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UN leader garners reelection support as he gets tough with Egypt

By Bill Varner
Bloomberg News / February 20, 2011

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UNITED NATIONS — When progovernment mobs attacked demonstrators demanding Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation this month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did something he had seldom done before: He publicly called on the government of a member state to cede power.

“The transition should begin now,’’ Ban told reporters on Feb. 3. “The protests reflect the great frustration of the Egyptian people about the lack of change over the past few decades. This discontent calls for bold reforms, not repression.’’

The comments, which the Egyptian government protested, marked a departure from Ban’s style of quiet diplomacy at the beginning of a year when he is well positioned to win a second term.

The former South Korean foreign minister, who hasn’t declared his candidacy, has the support of Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States, permanent members of the Security Council that could veto his reelection, diplomats from those nations say.

“The world is getting very dangerous and I think he has tried in a very realistic way to get things done,’’ said Portugal’s ambassador, Jose Morales Cabral. “It’s a tough job, and no attitude or decision satisfies everyone.’’

Ban’s statement on Egypt drew praise from human rights advocates, who previously have criticized what they say is his soft approach to repressive regimes. In a report last month, New York-based Human Rights Watch said that he is “reluctant to put pressure on abusive governments’’ such as Myanmar’s military junta or China’s leaders.

“Ban has acted more boldly, clearly warning the Egyptian regime of the need to respect the rights of demonstrators and initiate immediate real change,’’ said Philippe Bolopion, the UN advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

Still, Ban also has to contend with Republicans in the US Congress who say he has failed to end corruption and waste in the world body. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called a hearing to explore withholding some of the $517 million in US contributions to the UN budget.

The United States pushed for Ban’s election in 2006 after clashing with his predecessor, Kofi Annan, who said the 2003 invasion of Iraq was illegal. Ban’s mandate was to improve the world body’s management following reports of waste and fraud in the purchase of supplies for peacekeeping missions and evidence that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was allowed to skim $13 billion from a UN-administered “oil-for-food’’ aid program.

Five years later, Ban says the United Nations is a more efficient and accountable organization. His top aides say his leadership has saved the lives of millions of people in Haiti, Myanmar, Sudan, and other countries in crisis.

Envoys such as Cabral say Ban has won the respect of the diplomatic community through a combination of discretion and a work ethic that has him routinely calling world leaders from his residence in Manhattan by 6 a.m.

Ban won’t discuss the details of such calls. “There are some issues that need to be handled more privately,’’ he said.

Ban’s deputies, including Assistant Secretary-General Robert Orr, a former US official, say these below-the-radar methods have been effective.

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