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  Global Views
Ban Ki-moon vs. the Bad Guys
By James Traub
Mr. Ban Ki-Moon was elected on Oct. 13, 2006 as Secretary General of the United Nations while he was serving as South Korea's foreign minister. Mr. Ban will officially be inaugurated as UN secretary general on Jan. 1, 2007.

As he prepares to take office as Secretary General of the United Nations on New Year's Day, Ban Ki-moon, South Korea's foreign minister, has vowed to improve the institution's beleaguered reputation.

Some of the changes he has in mind, like improving coordination among the U.N.'s many agencies, are essentially bureaucratic — but others concern issues of great moral and geopolitical moment.

Ban appears to share the incumbent Kofi Annan's conviction that the United Nations must promote human rights around the world. To that end, he has sworn to make the new Human Rights Council, established to replace a notoriously toothless predecessor, live up to "the heightened expectations of the international community." Is he promising more than he can deliver?

The old Human Rights Commission routinely fell victim to gross human rights violators who gained a position on the body and devoted themselves to quashing resolutions criticizing anyone among their number. In the ambitious reform package Annan formulated last year, he proposed a new organization with better financing, wider powers and more stringent requirements for membership: aspirants would have to win the support of two-thirds of the U.N.'s members to secure a spot. But thanks to a combination of resistance from states that preferred the status quo and maladroit American diplomacy, the two-thirds requirement was reduced to a mere majority.

The Bush administration refused to endorse this compromised institution or to seek a place on it. Cuba, China, Russia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, sought and won seats. And the outcome was numbingly familiar: efforts by Western countries and human rights organizations to criticize gross abusers like Uzbekistan failed, while a campaign orchestrated by the Organization of Islamic Countries produced two separate resolutions condemning Israel. The final tally of censure was Israel 2, everyone else 0.

But halfhearted reform was not really the problem. Even if council contenders had been required to win the support of two-thirds of U.N. members, the most egregious human rights violators would still have won their seats without breaking a sweat. (Saudi Arabia would have fallen one vote short but presumably could have found a vote if it had needed one.) The council's failure was, if anything, a democratic one. Twenty-six of the 47 members come from either Africa or Asia, and in retrospect it seems naïve to imagine that a body broadly representative of the U.N.'s membership would enforce standards of state responsibility observed chiefly in the West. After all, even the Security Council, where the West has a larger voice, has barely been able to muster a response to the atrocities in Darfur and has been altogether silent in the face of lesser horrors in places like Zimbabwe.

The problem lies with the United Nations itself. The United Nations necessarily reflects not only its own ideals but also the interests and internal conditions of its member states, and it turns out that the universal principles enshrined in documents like the U.N.'s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not, in fact, universally accepted. What's more, the fact that the United States, the world's most voluble exponent of the virtues of freedom, has itself been accused of trifling with civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism has further undermined the enterprise. Or perhaps American behavior simply offers a useful pretext for stonewalling: so long as most of the U.N.'s members — including many of the official democracies — are fundamentally undemocratic, bodies like the Human Rights Council are almost bound to fail.

Should we, then, accept that the United Nations lacks the moral authority to defend the principles enumerated in its own landmark declarations? That would be tantamount to accepting the institution's disposability. Instead, we should look elsewhere. In a sense, the moral core of the U.N. lies in the office of the secretary general, who stands above the interests of states and thus speaks for all men and women. For all that we may regard him today as a reduced figure, Kofi Annan won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 essentially for having embraced the rhetorical and moral responsibility of his office.

Annan's two finest moments may have been a 1997 speech rebuking African heads of state for behaving as if human rights were a Western preoccupation that did not apply to their own citizens and his address to the General Assembly two years later in which he argued passionately that the United Nations must protect people from atrocities committed by their own governments, even if that entails "humanitarian intervention." Many of the third-world countries that denounced the idea as a violation of state sovereignty embraced it six years later when the General Assembly formally adopted "the responsibility to protect." Words, of course, are cheap, and few of those states are prepared to help save the beleaguered people of Darfur. But Annan had at least forced the U.N. to focus on the rights of people rather than of states.

The iron grip of regimes all over the world is threatened by growing demands for both economic and political liberty. It's true, in this sense, that the international community has heightened expectations of the United Nations. And this brings us back to Ban Ki-moon. Both Washington and Beijing, which together played the decisive role in the selection process, sought a candidate who would be more "secretary" than "general." And in Ban, a bland and placatory public speaker, they seem to have found their man. Ban has spoken chiefly of managerial issues and from all appearances is a very recent convert to the cause of human rights. Yet if no amount of reform can change the underlying dynamics of the Human Rights Council, then it is the secretary general himself who must meet those expectations. Ban Ki-moon will have to find his voice.

James Traub, a contributing writer, is the author of a new book, "The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the U.N. in the Era of American World Power."




 

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