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Conversation: Ban Ki-Moon

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From the Fall 2012 Democracy Issue

                         Ban on Democracy

A Conversation with Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations

Since his earliest days as a student in Seoul, Ban Ki-moon has pressed tirelessly for democracy, and not just as an efficient system of government but as an inalienable human right. His path through the Korean foreign ministry, which he entered directly out of university, took him to the highest reaches of the Republic of Korea’s restored democratic government as the nation’s minister of foreign affairs and trade. On October 11, 2006, at the age of 62, he was elected the eighth Secretary General of the United Nations, succeeding Kofi Annan. Now, as he embarks on his second term as Secretary General, his lifelong goal of a global democratic ideal has never been more pressing nor, in so many regions, so elusive or deadly. Yet every morning, he wakes up with a renewed intention of pursuing it—bringing, he hopes, peace and tranquility to the people of Syria, Mali, and a host of other nations. The aspirations of these people for a democratic outcome are deeply antithetical to those of their rulers, who are determined to hold onto power no matter how much blood might be spilled. At this fall’s annual assembly of the world’s leaders, summoned each September to UN headquarters in New York, Ban Ki-moon will try again to reach a consensus that has eluded him and so many of his predecessors. Indeed, less than 24 hours after our Conversation, in which he appeared to give only a passing endorsement to Kofi Annan’s failed efforts, the Secretary General’s predecessor gave up his attempts to bring peace—and eventually democracy—to Syria. To explore this theme in all its variety, World Policy Journal editor David A. Andelman and managing editor Christopher Shay engaged Ban Ki-moon on the subject of democracy in an increasingly polarized world. 

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: You grew up under a dictatorship in Korea. You were in university during the student riots. Effectively, this was your 1968 at the barricades. You were fighting for democracy. So tell us, what does democracy mean to you, and how did this chapter of Korean history affect you and shape your worldview?  

BAN KI-MOON: For the Korean people, democracy was very important when Korea was liberated in 1945 from Japanese colonial rule. Only after the 1960s did people realize that they needed more freedom and dignity, so students took to the streets. And I was among those who really participated in those demonstrations when I first entered college. But even as a high school boy, I had been watching and observing all that was going on at that time. We thought that this was a basic human right. Now as Secretary General of the United Nations, I want others to have the same opportunities I had when democracy took hold in my country. Through my own experience, I now have more convincing powers to speak about democracy and freedom and dignity. Whenever I see all these situations, I believe that this is the power of implementing the ideas of the United Nations charter.

WPJ: Indeed, by December of this year, we will have had 24 nations electing new heads of state or government. In 82 countries, people will be going to the polls in some fashion or other, the largest single electoral tsunami in world history. You’re at the top of the United Nations. What does this mean for you as Secretary General and for the world? What would you hope to see emerge by the end of this year?

BAN KI-MOON: This is exactly what I’ve been speaking to leaders about. On the African continent alone, we have seen 20 to 25 elections. When you say electoral tsunami, I think that is quite an interesting description. I agree with that. The numbers speak for themselves. People around the world want to be represented by credibly elected leaders. But unfortunately the elections sometimes have become the source of division rather than unity. Both situations have become a great concern for the United Nations. That’s why we have been trying to provide technical and logistical support to many countries in the developing world that are having elections. At the same time, we should not focus too much on numbers. It takes a lot more than an election to create a democratic society. I think that democracy cannot be established over one or two elections. This is what we are now experiencing. We need to continuously engage with people, so that, first of all they can conduct elections credibly and in a fair and objective manner.

WPJ: Oh there’s no question about that, and if we look at some of the specific examples, especially where the United Nations has been very active—take Ivory Coast, for instance, or the Maghreb, especially Libya—these are all huge tests for democracy. In the Ivory Coast today, it’s beginning to look like democracy is very much hanging in the balance. And then we look at Syria. Walk us through this past year and tell us a few of the successes and a few of the failures. You must have had some enormous successes but also some failures.

BAN KI-MOON: Elections have become very divisive issues. And finally, we had to work on the principles of responsibility to protect. [Ivory Coast] President [Alassane] Ouattara was declared elected as president. That was a very important lesson. In Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, United Nations teams have been working very closely. We have dispatched electoral experts, and I have been speaking with leaders of those countries. In Egypt, I have spoken many times with [Egyptian Armed Forces Commander in Chief] Field Marshal [Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi, and I have been speaking with Libyan National Council members so that they would have fair and credible elections.

[Eleven days after this Conversation was conducted, Field Marshal Tantawi was removed from office by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.]

When it came to presidential elections in Afghanistan, that was again a very divisive, very difficult issue, which the United Nations had to experience together with other members of the international community. As we are looking for presidential elections in 2014, we have already started to provide technical and logistical support to Afghanistan. This is what I have discussed recently with President [Hamid] Karzai of Afghanistan. We must continue to speak out for democratic aspirations of people around the world and offer technical assistance to electoral processes and then to the furtherance of democratic governance whenever possible.

WPJ: You mentioned Libya and Egypt as two examples. Let’s look at each one of them. For instance, some see Libya as a failure, not having established a truly stable government. But there’s just been an election, and it seems to have put a moderate government in power. So from your perspective, was the intervention a success? And in its aftermath, is Libya really moving toward a democratic system?

BAN KI-MOON: When we provide technical assistance for this framework, we cannot control the opinions of the people. It is the freely expressed will of people, and that’s what democracy means. Of course, there were some concerns in some parts of the country about the results of the elections and about the leadership elected. But we need to fully engage these people and the elected leadership so that they will continue to uphold the principles of democracy. This is what the United Nations is doing at this time.

WPJ: What if an election takes place in a fully democratic framework, for instance in Egypt, but installs a government, which, while professing democracy, moves away from that as some people fear the Muslim Brotherhood might be inclined to do? What then? What can the UN do? What can the world community do?

BAN KI-MOON: In the case of Egypt, when President [Mohammed] Morsi was elected there were some concerns expressed in some parts of the world. Of course I understand this. I have spoken with President Morsi and other leaders like Field Marshal Tantawi, and they need to fully cooperate with each other. Electoral systems may be different in different countries, but the fundamental principle of democracy has the same value all the time. The United Nations is guided by the fundamental principles of democracy, human rights. So what we are doing is according to that framework.

WPJ: But there may be some members of the United Nations, especially on the Security Council, that don’t necessarily work in that framework. Syria, for instance. You were the first to call for [Bashar] al-Assad to step aside and listen to his people, as you suggested in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Assad didn’t, and now we have a civil war. In terms of intervention, there are some countries that may not really believe in democracy, Russia and China for instance, who are opposed to any sort of a real UN intervention there. So how do you handle that, and do you wish you’d handled it any differently? Is there any path to a democracy in Syria?

BAN KI-MOON: That’s quite a difficult issue at this time, particularly how to stop this violence happening on the ground in Syria. More than 17,000 people have been killed by this fighting between government forces and opposition forces. I have been urging that the international community should have common areas of responsibility and take common action, collective action. Human rights must be protected, and human dignity should be promoted, but unfortunately, we have not been able to see that happen. The Security Council has been divided.

WPJ: There have been some other countries, like Turkey for instance (though not a member of the Security Council), which are very anxious that something be done about this. If it happens that there are some organizations, like the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, or some other regional organization that feel this is necessary, do you feel that it’s proper for them to take the initiative if the Security Council is paralyzed in terms of instilling a democratic system?

BAN KI-MOON: Many countries, depending where they are coming from, may have different approaches. But what is necessary at this time is that all the parties should help so that the violence is stopped by both sides. In that regard, militarization would not be an answer. That is why I have been urging member states to fully cooperate with Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan, and the two Security Council resolutions, by which the United Nation supervisory mission was established. Therefore all the framework should be implemented in that regard. I believe that the joint communiqué issued by the action group in Geneva could also provide a good way out in terms of a political transition, through a political resolution of this issue. I am deeply concerned about this continuing violence. This violence, particularly taking place in Aleppo, is deeply alarming. I again urge that all this violence must stop. The greater responsibility rests with the Syrian government.

[On August 16, the UN Security Council ordered an end to the UN supervisory mission in Syria and a withdrawal of all personel.]   

WPJ: We’ve heard a lot about the responsibility to protect. Doesn’t the international community have a clear responsibility to protect people under attack by their own governments? In Libya, the international community did break new ground. But in places like Mali, how does the UN protect people from extremist forces like that?

BAN KI-MOON: We have been successful in the situation in Libya. The principle of responsibility to protect lies first and foremost with states. This is the responsibility that comes with sovereignty. But you are right, the international community shares in that responsibility. At the 2005 World Summit, all the world’s leaders made an important commitment to protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. And as Secretary General, I made my firm commitment that I would make this principle operational. In some places, as in Libya and the Ivory Coast, we have been successful. But because this responsibility is directly related to sovereignty, in cases like Syria, we have not been able to see this responsibility be applied. This commitment includes taking timely and decisive action—collective action. Of course, different situations call for different responses. I, again, sincerely hope that use of force is stopped in Syria so that the political dialogue can commence for a political resolution reflecting the genuine aspirations of the Syrian people. In that way, the principle of responsibly to protect can be applied again.

WPJ: As you suggest, terrorism can flourish in particularly lawless countries like Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Mali. Are you concerned about the broader world order? In nations like Afghanistan, especially under the Taliban, now increasingly in Africa, nations suddenly can become breeding grounds for terrorist activity that could infect the rest of the world.

BAN KI-MOON: Whenever some conflict happens, we depend first of all upon the initial reaction with measures taken by regional or sub-regional organizations, like in the case of Somalia, or in the case of Mali, the African Union, or ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States]. ECOWAS has been taking the leadership role in this case, and of course, they have been closely coordinating with the United Nations together with the European Union. All these concerted efforts will be both effective and efficient. We are making a greater emphasis, at this time, to resolve the situation in Mali and the Sahel region. During the upcoming General Assembly meetings, I am planning to convene a summit meeting, focused on the Sahel region and also a mini-summit meeting on Somalia.

WPJ: And who would be included in this meeting?

BAN KI-MOON: I am now working with the leading countries concerned with these regions. For example when it comes to the Sahel, I’ll invite the president of France. For Somalia, I’ll invite Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan of Turkey, who have been demonstrating and exercising their leadership for the international conferences in London and Istanbul. I think the African Union leadership will also be invited, and it will be chaired by me.

WPJ: You have won a second term as Secretary General now. What do you hope to accomplish in your second term that you couldn’t accomplish in your first? Especially in the fields of conflict and democracy.

BAN KI-MOON: In January this year, I reported to the General Assembly my “Five-Action Agendas,” which I have termed the five general opportunities for the next five years. Those are, first, sustainable development. That is going to be the number one priority of the United Nations. We had a successful summit meeting in Rio de Janeiro last month. We have adopted a very concrete document setting forth the outcomes. This will be implemented. As you mentioned, prevention of conflict will be a very important priority for me. Now, when it comes to prevention, I mean man-made political conflict and also natural disasters. We have lost so many human lives, and therefore by employing preventive diplomacy, mediation, and facilitation, we’d like to see all this conflict prevented from happening. This will be a continuing priority for my leadership during the forthcoming five years. And also I’m asking many countries to make the preparations for disaster risk reduction. The third priority will be making this world more secure and peaceful through the core responsibility of the United Nations. We have 20,000 peacekeepers deployed in 16 different missions. We will fully utilize those forces to protect civilian populations and to keep peace and stability. Another responsibility will be to help those countries in transition. We have already discussed many countries, like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya—we have to help those people so that their political stability and socio-economic development are sustainable. Last but not least, we’re working for women and gender empowerment, and working for youth. I think we need to do more, to provide decent job opportunities, balanced opportunities for them in political and socio-economic fields. Those five areas the UN, under my leadership, will pursue in the coming five years.

WPJ: Now, Mr. Secretary General, a lot of these areas, which are commendable, require strong economic underpinnings as well as strong military underpinnings in some cases. Do you think that the first priority should be strengthening the global economy, and perhaps strengthening the military muscle of the United Nations as well?

BAN KI-MOON: I believe that if we succeed in producing harmonious and balanced development, this will be the key to solving all political issues. When there is absolute despair, there is absolutely no possibility of maintaining the peace. This provides a breeding ground for mistrust, and mistrust becomes conflict, and conflict becomes war. Therefore, sustainable development, in terms of providing food, water, energy, and livable cities—I think these will provide a very good foundation for the international community to promote politically sustainable security and peace. All these, I think, are interconnected. That is why we are trying to have a comprehensive approach—addressing political, social, and economic issues overall and especially sustainable development issues. Therefore, in this context, we sincerely hope that the current ongoing international economic crisis will be overcome by the major economic powers, particularly in Europe. The United Nations is not promoting any military capacity building. We are maintaining a minimum number of peacekeeping forces. These peacekeeping forces are deployed only by a decision of the Security Council on a case-by-case basis considering all factors. Therefore what the United Nations is promoting is to create favorable conditions for all political, social, economic fields including environmental uses.

WPJ: Okay, well Mr. Secretary General, we very much appreciate your spending this time with us, and we will be following your progress closely.

BAN KI-MOON:  As the Secretary General, I will spare no efforts to realize all these five actions on my agenda. I may lose some sleep about the problems we face, but I’m telling you very personally that I wake up each morning, eager to work as hard as I can to meet the global public’s expectations. I start every day as if it is my very first day of my first term and am very much honored, but at the same time, very much humbled by all the challenges which we have to address. We need the support of all member states—not only governments, but business communities and civil societies and all religious and other organizations. Only with this partnership will we be able to address all these issues, and I will count on your support.

*****

*****

 [Illustration: Jeff Danziger]

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