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What is the UN Secretary-General’s Job?

Several years ago, I took the opportunity to hear UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speak at a Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies graduation. The Secretary-General is not the most dynamic speaker and, if memory serves, his speech was basically pabulum, talking a great deal about meetings he had had; if there was a focus, it was probably on global warming. To be fair, while his predecessor Kofi Annan is a better public speaker, there is little substance to Annan’s speeches as well.

The problem with many of the UN Secretaries-General is that they have redefined their position to be that of the world’s diplomat, and have assumed a bully pulpit for which they have no right. When the UN was created, the purpose of the secretary-general, first and foremost, was to be the UN’s administrator. He was meant to make the organization’s bureaucracy function in a clear and efficient way.

By this standard, both Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan have been abject failures. Take the most recent scandal at the United Nations: The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) shipped hi-tech computers to Iran and North Korea in contravention of UN sanctions. That is a failure of administration at the highest level. In any normal organization, it would lead to the resignation not only of WIPO’s director, but also that of the UN administration, because it was the failure of the secretary-general’s oversight that allowed this transaction to occur.

The same is true with Kofi Annan. There has seldom been a statesman who enjoys such a reputation as an elder statesman but whose record rests on failure. As director of the UN’s peacekeeping operation, Annan’s indecisiveness enabled the Rwanda genocide to develop and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands, a casualty count for which Annan has apologized. As director of peacekeeping operations, Annan also presided over the failure to protect the safe haven in Srebrenica in 1995, in which 7,000 men and boys were slaughtered by Serbian fighters. It was as secretary-general, however, where Annan truly failed. He ignored his primary responsibility as administrator-in-chief in order to traipse around the globe at donor expense, giving speeches and collecting laurels. By doing so, he presided over the worst corruption scandal to hit the United Nations, one for which he has never truly paid the price.

The United Nations has an important role. Having a place to convene enemies and combatants is a valuable enabler of diplomacy. If the UN secretary-general is unable or incapable of managing UN affairs, however, then either it is time for the UN secretary-general to resign or it is time to shrink the UN and its myriad agencies back to a manageable size. Rather than sweep the WIPO scandal under the rug, perhaps it’s time to erase this notion of a world diplomat and instead return the secretary-general to his original purpose as an administrator and facilitator.



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