Philippe Bolopion – Hello. Welcome to this edition of The Interview on FRANCE 24. Our guest today is UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, taking time off his very busy schedule to talk to us. Hello, Sir.
Ban Ki-moon – How are you? It’s a great pleasure.
PB: Thank you very much. Thank you for having us here in the UN’s General Assembly. This is where everything is going to happen this week and the eyes of the world are going to be on you this week. And let’s face it: it’s been a rough couple of weeks (or months) for you. You’ve been the target of a lot of criticism in the press, saying that you are not active enough in your job, for example. Do you feel that you need to prove yourself this week?
BKM: I’ll do my best to address all the challenges which we are facing together with the world leaders: to address climate change, international financial crises, food crises, pandemic of flu crises and energy crises. I’ll do my best to prove by results.
PB: Some of the criticism against you is pretty harsh. I’m going to read a few headlines, which come at the time you are entering the second half of your mandate. The Financial Times said “UN disquiet raises doubt over Ban's second term”, The Economist graded you 3/10 when it comes to speaking truth to power, the Times of London headlined “Whereabouts Unknown”, Foreign Policy magazine “Nowhere Man. Why Ban Ki-moon is the world's most dangerous Korean.” Some of this is obviously perhaps over-the-top but can they all be wrong?
BKM: As a Secretary General, as a public servant, I know that I am not above criticism. I would welcome any such criticisms when they are fair and constructive. That makes me look back at how I can improve my performance as a Secretary-General. But what is more important is that the difference of consensus... maybe quite a different leadership style. I have my own leadership style. At this stage, with the World Body, composed of 192 countries, bringing all different national interests and agendas, it is extremely difficult. If you look at the broader perspectives, all these crises – climate change, international financial crises, food crises, and the pandemic crises – they are hitting us all at one time. Not in the history of the United Nations have you ever seen all these crises hitting us all. We need global coordination rather than criticising. This is very important.
PB: Are you actually tired of people comparing you to Kofi Annan, saying that Kofi Annan was much more recognisable, that he was a rock-star diplomat, that people knew him, respected him? Are you tired of these comparisons?
BKM: Again, everybody brings different strengths, different leadership styles. I have my own leadership style. That is why, based on my capacity and leadership style, member states have elected me unanimously as Secretary-General. So it would be proper and desirable that they wait and see how I bring all these results.
PB: So you want more time before people judge you...
BKM: Of course.
PB: We’ve talked to a few people about how you are handling your job and here is what Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said. He said, and I quote him, that you were “so eager to meet with tyrants that you give up all leverage and get nothing in return.” Is that fair?
BKM: I think there is quite a misunderstanding and misconceptions in such kind of assessment. I have been meeting almost all the leaders, including those quite difficult leadership people. I have been very straight and direct to all those in... When it comes to universally accepted principles, human rights, and basic rights of many vulnerable people, whose rights and whose wellbeing must be protected by the leaders, the first and primary responsibility rests with the leaders of that country. That is why I have been urging them to take necessary action. I have been vocal and there should be no misunderstanding on my commitment.
PB: Let’s look into it, actually. For example, you went to Sri Lanka right after the war, when the Tamil Tigers’ rebellion was defeated by the government, and many people felt that your trip, in a way, was used by the Sri Lankan regime, that they saw it as part of a victory dance. And it’s true that, several months after you went there, you still have something like 300,000 people, Tamils, who are still in what people call ‘detention camps’. Most of what the president told you at the time has not come true. Do you feel that he played you, in a way?
BKM: I was the first leader in Sri Lanka. I was the first leader to visit Myanmar, the two places nobody visited or nobody could visit. I made a strong case, first, on internally displaced persons. Those 300,000 people must be returned to their homes without further delay. And their human rights... And humanitarian assistance should be given without any delay or any conditions and restrictions. That’s what I am doing. I have despatched my Undersecretary General Lynn Pascoe. He got assurance from President Rajapaksa, just recently, that all 300,000 displaced persons will be returned to their homes by the end of January next year. This is a great encouragement. Now I got his commitment and it is a matter of his integrity. And his trust is at stake if he doesn’t keep his promise. Now, on the case...
PB: I’m sorry to interrupt you but, do you feel that President Rajapaksa is stringing you along, saying he is going to do all these things and never delivering on them?
BKM: In Sharm El Sheikh, on the margins of a non-allied summit meeting last July, I made a very strong case to President Rajapaksa: “You must keep your promise”. Last week, I spoke over the telephone, I wrote my letter. That is why I have sent my envoy...
PB: Let’s take another example: your trip to Burma - a pretty controversial trip, again. Some people advised you against going there, you went there, you were able to meet with the military junta, with Than Shwe, the number one of the junta, but you were not able to even meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, who is still in jail. Would you agree that this trip, at the end of the day, was a failure?
BKM: I don’t agree it was a failure, first of all. I made a great, again, impact over Myanmar leadership. Of course, Myanmar, by not allowing me to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, missed a great opportunity. But look at the case of a recent amnesty. The Myanmar authorities have made it quite clear that they were granting amnesty at the request of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. I am going to continue, as hard as I did before, to release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, before the election next year, so that this election can be credible and fair and transparent.
PB: Are you not starting to wonder though, Sir, whether the quiet diplomatic roads - whether your approach - is really working? Because these people are making promises but they seem to almost never deliver. Don’t you need to start speaking out against them?
BKM: What you describe as my diplomatic style, as “quiet diplomacy”, is just one part, one aspect, of my whole diplomatic capacity. It is necessary... In some cases, you have to have a very direct, open diplomacy, but sometimes there’s a quiet diplomacy. Behind the scenes diplomacy can be more effective. I am combining all these aspects of diplomacy. This is what I have been doing during the last four decades. So there should be no misconception...
PB: Let’s move on now to the issues at hand this week. You are convening what is perhaps the biggest summit ever on climate change. Close to 100 heads of state are coming here to discuss this problem. What really do you hope to achieve through this summit?
BKM: I’d like to see all world leaders deliver clear and unambiguous guidelines and directions to their negotiators that we must see the deal in Copenhagen in December, for a comprehensive, fair, equitable deal to address climate change.
PB: But the US is not going as far as people want: rich countries are in the middle of a crisis and don’t want to foot the bill, developing countries are saying that it’s their turn to enjoy growth and progress, and that they don’t want to slow down because of ecological issues. What’s your secret weapon to make them see eye to eye?
BKM: This is an incredibly complex process. This is not an easy process at all. We should understand this fact of life. Therefore, I am asking, I am urging, the leaders to go beyond their national boundaries. Every country has [its] own challenges and domestic problems. This is a global challenge. Unless we tackle it on a global level, with global leadership, we will not be able to deliver this Planet Earth to our succeeding generations in a more environmentally sustainable way.
PB: A few hours from now, President Obama is going to address the General Assembly from the podium behind you for the very first time. Is the new US administration good for the UN?
BKM: Yes. They have been very engaging, very forthcoming, and I have been enjoying working with President Obama and his new administration. And, in climate change, the new administration has taken, again, quite engaging positions with a strong commitment. They have joined later. I am quite convinced that they will take the necessary leadership role. The US leadership role is the crucially important one.
PB: As I mentioned, you are halfway through your first term and the criticism in the press has been harsh. Diplomats at times have been harsh - the Norwegian memo leaked saying that you lacked charisma, things like that. Knowing then what you know now, would you still have wanted to take the job?
BKM: I do not regret accepting this job. This is a most honourable but it is very humbling... This is a very important job for peace and security and human rights and development of the whole world. That is my commitment. I begin every day as if it was the first day of my first term. Then, if member states of the General Assembly...I am sure that they will evaluate my commitment and my performance.
PB: Thank you very much, Mr Secretary General, for having us.