U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he's disappointed by many world leaders who care more about retaining power than improving the lives of their people — and can't understand why Syria is being held hostage to "the destiny" of one man, President Bashar Assad.
Nearing the end of his 10 years at the helm of the United Nations, Ban spoke frankly about the state of the world and his successes, failures and frustrations as U.N. chief in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press.
Ban is the public face of the organization but he said that in private leaders see a very different and much tougher side to him.
"People say I have been quiet, and I have not been speaking out about human rights, but I can tell you I have been speaking out (more) than any of the Western leaders" who "are very cautious," he said. "You have not seen people as fearlessly speaking out as myself."
Ban also spoke candidly about his frustration at the way the U.N. operates.
It's unrealistic to expect any secretary-general "to be some almost almighty person," he said, because the world body's member states make decisions and the U.N. chief implements them — rather than implementing their own initiatives and policies, he said.
The U.N. could be far more efficient and effective if there were "some reasonable decision-making process" — not one that requires consensus on many issues before the General Assembly and statements by the Security Council, Ban said. This gives one country the power to block something all other nations agree on, or to water it down.
"Is it fair? Is it reasonable in the 21st century when you have 193 member states?" Ban said.
As an example, human rights groups have criticized the declaration set to be adopted at the U.N. summit on refugees and migrants on Monday, ahead of the General Assembly's annual gathering of world leaders, because it was watered down to reach consensus. The result was the elimination of Ban's proposal to resettle 10 percent of the world's refugees annually.
Ban said member states have the power to change the consensus requirement easily and quickly.
In a recent interview over lunch, the secretary-general said his generation in South Korea was educated in the ancient Chinese teachings of Confucius, which emphasize harmony, humaneness, compassion, propriety and honesty. "And I have been putting public interest first, over private interest," he said.
Comparing his approach to Western leaders, Ban said they usually speak through statements, which is easy, and sometimes they have pressured him not to say something or visit some country. But he said he "proceeded as I wanted" because he believes face-to-face meetings with world leaders are critical to try to get support on ending conflicts or on issues like climate change and combating poverty.
"I've been saying, I can issue a hundred statements from here, but if you really want to get that apple dropped, you have to go and shake the apple tree," he said.
If you wait under the tree "until the apple drops into your mouth, it may happen if you wait 20 years," he said.
Sometimes, he said, when leaders urged him not to visit a hotspot and something later happened there, "it was they who really wanted to go there first, to get the credit." Ban said he could name names which "would be quite explosive" — but he won't.
When he advises foreign leaders, Ban said, he always tells them "this is private."
"I always told them ... if I don't think you will want to be seen as (having) your arm twisted by the secretary-general of the United Nations, make it your policy and change — and then I will support, I will welcome" it.
The turmoil the world is suffering today isn't from the people, but is "caused by the leaders," he said.
For many leaders, the key is to be elected "by whatever means," Ban said. "Once elected ... they rule over people, and they are mostly corrupted, and they do not respect the voices of the people."
He said that in January 2015 he told African leaders to respect constitutional term limits and not cling to power. U.S. President Barack Obama delivered the same message six months later at the African Union — and he repeated the message again in January.
But Africa and the Middle East, especially, remain rife with conflicts, including in South Sudan, Central African Republic, Congo, Syria and Yemen and the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian dispute including three wars in Hamas-ruled Gaza during Ban's nearly 10 years in office.
Speaking with evident frustration about the more than five-year conflict in Syria, Ban said "I simply cannot understand why we have not been able to resolve this issue."
He pointed to the "lack of commitment to principles," particularly by the Syrian leadership.
"Why is it so important for one man's destiny? One man's destiny should not work as a hostage of all this crisis," Ban said, referring to the dispute between pro-government and opposition supporters over whether Assad should have any role in Syria's future.
He said his legacy should be left to historians, but he cited three issues he devoted his time, energy and "passion" to, which are widely regarded as accomplishments:
- His successful campaign from day one after succeeding Kofi Annan as secretary-general on Jan. 1, 2007 to address climate change, which he hopes will lead to last December's Paris climate agreement entering into force before he leaves office on Dec. 31 — and possibly even next Wednesday when he has invited world leaders to submit their ratifications.
- His push for all countries to agree on 17 new U.N. goals last September, which establish 169 targets to fight poverty, protect the environment, achieve gender equality and ensure good governance by 2030.
- His promotion of "gender empowerment," including the establishment of UN Women, spurred by his belief that women are "the least utilized resources in humankind," and if their potential is used "we can at least double" economic productivity and improve social development.
As for regrets, aside from not seeing an end to conflicts in Africa, and especially in Syria, he cited the injustice imposed "on many helpless people ... whose human rights and human dignity have been violated and abused," particularly women and girls.
He cited the sexual abuse and exploitation of women and girls by U.N. peacekeepers, stressed that he had fired the head of the U.N. mission in Central African Republic — a rarity at the U.N. — and his commitment and determination to end it. But he said he needs the help of member states to prosecute alleged perpetrators because the U.N. has no judicial enforcement measures.
The U.N.'s handling of the cholera epidemic in Haiti has also been widely criticized, and Ban stressed the U.N.'s "moral responsibility" to help improve the country's water and sanitation and eliminate the disease — but he said the Haitian government must also do more.
Rather than giving advice to his successor, Ban said he has some advice for member states: Be more united and work for the "common good" rather than your country's national interest.
As for his future, Ban said he will be returning home to South Korea but he deflects widespread rumors that he will be a candidate for president, saying his job is being secretary-general through Dec. 31. As a private citizen, he said, he will "spare no efforts" to help promote reconciliation with North Korea if there is an opportunity.
What about writing a book about his decade as secretary-general?
"One day, many years later, and I'm not in a position to write soon, but I can speak more freely because I do not want to criticize all of them while I'm in power," Ban said.