Sunday, 14 November 2010

Ban Ki-moon's leadership fails U.N., world


Joel Brinkley

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Iran has stepped up the use of brutal, medieval punishments, like stoning people to death and chopping off the hands of thieves. Late last month, authorities cut off a man's hand and sentenced another one, 21 years old, to the same fate for stealing a bag of chocolate.

And while world leaders denounce Iran's death-by-stoning sentence of a woman accused of adultery, in recent weeks at least two other women have been stoned to death, one of them because she was seen in the company of an unrelated man. Eight more sit on death row awaiting the same fate.

"As the regime grows more insecure, they're growing more erratic, more violent," said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University.

Women are taking the brunt of this. Iran has a special rule for stoning-execution victims. They are buried, standing up in a pit, but if the condemned person can somehow wriggle out of the hole, he or she can go free. By law, men are buried up to the waist - but women up to the chest.

So last week, the nation almost became a director of the new U.N. agency to promote equality for women. How could that possibly happen?

The United Nations is supposed to be all about human rights. In 1948, the U.N.'s founders wrote one of the world's most important documents: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But by its behavior today, you'd think its leaders had never read it.

Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general, just returned from a trip to Asia, where among other stops he met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing. Around the world, presidents and prime ministers have been standing up to protest China's treatment of Liu Xiaobo, the inmate who just won the Nobel Peace Prize. But Ban never even mentioned the subject during his meeting with Hu.

That's egregious enough. But there's more. He also stopped in Cambodia and met with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who ordered Ban to close down the U.N.'s human-rights office in Phnom Penh. The office has been pointing out that Hun Sen's government is depriving its citizens of one human right after another as the prime minister consolidates his elective dictatorship. We can't know what Ban said about that during the meeting. Probably not much. But neither he nor his spokesmen had anything useful to say when the meeting was over.

If not human rights, what exactly does the United Nations stand for? It's quite hard to tell with Ban running the show. He is, of course, South Korean and seems to embody the Confucian values of modesty, self-effacement and nonconfrontational behavior. Are these the character traits of a world leader?

Last summer, the Associated Press acquired a 50-page internal memo written by the U.N.'s auditor general, Inga-Britt Ahlenius. Under Ban, her memo said, the U.N. leadership office "is now in a process of decay. It is not only falling apart," it's "drifting into irrelevance." Ban's performance, she wrote, is "seriously embarrassing for yourself."

In July, the United Nations decided to combine four women's rights agencies into a single powerful body advocating the interests of half the world's people. Women's rights groups cheered - until they began hearing the names of the states that will govern it. Among them was Iran, which treats women worse than house pets. At the last minute on Wednesday, the United States managed to block Iran's election. But the U.N. did select another malefactor state: Saudi Arabia, which in recent times sentenced a 75-year-old woman to 40 lashes and three months in jail for asking two men to bring her some food and twice refused an 8-year-old's request for a divorce. Her husband is 50.

How can Ban stand by and let this travesty go forward?

For that matter, why did Ban have nothing to say a few days ago when the United States had its turn for a human-rights review by the U.N. Human Rights Council?

Cuba managed to stack the speakers list "with rogue regimes and other vehement critics," including Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Russia, China, Algeria, Bolivia and Nicaragua, UN Watch, a nongovernmental organization, reported. "Several Muslim states accused America of genocide, war crimes and systematic anti-Muslim and anti-African racism."

American officials shrugged, as they should. Who really cares what these people have to say? But if I were Ban, once again I would be humiliated. What kind of respect should the world accord the United Nations when it permits mockeries like this to occur - in its own offices?

© Joel Brinkley

Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times. E-mail him at Contact The Chronicle at

This article appeared on page E - 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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