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Asia

UN chief Ban Ki-moon leaves behind a mixed legacy

As a new UN secretary general is sworn in, how will the outgoing chief Ban Ki-moon be remembered in history? DW examines his record in office and the unresolved challenges he leaves behind for his successor.

For his opponents he will probably always be the man who contributed to the lack of a distinct image of the United Nations as he acted slowly and was lacking of charisma. His supporters, however, valued these character traits: a calm and steady helmsman at the top of the world body.  

When taking office in 2007, Ban Ki-moon didn't intend to, but caused a scandal. As Iraq's former dictator Saddam Hussein was executed, Ban said it was the business of each country to decide whether or not to make use of the death penalty.

Ban's statement provoked international outrage, as the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly pronounces the life of each human being as a universal right. The ensuing public backlash forced Ban to reverse his statement quickly.

Reconciliation within the UN

Ban Ki-moon's first term in office was marked by his attempts to bring the UN closer together. His predecessor Kofi Annan had been a controversial figure, not least because of his criticism of the US for its military intervention in Iraq.  

Ban, however, spoke approvingly of the US action in the Middle Eastern country, stating in an interview: "We have to appreciate the contribution of the US and their sacrifices."

Ban applied the same reconciliatory tone when speaking about other problems. For instance, after the 2009 presidential elections in Iran, Ban congratulated the then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his victory, although the vote had been marred by allegations of serious fraud.

The resulting violence led to the death of some 70 demonstrators and the arrest of as many as 4,000 protesters. While many in Iran appealed to the UN for help, Ban remained silent.

These decisions revealed Ban's diplomatic style. During his first term, he mostly left aside controversial issues and focused on restructuring and revitalizing the UN itself.

Many experts say he wasn't comfortable with the role of a critic and it took him a whole term to get accustomed to the role of a "political pope," as some describe the position of the secretary general of the United Nations.

Priority number one

Global Warming and climate change was one of the issues Ban Ki-moon focused on from the first day of his tenure. "For my generation, coming of age at the height of the Cold War, fear of nuclear winter seemed the leading existential threat on the horizon," Ban said at the UN general summit in 2007. "But the danger posed by war to all humanity - and to our planet - is at least matched by climate change," he added, and reiterated this point of view at the Climate Summit 2009 in Copenhagen.

But it was the year 2015 when Ban Ki-moon ultimately had his breakthrough moment as 197 states signed the Paris Climate Agreement to keep the rise in global temperatures to within 2 degrees Celsius from that of preindustrial levels. This agreement, deemed to be Ban's most important achievement, is now under threat as Donald Trump takes office as US president in January.

Ban recently urged Trump to "listen" and to "evaluate his campaign remarks." The South Korean also said he was confident that the US president-elect would "make a quick and wise decision" as the whole world remained committed to fight against climate change.

A tough balancing act

Ban's diplomatic style changed sharply even prior to the start of his second term. When Ivory Coast found itself in the midst of an electoral crisis in 2011, when reigning President Larent Gbagbo refused to hand over power to the leader of the opposition Alassane Ouattara, Ban was quick to the task and urged the Security Council to send peacekeeping troops to the country. In this way, the UN managed to keep the political situation in the country from becoming worse.

But UN missions have not always produced positive outcomes.

For instance, UN troops on a mission in Haiti following the devastating earthquake that shook the country in 2010 are blamed for bringing cholera to the territory.  

Only a few weeks ago – six years after the catastrophe – Ban Ki-moon apologized to the people of Haiti while admitting a "moral responsibility," but leaving aside all the legal responsibility.

The UN's reputation also took a severe beating from a sex scandal involving the organization's peacekeeping troops. In 2014, it became clear that UN soldiers, on a number of occasions, abused children in the Central African Republic.

Anders Kompass, the whistleblower who leaked the information to French authorities, was suspended and the UN launched an investigation into the leak. Kompass, who worked for the organization for 17 years, was disappointed by the reaction. Criticizing the world body, he eventually resigned from his post.   

Even the most committed secretary general of the United Nations is limited by the structures of the organization and its member states. It is particularly evident in the case of the war in Syria where the UN has so far seemed unable to come up with a solution and end the bloodshed in the country.

Although Ban repeatedly urged the US and Russia, which support rival parties in the conflict, to help end the Syrian "nightmare" and stop the crimes against civilians being committed with impunity, not much has changed on the ground in terms of the sanguinary campaigns waged by the various parties to the conflict.

An advocate for diversity

But criticism about his ineffectiveness aside, Ban was able to give impetus to a range of initiatives. He pushed forward when it came to promoting the rights of sexual minorities, including the LGBT community. The issue, however, met stringent opposition from some countries, which still prosecute citizens for their sexual orientation. It's also a tricky subject for Ban, as he himself admitted that it wasn't easy for him to address such a matter: "I was raised in a very conservative society in Korea."

UN Generalversammlung - Antonio Guterres, Vereidigung als Generalsekretär in New York (picture-alliance/dpa/J. Lane)

Former Portuguese PM Antonio Guterres was sworn in Monday as the ninth secretary general of the United Nations

Apart from this, Ban significantly boosted the number of female employees within the UN ranks. Since Ban took over the reins, "more women have been appointed than ever before," wrote Angela Kane, a former UN high representative for disarmament affairs, in a report.

Although he left the top post at the UN, many believe it's not the last time the world will talk about Ban and his legacy. Some observers say he is likely to run for the presidency of South Korea and if one takes opinion polls seriously, Ban has a realistic chance of winning as polls currently put him in second place behind Moon Jae-in, a former leader of the main opposition Democratic Party. Despite spending the past decade outside his country, he enjoys high popularity ratings in the East Asian nation.

Kim Won-soo, one of his closest allies and currently under-secretary general of the UN, said that Ban is planning to visit the widows of former presidents. In South Korea this is a traditional way to start one's election campaign. Ban, however, has remained tightlipped on the matter, saying: "I will go back to the country to discuss with my friends and the leaders of Korean society what my role should be for my home country."