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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2673

New U.N. Chief Could Be an Asset in Korean Crisis

By Thalif Deen - Inter Press Service

United Nations,12 October, (IPS) : When U. Thant of Burma (now Myanmar) was the first -- and last -- Asian Secretary-General of the United Nations during 1961-1971, the former Burmese ambassador was described as modest and low-key compared with his high-profile predecessor, Sweden's Dag Hammarskjold, who died in a plane crash in Africa in 1961.

Rames Nassif, a former press spokesman for U. Thant, once recalled a rumor floating around the U.N. delegate's lounge that French diplomats secretly despised the secretary-general for not speaking French (an unforgivable sin by French standards), and ridiculed him in private because he was "too short".

When he heard these rumors, U. Thant is supposed to have told his friends: "Why should the French be complaining: I am taller than Napoleon -- and Napoleon did not speak English."

In the current issue of "Irrawaddy", a monthly magazine published by Burmese political exiles, Aung Zaw recounts the day when U. Thant riled the United States with his response to a question from a reporter about the possible use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam: "As you are no doubt aware, I am against the use of atomic weapons for destructive purposes anywhere, under any circumstances. Anybody who proposes the use of atomic weapons is, in my view, out of his mind."

U. Thant also apparently hinted that the United States decided to use nuclear weapons against the Japanese -- in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Aug 1945 -- because they were "non-whites".

Not surprisingly, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea who will soon be appointed the second Asian secretary-general of the United Nations, has vowed to virtually plunge headlong into the current nuclear crisis in his neighborhood.

"As I have gained much deeper understanding and experience into the inter-Korean relationship, including North Korea, I think I will be in a much better position to handle this issue as secretary-general," the South Korean foreign minister said last week.

He also made the point that although current Secretary-General Kofi Annan has kept himself engaged in the North Korean crisis, he has not been able to visit Pyongyang during the last 10 years of his tenure as U.N. chief.

But how far Ban will succeed in his mission is left to be seen -- judging by the unpredictability of North Korean leaders and their decision to test a nuclear weapon early this week, triggering a political storm worldwide.

Asked whether his designated successor would be the right person to handle the crisis in North Korea, Annan told reporters Wednesday: "I think he has an advantage in the sense that he has been personally deeply involved with the issue already."

Annan said that Ban knows the culture and the region well. "And he knows the key players involved. I think that should stand him in good stead. Whether he should go there directly and when will depend very much on the circumstances and that will be a question of judgment for him to make."

Asked about the selection process which resulted in the Security Council's nomination of Ban for the post of secretary-general, Bill Pace, director of the Institute for Global Policy, said while the General Assembly and the Security Council have much more to do to improve the selection process, "this year the process was much more transparent and accountable."

The General Assembly, which has not rejected any nominees recommended by the Security Council in the 61-year history of the world body, will formally appoint Ban as the new secretary-general on Friday.

Pace said that by calling for official nominations and conducting publicized "straw polls", the governments, media and civil society were able to follow this crucial selection process much more effectively than in the past.

"We have known, for example, since July that Ban Ki-moon and U.N. Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor (of India) were far in the lead, giving these sectors two to three months to delve into their backgrounds, qualifications, campaigns and positions," Pace told IPS.

"While the improvements have not insured the best candidate, they have helped prevent unqualified candidates from emerging or being seriously considered," he added.

Don Kraus, executive vice president of Citizens for Global Solutions, said: "The United Nations needs a leader who can effectively forge alliances among diverse parties. And Ban Ki-Moon has already exemplified his aptitude for this."

"The election of this secretary general was the most transparent in the organization’s history and the least contentious," Kraus told IPS.

In the past, he noted, an announced candidate such as Ban Ki Moon would not have made the final cut, yet he surfaced unscathed with broad support for his candidacy.

"That's a testament to his superb diplomatic capabilities something that is much needed as the challenges taken on by the United Nations become increasingly complex," Kraus added.

Speaking in his capacity as the convener of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC), Pace said: "I was able to meet with Ban Ki-moon for a 1.5 hour session with a small audience two weeks ago. And I believe, while he is quiet spoken and not as good a speaker as Annan or other candidates, his responses to very detailed and tough questions impressed me much more than I expected."

For example, Pace pointed out, that on two key human rights, peace and security issues, his position on the International Criminal Court (ICC) and on "Responsibility to Protect" (RP) (against genocide and war crimes), Ban was very strong in his support.

"One could tell he understood both the new ICC treaty and RP norms better than most other candidates for secretary-general," Pace said.

"Further, while governments and other campaigners complained of his lack of expertise on U.N. issues, Ban demonstrated, I believe, that his tenure at the United Nations (as chief of staff to the South Korean General Assembly president in 2001) and his being in charge of U.N. issues for South Korea, has helped him to be very well versed on a wide range of issues, including peace, security, U.N. reform and development."

And whether he can translate his expertise into harmonious action -- that is the main question, Pace added.

He also pointed out that Ban will be the first secretary-general coming from a nation that has graduated from a developing country into a donor nation.

"Will he be able to bring this 'bridging' knowledge constructively into the resurgent divide between the rich and poor nations?" Pace asked.

- Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency -

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