Negotiating change at the UN

The UN’s challenges include having effective peacekeeping operations within the African continent, confronting the growing challenge of terrorism in Mali, and the reform of the Security Council. In this exclusiveinterview, our Associate Editor, Osasu Obayiuwana, explores the key issues with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. No-one who has been up close to Ban Ki-moon, the 69-year-old […]


The UN’s challenges include having effective peacekeeping operations within the African continent, confronting the growing challenge of terrorism in Mali, and the reform of the Security Council. In this exclusiveinterview, our Associate Editor, Osasu Obayiuwana, explores the key issues with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

No-one who has been up close to Ban Ki-moon, the 69-year-old Secretary-General of the UN, can accuse him being a gung-ho, unpredictable character. Careful in his choice of words, when talking about the challenges of fire-fighting political problems and humanitarian disasters across the world, the diplomat comes across as rather austere.

But the South Korean’s understated mien, says an informed lawyer, who has worked within the UN system for many years, should not be mistaken for lack of thought or nuance. “He is very measured and is a very deep thinker. That is why he has not courted any serious controversy while at the top.”

On 14 December 2006, when he took the oath of office to succeed Ghanaian Kofi Annan as the eighth person to occupy the Secretary-General’s chair, Ban Ki-moon was frank in describing the immense challenges that continually confront the organisation, which is a year younger than him.
“The time has come for a new day in relations between the Secretariat and Member States. The dark night of distrust and disrespect has lasted far too long. We can begin by saying what we mean, and meaning what we say…

“Our publics will no longer respect an Organisation, or tolerate a Secretary-General, who caters to some, while ignoring the desperate plight of others. Together, we can – and must – do better. Our peoples and our future depend on it,” Ban poignantly observed.

Often with great difficulty, placed regularly on its path by member states, whose national interests are at variance with that of the UN’s global brief, the body is faced with the challenge of balancing competing interests and promoting harmony in a rapidly changing world.

It’s a hard fact Ban Ki-moon has lived with, in the seven years he’s occupied his red-hot seat, with three years of his second term still to run, where there will certainly be more banana skins lying in wait.

In the course of an exclusive interview, taking place at the headquarters of the African Union (AU), in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during its recent Golden Jubilee celebrations, the UN’s top man spoke about the challenges of having effective peacekeeping operations within the African continent, confronting the growing challenge of terrorism in Mali, as well as the pace – or the lack of it, some would say – of reform for the Security Council.

NA: There has been a lot of criticism that the UN’s peacekeeping force in DR Congo, which is the largest in the world and costs quite a lot (about $1.5 billion per annum) is having very serious challenges trying to keep peace in a country where there is none. How effective can the UN really be when the warring factions don’t have a framework within which the UN can enforce peace?
BK-M: MONUSCO (United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) has been really doing its best to protect the civilian population and establish political stability in the eastern part of the DRC.

After 17 years of operations, more than 150 peacekeepers have lost their lives. This should not be underestimated. Of course, the UN could have done much better and even more. But the primary responsibility rests with the FARDC (the armed forces of DR Congo) and the government of the DRC. The UN is there to assist.

We have a limited amount of soldiers; a limited amount of equipment and the land is vast… Therefore, you should understand the challenges under which the UN forces are operating. This is not what I wanted to do [defend MONUSCO against criticism]…

Considering the complexity of the security situation and its volatility, the UN has recommended, in consultation with regional leaders, particularly in the Great Lakes region, a unique way of peacekeeping operations, which is going to be fully operational soon – an intervention brigade.

Usually, UN peacekeeping forces have had a specific mandate by the Security Council. But what is being proposed is an unprecedented and very special mandate, which is to enforce peace and security 
proactively. The traditional concept 
and parameters of UN peacekeeping are to keep the peace. But this intervention brigade is to enforce the peace, which is completely different. The force will consist of about 3,000 troops, highly trained and well equipped.

I recently visited Goma and I saw many people who were really yearning and appealing for peace. I have travelled to many parts of Africa, many conflict zones. But I was very touched by the expectations that people there have of the UN.

Thousands of citizens in Goma came onto the streets and surrounded our convoy, wherever I went, holding little pieces of paper on which they said “No to war. We want peace.” All these wishes and expectations touched me, deeply. The UN and regional community leaders should do much more to meet the expectations of these people, who have been suffering for too long.

I visited the Heal Africa hospital in Goma, where I was moved to tears. I met so many female victims of sexual abuse. Those people are trying to overcome their wounds and reintegrate into society. We must do more, to protect the human rights and the human dignity of women, girls and children who are marginalised, particularly in the course of conflict.

NA: With the likelihood that the UN will have to remain involved in DRCongo for many years, which will cost a lot more money, is there a serious risk of donor fatigue setting in?
BK-M: Donor fatigue is felt everywhere, unfortunately. I have to be very frank about this. It’s not just about the DRCongo.

There are so many crises, man-made and natural, which have happened over several years. All these crises, coupled with the global economic difficulties, have led many traditional donors to look towards their domestic matters. I can’t blame them, as it is the natural reaction to have.

There are some countries that have been generously providing humanitarian assistance. Most of the EU countries, the US and the Japanese have been quite forthcoming. But yes, I can sense that there is some donor fatigue. Look at the case of Syria. There are 1.6 million refugees (outside of the country) and 6.5 million internally displaced persons. Globally, we have 36 million refugees, whom we have to shelter, feed and provide sanitation and education for. All these enormous humanitarian challenges can only be met with generous assistance from donor countries.

The UN is mobilising, together with other humanitarian organisations, such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which are really giving a helping hand. I appeal [to them] that they continue to lend their support.

NA: As you are aware, the French intervention force in Mali is pulling out of the country, after helping to fight the terrorist threat, which threatened to overrun it. But Malians are really frightened that there is a great risk of the country being thrown into chaos again, once the French forces complete their departure. How soon will the replacement UN force be ready to deploy?
BK-M: MINUSMA (United Nations 
Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali) will be fully operational from 1 July. Bert Koenders, who was the SRSG (Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General) during the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, a very experienced person, is in charge of the mission.
All the AFISMA (African International Support Mission to Mali) peacekeeping soldiers will now come under MINUSMA.  

I had a chat with President François Hollande of France [also present at the last African Union summit] and expressed my appreciation, on behalf of the UN, for the very efficient military operation against the terrorists and armed jihadists. It was because of their timely intervention that we were able to manage the situation there.

MINUSMA will be deployed mostly in the north of the country but some will be in the south. We hope they will be able to restore peace and maintain a sustainable level of security.

In case the situation really deteriorates and additional support is needed, the UN Security Council resolution has given me the authority to ask the French government for military support. President Hollande has assured me that they will be ready to give such support, whenever there is a request.

But I will emphasise one thing… while the military operation is important, very important, that is not all. There should be a political process [to bring a final resolution to the crisis]. This is what I have been emphasising everywhere, even in the Syrian situation. It is important that the political process in Mali continues. The interim government is going to hold elections on 27 July, which I hope will go well, despite the rather difficult conditions under which they’ll be taking place.

NA: In a situation where the terrorists resume attacks, will the UN forces be in a position to repel them, before getting extra help? Getting the additional support could take time, which would not help in dealing promptly with any future crisis. Mali got into trouble because they lacked the military capacity to deal with the original threat…
BK-M: MINUSMA is mandated to use all means at its disposal to confront military attacks. But the UN’s peacekeeping forces, as you know, are not equipped or capable of dealing with counter-terrorism or dealing with large scale military attacks.

NA: Should they be?
BK-M: There was such an expectation from the countries in the [West African] region. But if the situation really deteriorates, at the request of the Secretary-General, the French contingent can provide assistance.

NA: But the challenge is that the process of seeking that help might not be quick enough to deal with a threat, which could overwhelm the country pretty quickly…
BK-M: During the crises in Côte d’Ivoire, I think we had a very effective operation. When we needed help, I had a telephone chat with President Sarkozy [the then French leader] and formally requested French support. And we were able to restore peace.

NA: Let’s talk about the reform of the UN. The set-up of the Security Council was a consequence of post-World War II realities. But the world has changed and so many things are different. More inclusiveness is needed to deal with present-day challenges. Do you think the UN can effectively do its job without a proper reform of the Security Council?
BK-M: There is a broad consensus, amongst UN member states, that the Security Council should be changed, considering the current international and political scene, which has developed over the last six decades. The member states have been discussing this matter over the last 20 years and more intensively over the last four years.

NA: But the process of reform has been a bit slow…
BK-M: There have been many proposals by some countries. But unfortunately, no modalities have been agreed upon yet. I hope that they accelerate this process. That’s what I can tell you at this time.
(Martin Nesirky, the UN secretary-general’s official spokesman, who sat in on the interview, made a brief interjection here: “Just to be clear, Osasu, that the reform of the Security Council is a matter for the member states and not the Secretary-General. He can help to facilitate the process. But he cannot coerce. That’s the reality,” he reiterated.)

NA: You’re here at the African Union, where they are talking about the last 50 years, as well as looking towards the next 50 years. The two conflicts we have discussed, in DRCongo and Mali, required the UN’s intervention, as well as that of the French. What does it say about the state of Africa, that after 50 years, it still requires outsiders to find solutions to its problems?
BK-M: There is a strong sense, amongst African leaders, that Africans can resolve their conflicts, if they are united and if they use their resources properly.
Whilst attending this 50th anniversary of the African Union, I was very moved and encouraged by their strong commitment and vision for the next 50 years – Pan-Africanism and an African renaissance. They know that they suffered from colonialism and divisions amongst them, which left them suffering from poverty.

Now, there is a heightened awareness amongst African leaders that they cannot go on this way. They have been accelerating things and investing in the people, using their very rich natural resources. Seven of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world come from Africa.

As for overcoming the legacy of colonialism, chronic poverty and many conflicts, there are many African countries where there is political stability and they are working hard to meet their MDG (Millennium Development Goals) targets. There is also an increasing rejection of anyone trying to use a military coup to overthrow an elected government. This used to be accepted as a fait accompli in the past. But this is strongly rejected by the African Union now.

African leaders are more committed to the rule of law, the principles of human rights and are investing in the people. This should be a source of encouragement.

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