Jewish officials are greeting the selection of Ban Ki-moon as the next U.N. secretary-general with cautious optimism, hopeful that the South Korean foreign minister will use the office to push for fairer treatment of Israel and more equitable application of international human rights standards. The Security Council endorsed Ban, 62, by acclamation Monday, choosing him from a field of seven candidates. The General Assembly confirmed him Friday afternoon.
"If the selection process is any indicator, then the journey of his tenure might be smoother than what we’ve seen until now," said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of American Friends of Lubavitch and Chabad’s chief envoy in Washington, who met with Ban and other U.N. candidates. "There’s something smooth, quiet, yet effective about him, and as we get to know him better, I hope it’s going to bring us closer to a better and more peaceful world."
Ban will replace Kofi Annan of Ghana, who has a mixed record on issues of Jewish concern. U.N. observers say it’s difficult to predict whether Ban will fare any better, particularly given his reputation as a moderate who prizes consensus-building.
Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, says powerful groups like the Non-Aligned Movement — an alliance of developing countries that includes the 56-member Muslim bloc — could obstruct any significant changes Ban seeks to implement.
"It would be naive to expect radical change," Neuer said. "The most important decisions are made by members states which are organized into certain powerful alliances."
If the Non-Aligned Movement "wants to play the spoiler role, the secretary-general is limited in what he can accomplish," he said.
Neuer’s skepticism echoes criticism aimed at Ban ahead of his selection. Some said he was too weak for the U.N.’s top job, chosen more for his inoffensiveness than his potential to reform an organization still tarnished by the oil-for-food scandal and allegations of sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers.
As Ban emerged as front-runner, U.N. staff reportedly worried that the career diplomat lacked the mettle to take the organization out from under the cloud of controversy that has marred Annan’s second term. Annan will step down as secretary-general Dec. 31.
Ban earned a B.A. in international relations from Seoul National University in 1970, and holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Often described as soft-spoken and lacking charisma, Ban rose steadily through the ranks of South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, becoming foreign minister in January 2004. His previous postings include New Delhi, Washington, Vienna and New York, and in 2005 he became the first South Korean foreign minister to visit Israel.
"He seems to be a good man and has all the necessary qualifications to be a good secretary-general," said Aaron Jacob, associate director of international affairs for the American Jewish Committee, who met with Ban in late September.
At the meeting, Ban was noncommittal in response to AJCommittee concerns about Iran, human rights and reports that U.N. peacekeepers in southern Lebanon are narrowly interpreting their mandate. Given the Security Council’s imminent vote on his nomination, however, that reticence was to be expected, Jacob said.
"He said that he understood our concerns, but understandably did not go into details," Jacob said.
Ban has said he would make reforming the United Nations — a cause close to the hearts of Jewish organizations who say the world body treats Israel unfairly — a top priority. He also has pledged to try to broker a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The U.N. Charter "was crafted to give the member states ample flexibility in adapting the U.N. machinery to respond to novel threats in a changing world," Ban told world leaders in September at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. "But our tools need sharpening."
Unlike Neuer, who would like the new secretary-general to take a bold stance on key issues, many of those who have met Ban believe a more subdued approach — unlike the very public pronouncements that have been a hallmark of Annan’s tenure — may be more effective in achieving long-term change.
"Although he doesn’t come across as a high-profile champion of causes, he does have a human-rights background and has been able to advance some of those issues behind the scenes," said Shai Franklin, director of international organizations for the World Jewish Congress. "It would be a mistake to dismiss his low-key public style as a lack of interest or resolve on human rights or other issues that we as Jews take very seriously."
"I think he’s going to surprise the skeptics," agreed Michael Landau, who heads the Coalition of Orthodox Jewish Organizations of the West Side, a Manhattan-based umbrella group representing 27 groups, and who attended the AJCommittee meeting with Ban. We see Kofi Annan "as being more vocal a leader than Ban Ki-moon, who will speak less and do a lot."
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