S Korean foreign minister UN frontrunner

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Ban Ki-moon, South Korea’s foreign minister, on Thursday increased his lead over other six declared candidates in the race to become the next secretary general of the United Nations.

Mr Ban - considered the frontrunner to succeed Kofi Annan - received 13 votes in favour, one against and one of no opinion. He did slightly worse than in the last straw poll, where he won 14 votes in favour and one against.

Shashi Tharoor, the Indian candidate, dropped significantly with only eight votes in favour and three against. Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, the Latvian president, won seven encouragements but six against. Surakiart Sathirathai, the Thai candidate, dipped to five votes in favour. All the other candidates won 3 apiece.

Ahead of Thursday’s straw poll Mr Ban hit the right notes without offending any powerful countries, and promised reforms people want without specifying any of the tough decisions that would entail.

“It is rather sensitive for me as one of the candidates to go into any specific personnel management issues,” Mr Ban told the Financial Times in an interview that revealed a reluctance to move much beyond assurances of personal competence, and the need to rise to new challenges.

On the other hand, he displayed a growing mastery of UN vocabulary. Phrases such as “ownership”, “gender mainstreaming”, “equitable geographical distribution” and, of course, “the common good of the international community”, peppered his replies. That said, the word “genocide” appeared to elude him – with regards to Darfur and Rwanda – although he did call for “bolder measures” to ensure events like the 1994 “massacre” in central Africa were not repeated.

On nuclear proliferation – an issue with which he has some personal experience – he noted that “on certain cases, specific cases, I know that the secretary-general may have limitations. This is a fact of life”, he said. Nevertheless, “the secretary-
general as a chief international diplomat of the world body should play an impartial, but very skilful and astute diplomatic facilitator and mediating role”.

Some UN insiders are asking if deals are being made to safeguard the current leadership’s interests. Mr Ban declined to say whom he would appoint as deputy secretary-general. But he did say: “I intend to delegate a significant amount of day-to-day management,” while he as secretary-general would “more visibly” be involved in resolving conflicts.

His experience in reforming South Korea’s foreign ministry may, as he claims, go some way to helping him do that. But the UN is another place altogether; and this softly spoken controversy-avoiding politician may be in for a shock.

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