The art of diplomacy

In an exclusive interview, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon talks to Adrienne Cernigoi about climate change, people power and why the UAE humanitarian model is one worth following

He is a man with the weight of the world’s greatest – and seemingly intractable – problems on his shoulders. The Norwegian lawyer and politician Trygve Lie, the first Secretary-General of the United Nations, called the role “the most impossible job on Earth”. A lesser man might be cowed by such a cataclysmic to-do list, but Ban Ki-moon, the eighth and current Secretary-General, is undaunted.

“There is no time for me to be afraid of these challenges,” he says. “I regard myself as the voice of the voiceless. That’s what keeps me committed and motivated.”

The first South Korean to fill the post, Ban has headed the 193-member organisation since taking over from Kofi Annan in 2007. The world body was founded from the ashes of World War II, charged with bringing together the countries and peoples of the world to banish the scourge of war from human experience. The Secretary-General is behind-the-scenes civil servant-in-chief, diplomat and advocate for humanity all rolled into one.

Vision spent time with the Secretary-General before he gave the keynote address at the Government Summit in Dubai. As we sat, he appealed for a light grilling. This particular visit to Dubai has been culled to a mere one-day trip, because urgent business called him back to the UN offices in New York.

ban ki moon
A firm believer in 'people power', Ban is a visible presence at climate marches

A famous workaholic, the Secretary-General spent 147 days on the road on 71 official trips in 2014. For such a prominent figure, much has been made of Ban’s reserved character. In 2010 he said what matters most is “not so much the message from the bully pulpit, but rather the movement from the pews”.

Certainly, his speech in Dubai on new models for inclusive government tackled the hot topic of people power. One of his key messages to government and business leaders is that those in power ignore ordinary people at their peril.

“That’s why I have been saying repeatedly that leaders must listen to people’s voices, to their challenges, concerns and aspirations,” says Ban.

Talk of political turmoil doesn’t fluster Ban Ki-moon. Questions about his own life do. But he speaks from personal experience when he talks of the effects of conflict; as a child, he was forced to study outside after his school was devastated during the Korean War.

“It’s miserable to think of young children who do not know a world outside of their [refugee] camp,” Ban says with frustration, referring to Syria.

Drawing attention to the plight of ordinary people is part of the job description and one for which the UN chief uses his very public platform. But Ban has one weapon his predecessors lacked: social media. A photo of Ban, 71, reading with his granddaughter in support of the campaign for girls’ education, was retweeted “millions of times”, he says. Indeed, Vision first came face-to-face with the Secretary-General at an NGO awards ceremony in Indonesia, where Ban gamely posed for selfies with a Bolivian camera crew.

Climate change is, and will continue to be, my top priority. It affects the whole spectrum of humankind… There is no time to lose, we have to take action

Ban is clear that it is this “people power” factor that has propelled a step change in the campaign to tackle global warming. Two days prior to hosting a Climate Summit at the United Nations HQ in New York with some of the leading humanitarian voices in the world, Ban made sure that he walked with the people as well.

Decked in a baseball cap and an ‘I’m for climate action’ T-shirt, he joined some 400,000 demonstrators on New York’s streets at the People’s Climate March in September 2014 as world leaders convened. More than 2,600 similar marches were held worldwide.

He has been vocal, too, in his frustration at the slow pace of action in tackling global warming, eschewing his favoured tactic of quiet diplomacy. Last December he scolded Canada – one of the world’s highest greenhouse gas emitters per capita – on TV for not doing enough, and told delegates at this year’s Davos meeting to take sustainable development seriously.

This year is crunch time for several big deals on the table. The Millennium Development Goals, designed to slash global poverty, will expire in December, and the UN must shepherd home new targets for the next 15 years. Ban is hoping to get countries to sign up to a binding climate agreement this year. It is tackling climate change that gets Ban fired up and that he hopes will be his legacy.

“As Secretary-General my mandate may be limited,” says Ban. “[But] climate change is, and will continue to be, my top priority. It affects the whole spectrum of humankind… There is no time to lose, we have to take action.”

With the UN Climate Change Conference due in Paris at the end of the year, Ban is “optimistic” that after two decades of talks, this summit can rally enough pledges – on emissions caps, money and technological solutions – to keep global temperatures below a disastrous 2 degree Celsius rise.

There is reason to be cautiously confident: the US and China struck a surprise deal in 2014 that intends to curb and cap emissions by 2025 and 2030, respectively.

Negotiating sensitive, multi-party deals are bread and butter to a career diplomat such as Ban. Born in Eumseong County, South Korea, he studied international relations at Seoul National University and public administration at Harvard University before returning to spend 37 years with his country’s foreign affairs and trade ministry. His first professional contact with the UN came in 1975, in that ministry’s United Nations division.

Ban is in office at a precarious time for the UN as the 70-year-old organisation faces myriad crises, from Ukraine to universal nuclear disarmament. UN reform was top of his agenda on coming to office and he is the first Secretary-General to disclose his assets publicly in an effort to boost transparency. “When I wake up each morning I always try to think how I can make the United Nations fit for purpose,” says Ban.

Still, cries for reform come from all quarters – not least from his predecessor, Kofi Annan, whose grouping of ex-world leaders called The Elders has warned a failure to modernise the organisation gnaws at its authority.

While quick to say the UN is “working very hard to transform”, Ban is clear the organisation must open up its clubby nature as emerging economies flex their muscles. The flip side is that those economies – such as China, Brazil, South Africa, the UAE – need to take more responsibility: “South-south cooperation is increasing, that is very encouraging,” he says. “[But] I’m strongly urging countries like the UAE… to do more for developing countries.”

Passionate when it comes to fighting poverty and standing up for the dispossessed, he has a unique insight into the world’s challenges after nearly 10 years at the top.

How does he see the world shifting? “One may think this world is big, but it is a very small, interconnected world, particularly with the development of technology,” he muses. “There are no boundaries of countries. We are simply one family.”