diplomat said Mr Ban promised to be
one of the hardest-working secretary generals the UN
has ever had. "His commitment and effort level will be
unsurpassed," he said.
But the diplomat expressed concern that Mr Ban's lack
of communication skills, in contrast with the easy
fluency and charm of Mr Annan, will tell against him.
"He may find that he is not instantly media-friendly
to a US-based audience," the diplomat said.
Of more pressing concern, the diplomat disclosed that
Mr Ban, though he has been campaigning for the post
since last year, did not have a programme for his
first five years. "He's a bit opaque," the diplomat
said. Western missions at the UN are busily offering
Mr Ban campaigned on a vague platform of support for
UN reform, transparency and the free market.
UN officials are convinced that the Bush
administration, ideologically hostile to the UN and
still smarting from Mr Annan's opposition to the Iraq
war, wanted the weakest candidate possible.
But Yasuhiko Yoshida, a Korea specialist at Saitama
University in Japan, does not see weakness as
necessarily a drawback: "Ban lacks the toughness
needed to reform the UN. But that is why he has been
chosen ... a weak man is an appropriate choice. The
best role that Ban can play is not a leader, but a
good coordinator and harmoniser of views."
He described Mr Ban as "intelligent, polite, moderate
and honest. In the past three years he has proved
himself a very astute and sophisticated diplomat."
Paul Kennedy, professor of international history at
Yale and the author of a recent book on the UN, said
it was to some extent inevitable that the next
secretary general would be a blank sheet, if only
because the selection system is geared that way.
"It is one of the golden rules that the UN doesn't
want someone who is controversial and who, in carrying
through policies, has offended or got the back up of
other countries. People may snort in indignation about
faceless bureaucrats, but it was almost certain that
the process would throw up someone who was not a
Prof Kennedy believes Mr Ban has the benefit in his
new job of enjoying the backing of both the US, with
its tendency to push for intervention, and China,
which is reluctant to interfere in the internal
affairs of member states. "If anyone is going to try
to bridge the gap between them then it would be
somebody like this guy whom they both trust partly
because he is not dramatic."
The Times reported last week that South Korea, as part
of a campaign to help Mr Ban, had pledged millions of
dollars in aid to countries with seats on the security
council, from an $18m (£9.6m) education grant to
Tanzania to the gift of a grand piano to Peru.
Mr Park described the accusations as unfounded and
claimed it was based on a misunderstanding: South
Korea has been gradually increasing its aid programme.
But one UN official said sarcastically that it had
just been "an accident of history" that South Korea's
largesse to Africa coincided with the secretary
He added that two Asian ministers had been
sufficiently concerned about it to have raised the
issue with him earlier this year.
Conflicts and climate change: the task ahead
Iran and North Korea By the time the new secretary
general takes over on January 1, UN officials fear
North Korea will have conducted a nuclear test and he
will have to oversee the imposition of sanctions
against North Korea, as well as against Iran over its
alleged nuclear weapons ambitions.
Lebanon peacekeeping mission The UN force in Lebanon
is vulnerable to a renewal of conflict involving
either Hizbullah or Israel or both.
Darfur The UN has failed over the past three years to
resolve one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the
Israel-Palestine He will have to be a mediator in the
long-running conflict that poisons relations between
the west and the Arab world.
Climate change Potentially more dangerous than all the
conflicts put together. He will need to persuade the
US administration to change policy, as well as big
polluting countries such as China.
HIV/Aids The UN launched a global campaign last year
with ambitious goals.
Poverty The UN has equally ambitious goals for poverty
reduction, with a deadline of 2015.
UN reform The US sees reform primarily as rooting out
corruption and tackling inefficiency. Other, poorer
countries see it as changing the power balance to end
the supremacy of the US, China, Russia, Britain and
France as permanent members of the security council.
Ban Ki-moon has been South Korea's foreign minister
for almost three years. In that time he has reformed
the ministry but at the same time the country's
foreign policy has been been thrown into disarray,
mainly because of divisions over how to tackle North
Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions.
Mr Ban, born in Chungju in 1944, won a US-sponsored
English contest at school that allowed him to travel
to America to meet President John F Kennedy, a
encounter Mr Ban claims inspired him to enter public
He has a wry sense of humour. When he enrolled at the
John F Kennedy school of government at Harvard in 1983
he introduced himself as JFK. When eyebrows were
raised, he said: "Just From Korea."
According to his colleagues, he decided to run for the
secretary general's job last year after surveying the
lacklustre field of candidates and calculating that
his chances were good.
A former colleague, Park Soogil, said Mr Ban liked
reading and golf, but "his main hobby is work".
He is married with three children.