From the Middle East to Myanmar, Thailand to the South China Sea, we find only a litany of UN failures
Ban Ki-moon last week ended his decade as secretary-general of the United Nations amid praise from many quarters, but this was mere diplomacy. Astute witnesses to his two terms in office know that, given the chance to stop wars, forge peace and foster international fraternity, to make the world safer and more equitable to all, he accomplished precious little. His primary goal on taking office at the beginning of 2007 was to bring lasting peace to the Middle East. In this too he failed. Ban’s achievements in the area of environmental
protection, specifically the Paris Protocol on climate change, allow him a legacy that is mixed at best.
One might sympathise with Ban after what he aptly described as a decade of unceasing challenges. Conflicts constantly boiled up around the world and more often than not resisted all efforts at resolution – in Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Congo just name a few.
Syria in particular, though, demonstrated the ineffectiveness of Ban’s UN. Just hours before he left office a truce in the fighting suddenly became possible – not through the auspices of the UN but through agreement within a coalition of combatants (Russia, Turkey and the Syrian government) and Iran, a sponsor of the war. All four are now regarded as foes of the West and its regional allies. The UN resolutely failed to get the warriors negotiating and Ban was hapless in pushing members of UN Security Council to work out a solution.
It is difficult to fairly gauge Ban’s inability, over the course of his 10 years in office, to muster the necessary cooperation for such resolutions among world leaders, and yet there was failure elsewhere too. Most worryingly, North Korea is today more of a nuclear threat than ever. The Myanmar army is involved in atrocities that some describe as genocide. More by luck than design, the squabble over territory and sovereignty in the South China Sea has calmed, though, again, no thanks to the UN but rather to the good sense of the belligerents themselves. In Asia and elsewhere, it is the shared desire for peace and stability that’s prevented conflict, not the authority of the UN or its once-vaunted peacekeeping troops.
It is interesting that Ban devoted much of his second term to human rights in Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Post-coup Thailand has, rightfully, come under strenuous criticism from the UN regarding rights, especially the curtailing of free speech. It appeared that Ban had decided, as an Asian, that his lasting legacy should entail the safeguarding of democratic rights in Southeast Asia (certainly a goal more easily accomplished than pacifying the Middle East). In pursuing this aim, however, Ban rarely took non-Asian countries to task for similarly trampling on basic freedoms. Their exclusion from his diatribes was sorely noted here.
Ban’s successor as UN secretary general, Antonio Gutierrez, assumes office with the Syrian crisis entering a risky new phase, other zones of conflict still simmering and terrorists at large everywhere. It’s his turn now to face the challenges, but there is one area in which he is expected to do better than Ban. As the UN’s long-time High Commissioner for Refugees, Gutierrez visited Myanmar refugees encamped on the Thai border in 2006. A relative handful of them have returned home since October, but even the repatriation of a few is a positive development. Far more daunting will be the migration crisis afflicting Europe, yet there is confidence that the new UN chief, a former prime minister of Portugal, is better poised to tackle that task too than was his predecessor.