By Rodney Reynolds
When former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stepped down on December 31 after a 10-year tenure at the United Nations, he said his “deepest regret” was to leave office with “the continuing nightmare in Syria” where a six-year-old civil war has virtually devastated a country beyond physical recognition.
As Ambassador Marc-Andre Blanchard told a General Assembly December meeting that without action, Syria would soon become “a giant graveyard, as food supplies have been exhausted and families were eating grass and the little garbage left,” in order to survive.
But over the past decade – with the Security Council deadlocked on key issues – Syria was not the only unresolved political and military crisis that Ban regrettably left behind.
Among the ongoing political hotspots – some of which he inherited from his predecessors – were Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, South Sudan, Palestine, Western Sahara, the Democratic Republic of Congo, plus a defiant North Korea going nuclear.
In the last few months before his departure, Ban was quick to claim credit for three lasting legacies: the historic Paris Climate Change agreement, the Addis Ababa Action Plan and the UN’s much-trumpeted post-2015 development agenda, including 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
As Ambassador Peter Thomson of Fiji, president of the 193-member General Assembly, pointed out, the three agreements, if fully implemented, will provide humanity with a “master plan” to eliminate extreme poverty and hunger, empower women and girls, build an inclusive society and combat climate change.
But the successful implementation of these agreements will depend largely on political will, and more importantly, on billions of dollars in financial resources. But how achievable are these?
Ban has also rightly taken credit for the creation of a UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), while also ensuring an increase in the number of women in senior positions in the world body.
But the few positives have been eroded by the many negatives, including a rise in sexual abuses in peacekeeping missions overseas and a disastrous cholera epidemic in Haiti spread by UN peacekeepers — both under Ban’s watch at the UN.
George A. Lopez, the Hesburgh Chair in Peace Studies, emeritus, at the University of Notre Dame and a former member of the UN Panel of Experts monitoring sanctions on North Korea, told IDN that assessing the tenure of Ban Ki-moon generates – quite rightly — both harsh disdain and modest praise.
“In the former area, his legacy will always be defined by two glaring UN tragedies turned scandals for which he failed to mobilize remedies quickly or accept UN responsibility,” he said.
The first was the autumn 2010 outbreak of cholera in earthquake-devastated Haiti that originated in a UN peacekeeping camp.
Lopez said UN foot-dragging and denials continued until the end of Ban’s term, by which time cholera deaths had exceeded 10,000 and those continuing afflicted approached 800,000.
Secondly, he pointed out, sexual abuse by French and African members of UN peacekeeping operations in Africa surfaced in 2013 and numbered in the hundreds as Ban left office.
“The administrative debacle continues as cover-ups and impunity are not yet addressed in full,” he noted.
Sanam Anderlini, co-founder and Executive Director of International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), told IDN: “I think Ban Ki-Moon missed a critical opportunity to articulate a clear inspirational vision for the UN in the 21st century as the central pillar of the global peace architecture.”
“But in his time, some of the nuts and bolts of what we need, was put in place,” she said, pointing out some of the mechanisms instituted to ensure more outreach to women and civil society in UN-led peace processes as in Syria, Yemen and Somalia, to name a few.
“But there is much more that needs to be done, and lessons apply. We cannot underestimate the value of what’s been achieved and the opportunity to enable some constructive experimentation.”
Still, she singled out the ongoing ruthless war in Yemen as “the worst outcome of Ban’s tenure as Secretary-General”.
“It must be stated regardless of what effort was put into preventing the war – it was sadly on his watch,” she noted.
The Security Council, the UN body whose sole responsibility is to prevent one member state waging war against another – voted to support Saudis bombing of Yemen, Anderlini added.
“It is a travesty for Yemenis, and the greatest blow to the ideals, the spirit and the raison d’etre of the UN,” she declared.
Paying a compliment to the former UN chief, Lopez said Ban’s determination and demeanor, as well as his attention to the needs of middle and lower tier member states, did result in noteworthy advances.
He persuaded world leaders to build from a UN-driven success in poverty and child mortality reductions via the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to adopt 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The latter has been particularly successful in attracting private sector participation and some of the globe’s most entrepreneurial talent, he added.
Ban’s crowning achievement is likely to be forging the Paris Accords as a far-reaching and politically viable response to the crisis of climate change.
Much like his predecessors, Ban leaves office still frustrated by the reality that while the UN has its own unique organizational capabilities, it is still restrained in matters of war and peace because it can be only as effective as the P-5 power brokers (the US, UK, France, Russia and China) of the Security Council permit.
And in many ways, the US-UK rejection of Kofi Annan’s attempt to dissuade them from war in Iraq set the stage for Ban’s UN paralysis in restraining Russia in Syria, or lesser national powers in Libya and Yemen, said Lopez, who was engaged with colleagues at the UN University this year on a major edited volume, The Sanctions Enterprise: Assessing a Quarter Century of UN Action for Peace, Security and Human Rights, to be published by Cambridge University Press.