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U.N.'s Ban Ki Moon emerges as dogged reformer

In his 15 months as UN secretary-general, he has insisted that the UN come to embody two qualities not always associated with it: efficiency and responsiveness.

By Staff writer / March 12, 2008

Top diplomat: He was South Korea's foreign minister.

David Karp/AP

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United Nations, N.Y.

When two experts from a new United Nations crisis-prevention team were dispatched to help douse Kenya's post­election blaze – before they could even meet fellow team members in New York – it was pure Ban Ki Moon.

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After 15 months as UN secretary-general, Mr. Ban has established a reputation as a diligent and dogged diplomat who insists that the UN come to embody two qualities not always associated with it: efficiency and responsiveness.

The two experts, who lent technical support to the high-profile (and ultimately successful) intervention by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, provide one example of how Ban is pushing to move the UN from a traditional stance of "why we can't" to one of "how we can."

The former South Korean foreign minister has also made some early missteps – showing perhaps too much disregard for the rules of the house, according to some, and ruffling the feathers of an ambassadorial corps accustomed to deference and patronage. Still, Ban is showing signs of making headway at the UN headquarters on New York's East River.

After reorganizing the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations – in part to cleanse it of the taint of abuse scandals over recent years – Ban is pressing ahead on reform and expansion of the UN's political-affairs activities. Such activities come under a relatively new arm of the UN that follows through on policy implementation and deals with issues like election monitoring and judicial reforms.

The world's top diplomat frequently notes that preventive action is less costly than peacekeeping after a conflict – meaning that innovations like the crisis-prevention team could be harbingers of things to come.

Then, too, Ban is concentrating on two daunting issues he decided to take on soon after assuming office: climate change and Sudan, with its violence-torn province of Darfur.

"When he takes on a problem like climate change, he doesn't give it up. He works it aggressively," says Lynn Pascoe, the UN's undersecretary for political affairs. "If an issue is important enough to engage him as secretary-general, then he's going to keep at it with a constant push for results," he adds. "It's not one speech and on to the next topic."

That determination to stay focused on key issues has not been lost on some outside observers who know the UN well and see Ban's style as something new.

"One thing that stands out is that he set his priorities pretty early on and has stuck with them," says Michael Doyle, a UN expert at Columbia University in New York and a former undersecretary-general at the UN. "He made Darfur, climate change, and UN reform his priorities, and he's stuck with them – something that doesn't always happen at the UN."

Ban deserves credit for advances on all three issues – despite the "painfully slow" movement on Darfur, Mr. Doyle says. He adds that while Ban may be able to make modest institutional improvements – like the reorganization and expansion of political affairs he's pursuing – any real progress on UN reform will take a "grand bargain" between developed and developing countries and won't be principally the work of the secretary-general.

People who have worked with Ban at the start of his five-year term (which can be renewed) say two motivations underlie his actions: his own experience as a diplomat and the trajectory in his lifetime of his native land.