Why Ban Ki Moon Deserves a Second Term as Secretary General

Ban Ki Moon is officially a candidate to be Secretary General.

This morning, he sent a letter to the Security Council and General Assembly to announce his candidacy for re-election when his term expires on December 31.  So far, there are no other candidates to challenge Ban, and no veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council has indicated any serious objections. It is almost assured than Ban will win a second five year term.

But does he deserve it?

Any discussion about the performance of a UN Secretary General has to be mindful of the constraints inherent to the position. The Secretary General is a role that comes with high visibility, but very little authority. A Secretary General cannot order interventions, cannot force national governments to adopt policies, and cannot threaten sanctions should his recommendations go unheeded. As the founders of the United Nations intended, real power lies with the member states themselves not the General Secretariat.

Still, when judged by how well he is able to operate within these constraints, Ban’s record is strong. Two recent crises — and on Libya and Ivory Coast — offer good examples of Ban’s leadership style.

In November 2010, incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power after losing an election to his challenger, Alassane Outtara. A stand-off ensued in which Gbagbo grew increasingly isolated in the international community and increasingly violent at home. Eventually, the political crisis teetered at the edge of descending into a civil war.

When the crisis was reaching its apex, a 9,000 strong UN peacekeeping force–which was largely restricted to physically protecting Outtara’s compound — did something that peacekeepers rarely do: for two days in April, Ban ordered a series of missile attacks on Gbagbo’s compound, eventually leading to Gbagbo’s arrest.

That decision carried huge risk. Gbagbo’s army could have turned against relatively lightly armed peacekeepers; a rocket propelled grenade could have felled one of the attack helicopters (the mission only had a few); or Gbagbo’s forces could have stepped up  attacks against civilians. Still, Ban made the decision. He may not have been thumping his chest while doing so — that’s just not his style.  But he took the risk and it worked.

Ban’s reaction to the crisis in Libya offers another insight into his approach to the job. Speaking to reporters at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in February, Ban said unequivocally than Gaddafi had “lost his legitimacy” as ruler of the Libyan people. This was a full two weeks before the Security Council approved a NATO-led international military intervention.

Ban had stuck his neck out to help drive the conversation about the intervention over Libya. By making this statement — in Washington, D.C. no less — Ban was tacitly aligning himself with the American (and Western) position on Libya. Should the Americans have judged that the UN system was not prepared to back a potential intervention, they may have sought to bypass the Security Council. That would have been a fatal blow to the entire international system.

Ban cannot be credited with the US and European decision to take the Libya question to the Security Council, which was made in Washington, Paris and London. But Ban’s diplomacy around the Libya debate helped create the conditions in which the Security Council became the platform at which the international community fashioned a response to the Libyan crisis.


One real power that a Secretary General can wield is to set global priorities by holding what in UN parlance are called “High Level Events” to draw attention to issues of global concern.  Over the past five years Ban has used that convening power effectively in service of the global good.

Two years before the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference, Ban invited a very diverse set of  world leaders to the UN for a meeting to build momentum for the Copenhagen Climate Conference.  Ban could not dictate the outcomes of these meetings the way an American president, Chinese premier, or leader of a bloc like the EU or G-77 could.  But Ban can, and did, bring world leaders to the UN to keep climate change on top of the global agenda. He has not given up on the cause, even though some world leaders have shifted their focus at times.

Under Ban’s tenure nearly every UN agency — from the Universal Postal Union to the International Civil Aviation Authority — has adopted a climate change portfolio of some sort.   Climate change was arguably Ban’s signature issue his first term.

A second major priority of Ban’s has been maternal health and gender equality.  Under Ban’s leadership, the United Nations undertook one of the most significant institutional reforms of the past several decades.  Last year, four UN agencies that deal with gender equality and women’s health merged into a single entity called UN Women.  Ban appointed a global rockstar, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, to lead this new body.

This was a powerful choice. Bachelet is a  former head of state and well respected by world leaders. She can set the agenda for this brand new body as it establishes its place in the pantheon of international health and development institutions.  Bachelet joins the head of the UN Development Program, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the top humanitarian official, the UN’s head legal counsel, top auditor and police chief as women leaders at the UN. In all, there has been a 40% increase in the number of women holding senior leadership positions at the UN.

Ban’s agenda-setting focus on maternal health is best crystallized in his Global Strategy for Women and Children. The report, which was released ahead of the 10th anniversary of the Millennium Development Goals in 2010, was a response to the fledgling progress of the MDGs relating to reproductive health and women’s empowerment. Should member states adopt the strategy as their own, as many as 16 million lives could be saved by 2015.

On the sidelines of the UN summit in September Ban used his convening power to secure endorsements and commitments to his global strategy. The UN called the meeting “Every Women, Every Child.”  The meeting secured $40 billion worth of commitments to the Strategy from donor countries, private companies and philanthropies. Recipient countries also made concrete policy commitments. Afghanistan, for example, pledged to increase public spending on health from $10.92 to $15 per capita. Bangladesh pledged to double the percentage of deliveries by a skilled birth attendant — one of the most effective ways of preventing maternal deaths — from 24% today.  Commitments like this are helping to ensure that women and girls are central to the UN agenda going forward.

Ban’s tenure has not been perfect.   He was criticized early in his tenure for a diplomatic style that prefers quiet diplomacy to naming and shaming. But over the past few years, Ban has grown into his role as Secretary General. The issues that he has chosen to personally champion–climate change and maternal health–are among the most urgent challenges facing the international community. Even in a constrained position like the Secretary General, Ban has been a force for progress at the UN and around the world.

He deserve five more years at the helm of the UN.