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Early accolades for UN's new chief – with caveats

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 31, 2007


When spending and accounting questions arose recently about the United Nations Development Program in North Korea, new UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon wasted little time moving into damage-control mode.

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After all, he was fully aware of the toll that the Iraq oil-for-food scandal had taken on both the UN and his predecessor, Kofi Annan.

And so Mr. Ban summoned a top UNDP administrator, organized media access to some of the program's senior staff, and issued a statement calling for "an urgent, system-wide and external inquiry" into the financial activities of all UN programs.

That quick action within the first month of his arrival on the job has won Ban some early accolades – including from some quarters among US conservatives that are never prone to kind words about the UN.

"Just by promising an investigation into the UNDP scandal, he sets a different tone, and that is very refreshing after the secrecy that cloaked the institution in the Kofi Annan years," says Nile Gardiner, a UN expert and frequent critic at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Yet even as he wins some initial praise, Ban is also raising some questions with his first appointments, while leading others to wonder if he isn't coming off as too much of a big-powers secretary-general. Ban, they worry, is showing signs of paying deference to a time-honored system that divvies up key posts among the powers that formed the UN system six decades ago – the US, Britain, and France in particular.

"So far, there's been some of the same division of senior posts on the traditional great-power spoils system that we've seen in the past," says Michael Doyle, a former senior UN official now at Columbia University in New York.

As necessary as Ban's quick jump to answer questions about UN operations in North Korea may have been, it also runs some risks, says Mr. Doyle.

"It raises the broader perception that Mr. Ban is dancing to a tune being played in Washington," he says. That is especially true, others say, because Ban issued his audits edict right after The Wall Street Journal editorial page – a prominent critic of Mr. Annan and his handling of the oil-for-food scandal – ran a column questioning UNDP's North Korea operations.

Ban's appointments so far

Ban did name a top British diplomat as the UN's humanitarian chief, and speculation is widespread at UN headquarters that Americans and French officials are in line for key diplomatic posts, which could be announced after a reorganization that Ban ordered is complete. Now out of the running for the humanitarian post, the US is seeking the top political-affairs post – a possibility that some UN experts say could actually run counter to US interests by making the UN look too much like a tool of American diplomacy.

Yet other appointments could suggest a worrying turn to UN insiders and inexperienced officials, some say. "On the negative side, I think we're seeing some very questionable appointments," says Mr. Gardiner. "Ban has to be very firm on reform, and while the quick action on the UNDP is a good sign, some of his appointments look less promising."