Ban Ki-moon as United Nations Secretary-General: a look back

The 8th Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, steps down on Dec. 31, 2016 after 10 years, or two consecutive five-year terms in office. His time there, however, has been sharply criticized.

Criticisms of Ban’s record

From being called a “nowhere man” to “feckless” and “somatic,” the former foreign trade minister of South Korea has repeatedly been accused of not only poor diplomacy and advocacy, but also of being a lame catalyst for action in his role as an international leader for peace and humanitarianism. He has been accused of using “platitude after platitude” only expressing “concerns” or “frustrations” where decisive and action-motivating language is needed.

Examples of Ban’s lackluster performance cited by critics are easy to come by. In 2009, towards the end of Sri Lanka’s almost 26-year civil war, he was criticized for being silent as thousands of refugees died due to warring parties in what were supposed to be safe zones. Critics have said that while past Secretary-Generals like Dag Hammarskjöld have been brave enough to visit countries experiencing internal warfare during wartime, Ban waited until the conflict in Sri Lanka had officially ended to visit the country.

Then in 2010 there was the Haiti cholera epidemic. The outbreak, a first for Haiti (cholera was unknown to Haiti before the event), was immediately tied to U.N. peacekeeping forces stationed in Haiti after the devastating earthquake which killed 200,000 only nine months prior. At the time the U.N., being represented by Ban, refused to accept the claim that they were responsible for what is now nearly 10,000 dead and over a half-million Haitians who have fallen sick from cholera. Scientists have since proven that the outbreak was in fact due to the U.N. peacekeepers stationed in Haiti, and in August of 2016 the U.N. finally issued a formal apology for their role in the outbreak, but stopped short of taking full responsibility.

Another point of criticism were the numerous reports of sexual misconduct carried out by U.N. peacekeeping troops during Ban’s time in office. U.N. forces—Blue Helmets—have been charged with almost 1,000 cases of sexual misconduct since 2008, most involving peacekeepers exploiting young girls for sexual favors in exchange for food and other resources, a U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services report states. While Ban has affirmed his vehement disapproval of these acts, calling the exploiters a “cancer” and saying they should give up their salaries and undergo court-martial, Aislinn Laing of The Telegraph reports: “Of 69 [formal] allegations of [sexual] abuses leveled against U.N. peacekeepers in 2015, only 17 investigations were completed by January 2016—and only one perpetrator was punished, with a nine-day suspension.”

Finally, one of Ban’s most harshly-judged legacies is the current conflict in Syria. The Secretary-General has been criticized for waiting over a year to pay any serious attention to the conflict when it first started in 2011 and of not doing enough to press major powers in order to get them involved. With an estimated half-million dead and 6.5 million people internally displaced since the civil war began, the conflicts involved have amounted to one of the largest humanitarian crises in recent history.

Successes offer a counterpoint to criticisms

There is much to be said though in light of these criticisms. Ban’s most enduring positive legacies include the Paris Agreement on climate change as well as his outspoken dedication to women’s and LGBT+ empowerment. The Paris Agreement is regarded as a huge step forward in the race against climate change. Ban also instituted reform within the U.N. by splitting the Department of Peacekeeping Operations into two separate directorates in order for it to better manage its approximately 100,000 peacekeeper troops worldwide. He has increased the number of women in senior management positions by 40 percent during his time in office and also created a whole new branch of the U.N. dedicated to empowering women. In addition, he started the “Stop Rape Now” initiative.

Also in spite of wide criticism, commentators have questioned whether or not the follies attributed to Ban’s term are fair, noting that the position of Secretary-General does not guarantee total or even moderate influence on international affairs. This is especially true when the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent member-states (China, Russia, the U.S., Great Britain, and France) become at odds with one another. In these situations the Secretary-General acts merely as a moderator, and never as a real sovereign power like the member-states, with an armed force or a nation of peoples at its back.

As of Jan. 1, 2017, Ban will be succeeded in the post of Secretary-General by the former Prime Minister of Portugal, António Guterres.