UN Chief Finds His Voice, Remains Cautious on China

12 Oct 2012

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UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon


Over the past six years U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has undergone a metamorphosis from a soft-spoken diplomat cautiously juggling conflicting demands from big powers into an outspoken defender of human rights in Syria, Iran and elsewhere.

But his scathing public reprimands of those he considers rights abusers have yet to fall on China, where U.N. officials say he prefers to use "quiet diplomacy." It is an approach that some analysts support but frustrates rights advocates, reports Reuters.

Secure in his second and final five-year-term, Ban has become more openly forceful, using the bully pulpit to condemn Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's onslaught against an increasingly militarized opposition and repeatedly calling for "political transition" - a polite way of saying Assad must go.

His harsh words about Assad and other autocratic leaders in the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab Spring began last year have irked Security Council veto powers Russia and China, who have rebuked Ban and Western powers for what they say is meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign states.

Ban, 68, has unquestionably aligned himself with the United States, European Union and Western countries when it comes to issues like human rights and freedom of expression. Nor did his unwavering support for military interventions in Libya and Ivory Coast or his defense of the concept of the "responsibility to protect" civilians last year endear him to Moscow and Beijing.

He has also been publicly reprimanded by Iran for castigating the Islamic Republic over its human rights record.

Ban's sharp words have not been one-sided. He has excoriated Israel for continuing to build settlements on Palestinian territory and repeatedly urged Israel, the United States and Iran to avoid "inflammatory" rhetoric and "shrill war-talk" in the escalating standoff over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

This, analysts and rights advocates say, stands in sharp contrast to his early years after taking up the job in 2007 when he appeared more timid and less willing to take strong stands. He was often compared unfavorably with his predecessor Kofi Annan, who ran afoul of the United States by declaring the 2003 invasion of Iraq "illegal."

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Ban was now "ever more determined to hold world leaders accountable, from climate change to Syria and from poverty to women's empowerment."

But the readiness of the U.N. chief, who will remain in his post through 2016, to cross major diplomatic powers has its limits, as shown by his unwillingness to date to publicly congratulate jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo for winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 or call for his release.

Ban could face a similar dilemma with the Kremlin if the Nobel committee awards the 2012 peace prize to Russian dissidents later on Friday.
Chinese dissident Hu Jia, a well-known dissident under house arrest, said it was unfortunate Ban had not spoken out for Liu and about human rights in China.

"Being a South Korean, whose former president Kim Dae-jung himself won the Nobel Peace Prize, he should be well aware of how hard it is to be a human rights defender," Hu told Reuters by telephone. "I'm so disappointed in Ban Ki-moon."

"I call on Ban Ki-moon to speak out on behalf of Liu Xiaobo," he added.

When Liu won the award, Ban's press office issued a cautiously worded statement saying the prize was "a recognition of the growing international consensus for improving human rights practices." The statement did not call for Liu's release or criticize Beijing for its human rights record.

That careful wording contrasted sharply with his 2008 announcement that he was "delighted" former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari won the award, or his 2009 statement saying "I would like to wholeheartedly welcome and congratulate U.S. President Barack Obama on winning the Nobel Peace Prize."

In October 2011, Ban welcomed the decision to award the prize to "three inspirational women of uncommon courage, strength and commitment ... three remarkable leaders" - Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, her compatriot peace activist Leymah Gbowee, and Yemeni democracy activist Tawakkol Karman.

Tags: News, World, UN CHIEF, Voice, China

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