By Dinouk Colombage
When the United Nations was created in 1945 it was an organisation designed to maintain world peace. Its operations were based on the principles of democracy. The Secretary General is viewed as the head of the UN and often the successes and failures of the organisation are laid squarely at his feet. In recent years the current Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, has come under much scrutiny for his role in the UN.
The United Nations Secretary General is voted in every five years, and his terms can be renewed indefinitely. However, no Secretary General has served more than two terms. The Secretary General is nominated by the Security Council and voted in by the General Assembly. The Secretary General cannot be a national of any of the permanent member states. The Secretary General is often from a middle power and has had little prior fame, often high powered figures are nominated for the job but are rejected for numerous reasons.
From as early as the 1960s former USSR President, Nikita Khrushchev, attempted to have the position of Secretary General abolished. He felt the position was aligned to the Western Powers as their permanent member states numbered greater than those of the Communists. In place of the Secretary General Khrushchev suggested that a three member panel be appointed. It would represent the Western Power, the Communist states and the Non-aligned states. This proposal fell through as the non-member states did not support the idea.
Since its early years many of the UN Secretaries General have been in the spotlight for their involvement in world affairs. Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjold was appointed as Secretary General in 1953; he served for eight years until dying in a plane crash. He was the son of former Swedish Prime Minister Hjalmar Hammarskjold. Prior to his joining the United Nations, Hammarskjold held numerous middle ranking jobs in the Swedish government. He was appointed as Secretary General on April 7, 1953. His greatest test came with the creation of the Republic of Congo. With the region achieving independence from its French colonial rule, the local tribes were highly volatile. A power vacuum had been created leaving the door open for civil war. Dag Hammarskjold oversaw the election process following the appeal from the state for UN assistance.
War quickly broke out and many felt that the UN had not done enough. The Soviet Union believed that his efforts were insufficient and immediately called for his resignation. Patrice Lumumba, first Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo, requested that the UN force the Katanga Province to rejoin the Congo. Hammarskjold refused this request. Critics have claimed that Hammarskjold disliked Lumumba and allowed his personal prejudice to cloud his better judgement. The rejoining of the Katanga Province was seen by many as a route to defusing the situation. Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for assistance. They provided food, arms, medical supplies and planes.
The 1960s was the height of the Cold War, mediators looked to the UN as the organisation that would improve relations between the two states. Hammarskjold’s refusal was seen by many as having fuelled the Cold War. The UN was no longer viewed as an international group but rather an organisation that favoured the Western Powers’ interests. Dag Hammarskjold was killed in 1961 following a plane crash en route to negotiate a cease fire between ‘non-combatant’ UN forces and Katangese troops. Mystery surrounds the plane crash with the official report stating it was an accident. However, some supporters of Hammarskjold believe that he was killed.
Following the death of Dag Hammarskjold, Burma’s permanent representative to the United Nations U. Thant was appointed as Secretary General. During his tenure he dealt with both the Cuban Missile Crisis and the conclusion of the civil war in the Congo. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the United States and the USSR came to engaging in open warfare. The United Nations was in the spotlight as the world looked to it to help avoid a potential nuclear war between the two world superpowers. Unlike his predecessor Thant believed that appeasing both the United States and the USSR was in the interests of the United Nations. Thant believed that a ‘cooling off period’ was required on the part of both sides to ensure war was not the result.
However, Kennedy rejected his suggestions as the missiles would remain in Cuba. Thant stated that the cooling off period would last for three days before both sides would resume negotiations leading to the removal of the missiles, while in return the US would dismantle the missile sites in Turkey. Thant’s approach towards the Cuban Missile Crisis indicated a more neutral stance on the part of the UN. Thant appeared determined to appease both sides. Political analyst, Chalmers Johnson, believed that Thant wished to show the world the United Nations would protect the interests of all its members and not be influenced by the Western Powers.
The Cuban Missile Crisis has been described by Johnson as the defining point for the United Nations. With hostilities between the two superpowers reaching boiling point, the UN was seen as the last barrier separating them from all out war. Following the United Nations’ involvement in the Korean War many critics believed that it would once again side with the United States. Thant put to rest these fears through his role as mediator. U. Thant stepped down from office in 1971; he is renowned as being the only former Secretary General during the Cold War to remain on speaking terms with all of the world powers he dealt with. His time in office has been described by many as ‘a time of stability on the part of the UN’s involvement.’
Present day UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, was appointed in 2007. With re-election for Moon coming up in 2012 much has been written about his tenure as head of the UN. During his period Ban Ki-Moon has been forced to deal with the wars in the Middle East, growing tension in Africa and the situation in Sri Lanka. His conduct on three fronts has received much criticism from all quarters of the globe. Sri Lanka’s media has thrived on reporting on Ban Ki-Moon and his appointment of the commission to look into alleged war crimes during the last phase of the war. Local politicians have also criticised Moon stating that he has overstepped his jurisdiction.
Russia has continued to maintain its stance of ‘anti Secretary General’ claiming that his involvement in Sri Lanka and the Ivory Coast is setting a dangerous precedent of dictatorial rule in the UN. Ban Ki-Moon appointed a council to investigate the allegations of war crimes that took place in Sri Lanka. China and Russia along with half the General Assembly have opposed this move. Despite this opposition the committee has been appointed, indicating a decline in the supposed democratic methods of the UN.
Political commentator, John McGarry, has stated that Ban Ki-Moon has aligned himself with the ‘old powers of the West.’ He goes further by explaining that the United Nations is no longer the mediator it was during Thant’s tenure. It has now been ‘divided by the growing power of China and the dying rule of the United States.’ Ban Ki-Moon’s period as Secretary General indicates that the UN is no longer the neutral body it started off as.
Through its development during the Cold War and post Cold War the UN has become more and more reliant on the growing power of the West. Critics have claimed that the fall of the USSR contributed to this. Had the USSR remained the superpower it was, the UN would be forced to maintain its course on the middle road. Ban Ki-Moon’s actions have shown his willingness to align himself with the West and in turn abandon the democratic values that the UN charter attempts to uphold.
Ban Ki-Moon, U. Thant and Dag Hammarskjold have all portrayed the fluctuating role of the United Nations. Hammarskjold’s role in the Congo was the learning curve for the UN, it showed that its leaders would need to put aside their personal ideas. Hammarskjold’s dislike towards Lumumba resulted in the UN being overlooked in favour of the USSR. Thant’s period can be considered as when the UN truly played its role as mediator. Thant adopted the neutral role and was able to successfully diffuse a potential conflict between the two nuclear powers. Ban Ki-Moon’s current reign is viewed as an illustrator of the rift that now exists in the United Nations. The Western Powers comprising of the United States and its allies are seen as the controllers of the organisation, whilst China’s growing influence is seen as a threat to ‘the old order.’ From its early stages until the present day the UN has continued to revert back to its allegiance towards the US whenever it threatened to follow the neutral path.