Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Unknown but Thorny Job of UN Secretary General

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was recently reelected by UN General Assembly for a second 5-year term. The seasoned diplomat who brought glory to Korea, pulling a hometown crowd of over 50,000 in wild celebrations after his first election in 2006 as eighth Secretary General of the world organization has sought to bring new steam into the organization through what is commonly referred to as “quiet diplomacy.” He has nevertheless also come under intense criticism for further “drifting the organizations into irrelevance.”
What does someone serving as UN Secretary General actually do?
For decades, emphasis has been constricted to the title with very little about what it all entails. To summarize, he manages the secretariat and mediates in global crises in addition to executing instructions from the Security Council as well as the General Assembly. So how daunting could this be to be considered by some, including first UN Secretary General Trygve Lie as the most impossible job in the world?
For one thing, the UN is a complex mosaic of organizations that operate with dissenting voices having contrasting interests, and not simply a private company whose owner can will it to any direction he deems fit to catch in on earnings. Managing over 9000 staff in New York and related offices and moderating between the interests of the General Assembly, Security Council and other major UN organs definitely takes the breath of a dragon.
The expectation of citizens in every sate around the world is that since their governments contribute to the UN, the Secretary General in turn must support only the decisions that are most favorable to them. Their governments and statesmen keep presenting him with difficult problems that are neither within his administrative nor legal capacity to resolve. North Korea is asking him to uplift the US-led United Nations Command in Korea; the Southern Cameroon National Council (SCNC) is asking him to ratify the “independence” of Southern Cameroon and arrest and try Cameroon’s President Paul Biya for crimes against humanity;  the European Union wants him to speed up gender reforms; the Iranian leadership is demanding that he suppresses any suspicion on the intentions for its nuclear program being for peaceful purposes; South Korea wants him to categorically hold North Korea responsible for last year’s bombing of its naval vessel “the Cheonan;” the United States is asking him to back its efforts to downsize troops from Afghanistan; both Israeli and Palestinian officials are seeking his recognition to their sovereign claims; and even gays are charging him to address issues related to their sexual orientation and offer recognition to their gender identity. At the same time, warring parties engaged in atrocious acts of human rights violation in some conflicts detest any UN involvement, demanding that the Secretary-general stay-off. In the end when lives are lost, he is held responsible and considered a traitor, and gold bounties are placed on his head like was done on that of Kofi Anan in 2004.
This indeed is a difficult job – so difficult that even the inspired architects of the UN found it hard to conceive of the role in concrete terms. Prior to the creation of the organization, one of its founding fathers, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had conceived of the role as that of “world moderator.” Drafters of the UN Charter rather opted it to be that of “chief executive officer” and today’s generation methodically confuse him to be “president of presidents.” The Secretary General suddenly finds himself having to choose from this confused conceptualization to build his leadership while risking developing one of his own.
Evaluation of the performance of the Secretary General is greatly shaped by every country’s view of its position in the international arena of competing interests. Many who have blamed current Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for being an uncharismatic, unimaginative, unassertive lame dock offer little help in exploring ways in which the job can be better performed with regards to practicality, legitimacy and effectiveness. They have mostly wished to see a superman providing hypnotic solutions to the world’s problems. A snap-shot assessment of his role is neither in the best interest of the organization nor that of the international community.
It is true that the Secretary General is the representative symbol of the UN but while his employers sought to project him to such a status, they wittily or unwittingly limited the amount of power and influence he could ever exert. Far more could have been expected of him if he had his own trump card like the Security Council members and could have had a bolder voice in issues of hard power, and not just in the soft themes of development, climate change and poverty.
It is enormously challenging to attentively listen to 193 mostly conflicting and often threatening voices, yet remaining impartial as required by Article 100 of the Charter. The Secretary General is expected to withstand pressures from bossy Security Council members whose strategic interests must be protected at all times. They are mostly the financial engine of the organization. The burden of aggressively persuading them to take action for common good or refrain from taking action for their self-gains lies with him and he is expected to succeed at this even without being a decision maker himself. He is asked to mobilize global support, including from wayward and rebellious member states and is charged with upholding the values and moral authority of the UN, speaking and acting for peace even at the occasional risk of challenging and disagreeing with the member states.
Lashing out criticisms at the Secretary General without properly understanding the context within which he functions makes us unruly hangmen of an organization that is trying to rebound itself and adapt more effectively in critically challenging times.
The job of UN Secretary General might not only be the most difficult but could also be the most easily misinterpreted job on earth! In current uncertain times when the world demands and looks even more to the UN for solutions to critical problems, there is need to have proper understanding of the role of the Secretary General beyond the lofty but disoriented traditional view of him as owner of the UN enterprise. It would be helpful to particularly discern what he cannot do as a measure of moderating expectations of the job. This in itself could be an important starting point to overcoming the problems.
Of course, the Secretary General could have problems and weaknesses of his own, but it could prove helpful seeing the UN’s failures as a result of ill-conceived structural and ideological processes that include ambiguity over the role of Secretary General. The five permanent Security Council members remain at the core of decision making at the UN. The Charter granted them unrivalled powers, especially in the veto and it might not be in the Secretary General’s legal or administrative ability to bend their will in substantive issues related to hard power.
Tandia T. Vernasius teaches in the Department of International Relations at Daegu University. He may be contacted at