In late January 2007, a polished, affable South Korean career diplomat took over the reins of, what was once called by Dag Hammarskjöld, the “most impossible job on Earth.” Ban Ki-Moon’s almost unanimous appointment as the new Secretary-General of the United Nations to succeed Kofi Annan was considered a pivot away from the role being about personality and charisma, and towards organisation and management. As the next Secretary-General has all but taken office, the many varied outcomes and the enduring legacy of Ban’s nine-year tenure as the world’s most senior diplomat are being put to debate.
Ban has presided over a world that is increasingly politically and socially interconnected, but fraught with major, complex problems. Despite being thrown into a baptism of fire during his early years dealing with global financial disaster and humanitarian crises, Ban has successfully led the UN with a steady hand and impressive organisational skill, spearheading long-overdue financial and bureaucratic reforms while engaging actively in the sphere of international relations. Ban has managed to stand out on several new frontiers of advocacy and focus in his role, which have yielded positive global responses.
Ban’s strong advocacy for global action on climate change aims to be his single greatest legacy. Since the very beginning of his term as Secretary-General, Ban made it clear that action on climate change would be a central tenant in the UN’s agenda. While the failed agreements in Copenhagen and subsequent Paris Accords in 2015 proposed reductions that were not nearly enough to curb global emissions to a point where climatic change could be halted, it is telling of Ban’s successful diplomatic and firm negotiation skills. His prominence as part of the negotiations and openness to engage with at-risk communities directly helped to not just cement comprehensive climate deals, but also to pressure governments and leaders to act on the issue to avoid further impasses. While the UN Environment Programme’s recent successful meeting in Kigali to curb HFCs adds to this legacy, it isn’t yet known whether it will be part of Ban’s lasting legacy as a disaster or a success.
Ban’s agenda has also included strengthening the advocacy of equity within the organisation, especially that of LGBTIQ rights, women’s rights, and youth representation. Ban has interwoven sexual, gender and age equity into the fabric of the UN. His recent appointment of an independent LGBTIQ expert on the Human Rights Council and an envoy for youth, creation of the UN Women organisation, and the large importance he placed on gender equity as part of the new Sustainable Development Goals exemplify this.
It is important to recognise, though, that while this progressive advocacy has been a positive step, in being applied on a global scale it remains ineffective. Conservative, often religious-based values still form a major part in policymaking in numerous regions that hold the balance of power within the General Assembly. This has meant more liberal reforms have been met with significant resistance by these nations. Nonetheless, with increasing pressure from within the UN directed towards these nations, perhaps the UN will be able to more actively engage in tackling these issues globally.
However, Ban’s tenure has also failed dismally in delivering in many key areas. Many international crises remain unsolved or highly volatile despite his persistent advocacy and diplomacy. Russian aggression in Ukraine, Israeli settlement building in Palestine, accusations of sexual abuse against peacekeepers in Africa, and the geopolitical quagmires of the South China Sea and the Middle East remain issues. Most worrying is the unfolding, unsolved humanitarian crises in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and Yemen. These have become significantly politicised cross-border issues that, despite numerous discussions, have failed to yield any concrete solutions. Ban’s failure to address the very issues that the UN was created to solve is worrying, yet appears to be a persistent trend. For example, Ban’s predecessor, former Secretary General Kofi Annan’s complacency in acting on the Srebrenica Massacre in the Balkans, and before him, Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s failure to deal with the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. Only massive UN reform will give the Secretary-General a greater ability to act on these issues rather than be held hostage by the UN Security Council and the omnipresent power of the veto. However, if history is anything to go by with regards to reform and the ability for the Council to work together, this will remain a far-off dream.
While Ban has succeeded on many significant fronts as Secretary-General, he has failed to deliver on others that will undoubtedly haunt his legacy and the future path of the UN. His tenure reflects that of many of his predecessors – an ambitious initial pursuit of reform and diplomacy, bogged down by bureaucracy, complacency, and humanitarian disasters. Ban’s successor not only has huge shoes to fill, but a huge mess to clean up.
Euan Moyle is a student at Macquarie University studying international studies.