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The head of the United Nations glides silently into a waiting room at the organisation’s New York headquarters wearing a sombre dark blue suit, a white shirt and a pale blue tie with a UN tie clip. Ban Ki-moon, 71, has just been on the phone to British prime minister David Cameron, pleading with him, “as an important leader of Europe”, to take more refugees from Syria.
It is a topic close to Ban’s heart. Sixty-five years ago, as a child in Korea, he was forced to leave home when his village was sucked into the country’s brutal war. Ever since, he has felt a particularly strong affinity with victims of violence.
“I was six years old,” he recalls. “I had to flee with things on my back. It was big difficulty finding something to eat. I was always crying, crying, crying, without knowing what was going on. All the schools were destroyed. We were just sitting under the shadow of a tree, on the ground.”
He looks me in the eye. “I was not really refugee,” he adds, speaking with the precision of someone who has spent hours studying legal definitions. “I was displaced person. But for us the United Nations flag was the protector.”
The Korean peninsula was the first place in the world where UN peacekeepers, wearing their distinctive blue helmets, intervened to protect civilians. As a child, Ban idealised the United Nations — set up after the devastation of the second world war — as “a beacon!” But today, as it prepares to host its 70th General Assembly, pulling together representatives from all of its 193 countries, the organisation seems less beacon and more behemoth, and Ban, its secretary-general since 2007, has learnt the cruel limits of political power.
The UN can still help deliver good; Ban has been pushing European leaders to face up to the Syrian refugee crisis. “Cameron told me that the UK would take 20,000 more,” he says. “I also called Angela Merkel, François Hollande — everyone!”
But the organisation has become a sprawling mess: it has 15 specialised agencies, 12 different funds, and a secretariat that employs more than 40,000 people, costing $5.5bn in 2014-15. To complicate matters, all members have an equal vote on issues — and the five members of the “security council” that serves as the UN’s inner sanctum (US, China, Russia, France and Britain) have a veto over decisions. That leaves the institution mired in gridlock.
The question that hovers over the UN as it faces its big birthday is whether it has now outlived its purpose. Does Ban have an utterly hopeless job?
He gestures for me to follow him into the place on the top floor of the UN skyscraper that he has chosen for our lunch: a small official dining room, decorated in a bland corporate style with pale wooden walls. There is a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline but the only decoration of note is a gigantic blue UN flag.
“Time is very limited,” he says, apologising for his choice of location. “I am dealing with 193 nations, and civil society and business community. There are almost unlimited actors who I have to have harmonious relations with.”
Waiters silently appear and present our first courses on white bone china plates with a blue UN logo. Before the meal, I was asked — in accordance with UN protocol — to complete a form indicating what I wanted to eat. I notice Ban has chosen the same starter as me: a smoked salmon and avocado salad. “I followed you,” he says, impassively.
I start by asking why he wanted to take on such a huge job. Suddenly, Ban’s polite expression becomes truly animated. He explains how, after his family escaped to the city of Cheongju, he eventually got an education. “Unesco and Unicef were providing a lot of humanitarian support — textbooks, toys and pencils and stationaries,” he says, waving his hands in the air; a non-native English speaker, he often uses gestures to communicate.
He finished top of his school and, at the age of 17, was selected by the Red Cross to join a 100-strong peace-building delegation to the US of children from around the world. That took him to the White House, where he met US president John F Kennedy. “At that time it was the height of the cold war,” Ban recalls. “But I remember that President Kennedy told us: ‘Although governments are not getting along well, you young people can be good friends — there are no national boundaries.’ ”
The experience left Ban determined to become a diplomat. “[My country] was so poor I was thinking that public service should be the right thing.” Over the next four decades he worked on missions from India to Austria, studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School and then ended up, in 2004, as South Korea’s foreign minister. Generally he avoided controversy; his nickname among Korean diplomats was “the slippery eel”.
His most startling manoeuvre came in 2006, when the term of the previous UN secretary-general — the charismatic Ghanaian Kofi Annan — ended. Ban unexpectedly threw his hat into the ring. His profile was low, his chances looked equally so, but he tirelessly visited all the key stakeholders. “Frankly speaking, I didn’t think that one day I could become secretary-general until very, very late,” he admits.
Has the job been what he hoped? He smiles politely. “I know there is the question of whether, after 70 years, the UN is relevant and properly effective,” he says. “The UN is quite different from what it was 70 years — or even 20 years — ago. The number of members has increased and there is a dramatic increase in communications and technology and migration. And there has been much more individualistic way of thinking and doing business by each and every member state.”
What does he think he has achieved? “It is very difficult for me to say something about me. It should be historians and scholars who say it.”
I groan inwardly. Some colleagues claim that Ban’s “quiet Confucian” style is exactly what is needed to orchestrate deals in a deeply fractured world; critics retort that his approach is too consensus-oriented and uncharismatic to get anything done. Either way, I have rarely encountered anyone as self-effacing in New York.
I push him again to talk about his record. He pauses, then explains that he has tried to clean up the operations of the UN. Annan’s tenure was hit by scandals such as the “Oil-for-Food” saga, which surrounded a UN programme to aid suffering Iraqis and exposed deep managerial weaknesses. Ban has forced all senior UN officials to reveal their financial assets, implemented performance reviews, and recently even took the rare step of firing somebody (Babacar Gaye, the former head of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, whose troops were accused of sexual assault).
He has also been trying — belatedly — to tackle the deep bureaucratic silos that make the UN hopelessly inefficient. “We are now finally connecting our computer systems,” he offers, as evidence. “It has taken us five years — five! ”
What about influence in the wider world? Climate change, he offers finally. “When I came here in January 2007 the climate change was not really very much appreciated or understood. So as a way to raise awareness I travelled to all the places of the world, from Antarctica and then the Arctic.” Carefully, he lists his trips, thanking different governments for their assistance, taking care to not mix up their names.
“When I went to the Arctic I got full support from the Norwegian government — we took an aeroplane and then ice-breaking ship for 11 hours overnight. The thickness of the ice they had to hit — boom!” he claps his hands. “Two years ago I went to Greenland first, with prime minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt. I saw falling chunks of ice — boom!” He claps again. “It is very important for me to sound alarm bells about climate change.”
Our first course is taken away, and two more identical plates appear with blandly inoffensive piles of sea bream, beans and rice.
Ban insists all this talk and travel has yielded results: last year, under UN pressure, the US and China finally signed up to an international climate-change deal and this year the UN will launch an initiative to provide $100bn of technological assistance to poor countries to help them cut emissions. “But it has been very difficult because governments have been focusing on their narrow national agendas.
“If everything goes wrong, I become an easy scapegoat — we joke that “SG”, or secretary-general, is now standing for scapegoat,” he continues. “I don’t complain about this. But when there is a unity of purpose and solidarity among security council members, particularly the five permanent members, you can make real things.”
When did that unity last appear? “Two years ago,” he sighs. That was when the security council briefly agreed to monitor chemical weapons in Syria. Ban is now imploring the group to take wider action in that country. But, to his disappointment, Russia and China have vetoed this.
What about Iran? This at least seems to be one area of real action: this summer a deal was signed for Iran to place its nuclear programmes under the surveillance of inspectors from the UN and other agencies, in exchange for a withdrawal of western sanctions. The deal is wildly controversial in the US and Israel: there are fears that Iran will evade the controls, just as North Korea defied world opinion to create a bomb. But Ban tries to be optimistic. “I know that there is some suspicion that this deal cannot be fully implemented. But based on my own personal experience there is a big difference between the current agreement with Iran and the North Korean nuclear issues,” he insists. “Many sanctions have been lifted but, depending on how the Iranians do, they can be snatched back.”
Isn’t that over-optimistic? He smiles. Our conversation moves on to some of the other geopolitical tensions that place the UN — and Ban — in a near-impossible position. Just before our lunch he attended a military parade in China to mark the end of the second world war. The move incensed the Japanese government but Ban insists the Japanese were wrong to complain. “I have been participating in all commemorative events to be fair and impartial,” he says.
“The Japanese should look at the past and learn [their own] lessons. It is widely believed that they have not done enough [to apologise for the war] as the German government did. They have left large areas of discontent and disharmony with neighbour countries.”
The waiter brings two plates of fruit tart with macaroons, and Ban talks about areas where the UN has been unable to deliver “as much as possible”. “The charter stipulated that we were to save succeeding generations from the scourges of war, But we have seen more wars and recurring genocides,” he says. “There is no other universal organisation which has legitimacy and I am quite confident that the United Nations will continue to exist. But it needs to evolve and change.”
How? One way, Ban suggests, would be to change how his successor is selected when his eight-year term ends in 2016. Until now, this has been done in secret by the security council. But some members want an open vote among all 193 countries. Ban supports this. “After 70 years there should be more transparency. I also think it is high time to have some woman of integrity and experience.”
Ban lives in New York with Soon-taek, his wife of more than 40 years — they have three grown-up children — but spends so much of his life in meetings, or on planes travelling to different disaster zones or diplomatic hotspots, that he almost never gets a day off. What will he do when he leaves, I ask as coffee arrives — might he run for president of South Korea? “I am too busy doing my work here to think of anything else,” he says, as I groan silently once more.
Before we end I ask what gives him most satisfaction in his role. Quietly, he reveals that he gets some sense of fulfilment from visiting refugee camps. That is partly because he is trying to exercise his “power of persuasion” to encourage governments to treat refugees well. But he also wants to spread a personal message about resilience — and finding hope in some unlikely places.
“When I go to camps — and I have just been to Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria and other places I cannot name — I always tell the young people, ‘Don’t despair!’ ” he says, looking animated again. “I say, ‘I was like you at one time. But the boy that I was has become the secretary-general. Don’t despair!’ ”
As he speaks, a vision of the six-year-old Ban, carrying his possessions on his back, pops into my mind. It is, I reflect, a remarkable tale. But how many other children will enjoy that happy ending?
He admits that he has been horrified by the squalor he sees in today’s refugee camps. What worries him even more, though, is their air of permanence. In the 1950s, being a “refugee” was considered a temporary affair; today it is estimated that more than 60m people are displaced, a record, and many are being tossed into a never-ending limbo.
“Today these children think the camps are their entire world. I wonder: what will be the future of those children? What?” His voice trails off. He has no clear answer; nor does the UN. But I know that, once lunch is over, Ban will be working the phones again, trying to persuade reluctant world leaders to act. If only they would listen.
Gillian Tett is the FT’s US managing editor
Illustration by Gary Wing