By Colum Lynch
At U.N. headquarters, regime change has long been viewed as a toxic phrase.
Under former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, the U.N. brass cringed when American politicians and diplomats, both Republican and Democratic, revealed that their true aim in pursuing U.N. arms inspections and sanctions in Iraq was the downfall of Saddam Hussein.
But in the past two months, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon has reversed course, fully embracing the toppling of governments in Ivory Coast and Libya. On Monday, Ban authorized a U.N. military operation, backed by French military power, to strike at key military bases, and installations under the control of Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbabgo.
The operation -- which included helicopter gunship attacks against army camps by blue-helmeted Ukrainian pilots -- was ostensibly aimed at preventing Gbagbo's forces from using their heavy weapons against civilians and U.N. personnel. But its impact on the conflict was decisive: The U.N. and French attacks had degraded Gbagbo's last line of defense, clearing the way for a final offensive by followers of Ivory Coast's president-elect Alassane Ouattara.
Within 24 hours, Gbagbo's top generals had written to the United Nations with an offer to halt the fighting and surrender their weapons, together with a request that their fighters be protected. Gbagbo remained holed up in a bunker underneath the presidential residence, under attack by Ouattara's forces.
The U.N. chief's action in Ivory Coast is all the more surprising given his readiness throughout most of his term to accommodate some of the world's most noxious governments, notably Burma, Sri Lanka and Sudan. Ban had bet much of his political capital upon his capacity to use personal, quiet diplomacy, to nudge the likes of Burmese junta leader Than Shwe, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir, to moderate their mistreatment of their own people.
Ban was lambasted by human rights advocates for providing political cover for those governments by engaging in long drawn out personal discussions with those leaders without delivering sufficient political results. "He has placed undue faith in his professed ability to convince by private persuasion," Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch wrote in the introduction to his organization's annual report in January. "Worse, far from condemning repression, Ban sometimes went out of his way to portray oppressive governments in a positive light."
Roth cited Ban's handling of Burma during the run-up to elections last year. "In the days before Burma's sham elections in November, Ban contended that it was 'not too late' to 'make this election more inclusive and participatory' by releasing political detainees -- an unlikely eventuality that, even if realized, would not have leveled the severely uneven electoral playing field."
Critics say Ban has applied a double standard in applying the principle on human rights, reserving his toughest criticism for countries like Iran, while sparing his criticism of the permanent five members of the Security Council whose support he needs in his reelection campaign for secretary general. His first term expires at the end of 2011
Ban failed to pres for the release of Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11- year sentence and his wife, who is under house arrest, during a meeting in Beijing with President Hu Jintao. In an official statement on the Nobel Award committee's decision to honor Liu with its prestigious peace prize, Ban failed to congratulate Liu and praised China for improving its human rights record, a remark that seems increasingly discordant with the Chinese government currently intensifying crackdown on dissident writers, artists and human rights advocates in the wake of popular uprisings in the Arab world.
A supporter of Gbagbo said it was clear that Ban was carrying out the wishes of France, Ivory Coast's former colonial power, in deciding to escalate operations there. Zakaria Fellah, a special advisor to Gbagbo who was once accredited to the Ivory Coast mission to the United Nations, said Ban's ultimate goal was to procure France's vote for his re-election bid.
"I have never seen the U.N. playing a role so far beyond the principles of neutrality and impartiality enshrined in the U.N. charter," Fella told Turtle Bay. "I would say part of it is explained by the fact that Ban Ki-moon is in the midst of an election campaign. He would do anything to please the French."
But Ban's outspoken advocacy of regime change carries risks. While most U.N. diplomats believe Ban has secured support for a second term, China, Russia and other influential council members have been unsettled by his promotion of democratic change in North Africa and the Middle East, where he has spoken out forcefully against some autocratic governments, including Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, Bashar al-Asad's Syria and Moammar Qaddafi's Libya, for repressing civilian protesters.
In Libya, Ban has echoed U.S. and European statements indicating that Qaddafi lost the legitimacy to rule when he launched a violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators. He has appointed a former Jordanian Foreign Minister to oversee the U.N. humanitarian response to the crisis, and, more significantly, to help lay the ground work for a political transition. Ban has also been a cheerleader for U.N. backed airstrikes. "Qaddafi has lost all legitimacy," Ban told the Spanish daily El Mundo last month. "He cannot stay in power in Libya. Whatever happens, he has to go."
In an interview with journalist Raghida Dergham, Ban gave a biographical rationale for his tougher line on the Arab popular uprisings. "I believe this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity," he told her in an interview that ran in Huffington Post. "I was one of the students who went out to the streets in Korea when I was young, asking for more freedom and bold reforms and changes. Then Korea achieved democratic development as well economic prosperity." ~ courtesy: Foreign Policy ~