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Q&A

U.N. secretary-general defends his approach to the job

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rejects the notions that the world body has been shunted aside on security matters and that his moral voice has been lacking.

July 04, 2009|Bruce Wallace

THE UNITED NATIONS — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon knew he was taking a risk by traveling to Myanmar this week to plead with the country's ruling generals for a meeting with imprisoned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Several Western diplomats warned Ban the generals would use his presence to claim legitimacy for their autocratic rule, even as they proceed with what many regard as a show trial of Suu Kyi for allegedly violating terms of her house arrest.

But regional powers China and India argued that engagement was more likely to soften the regime's hard line against political opposition.

Ban did not get the meeting with Suu Kyi on Friday, though he emerged from two hours of talks with Senior Gen. Than Shwe saying he had urged the regime to "accelerate the process of democratization."

Before he left on his trip, Ban sat down in his United Nations office to discuss Myanmar, Iran and growing criticism that his soft-spoken style has diminished the secretary-general's moral clout.

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You've focused on issues such as hunger and climate change, but one of the criticisms about your time as secretary-general is that the U.N. has been marginalized on security issues.

The U.N. has been cooperating with key players and regional organizations. The perception you raise is because in the past the U.N. was the only universal body. Now you have the emergence of many regional entities: the European Union, the African Union. Look at the case of many African conflicts. The African Union wants to take leadership, with strong [U.N.] material support, financial support and political support. Even in Darfur, we have a joint partnership. To people who have not been closely following, the United Nations has been marginalized. But that is simply not true.

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That's an argument for efficiency. But what people miss is the moral voice they used to hear from the secretary-general.

It is not only the United Nations that can raise a moral voice. But when it comes to universally accepted principles, the United Nations has been very vocal. When there are civilian casualties, crimes which should be condemned in the name of humanity, sexual violence against women, I have been more vocal than any world leaders. And I was swift in going to Myanmar. I was the first, and as of now the only one, who has gone into Myanmar and talked to Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

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In order to meet the generals, do you have to trade off the moral elements of the job?

No, no. I have spoken on the basis of my moral duty. I will clearly tell them that they must fully understand the expectations of the international community. The whole international community wants to see Myanmar promote the protection of human rights; release political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi; treat Aung San Suu Kyi as a partner for national reconciliation. She can play an important role.

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Myanmar is an example of where it's very difficult to defer to the regional players, because the regional players are not bringing much pressure to bear.

That is why I have been working very hard to try to open up this dialogue channel. I was the one to pry open this door last year, and the United Nations was able to save at least half a million people [after] Cyclone Nargis.

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Do you think that some of the criticism you get is because there's a Western perception of how diplomacy should be conducted, and that Asian approaches to diplomacy are different?

There is a clearly Asian culture and a clearly Western culture. Both should be mutually respected and mutually complemented. Most people regard my style as low-key, soft-spoken. But this so-called quiet diplomacy is just one part of my diplomatic style.

Sometimes when you deal with a certain leader who has been quite closed, it is much more effective when you engage one-on-one. For them, they regard their face, or authority, as No. 1. They don't want to be lectured in front of many of their senior advisors. My experience tells me if I raise sensitive issues in public, then their reaction [will be] very official, very emotional and hard-line. It doesn't help the purpose of our meeting.

But if we meet [in private], we can really open up our hearts and I can really advise these leaders, very sincerely, in a direct way, a very vocal way sometimes. Sometimes it is very heated. In many cases, like in a meeting with President [Omar Hassan Ahmed] Bashir of Sudan, [Zimbabwean] President [Robert] Mugabe, or even with [Iranian] President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, I've been engaged in quite direct, straightforward talks, without much diplomatic courtesy.

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If President Ahmadinejad comes to the U.N. General Assembly in September as the elected president of Iran, will you acknowledge his election as legitimate?

It's up to the member states who should represent their country. If he comes as president of Iran, I'm ready to meet with him again and discuss all matters. I expressed my dismay at the excessive use of force against civilians for expressing their feelings peacefully. They were all stopped, arrested and beaten, some people were killed -- that was totally unacceptable. Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of information -- those are basic principles of a democracy. The genuine will of the Iranian people must be protected and respected.

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Do you think the genuine

will of the Iranian people

was reflected in that

election?

That's what we have to watch. I've been watching very carefully, closely, all of what's happening in Iran.

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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