UN ‘working behind the scenes’ on Burma

The UN has been forced to defend its record on Burma in recent days with the fallout from a leaked memo that slated Ban Ki-moon’s impact on the pariah state showing no signs of easing.

The now-infamous 50-page report, written by Inga-Britt Ahlenius and leaked to the Washington Post in mid-July, said that the UN secretariat is in a “process of decay” after three years of “absence of strategic guidance and leadership” under Ban.

The comments were a parting shot from Ahlenius, who recently finished her post as chief of the UN’s anti-corruption agency, the Office of Internal Oversight (UNOIOS).

“We seem to be seen less and less as a relevant partner in the resolution of world problems,” she said, questioning the UN’s “capacity to protect civilians in conflict and distress…What relevance do we have in disarmament, in Myanmar [Burma], Darfur, Afghanistan, Cyprus, G20…?”

The secretary general used one of his first speeches as UN chief in January 2007 to urge for the release of Burma’s political prisoners, but since his last, and widely criticised, visit to Burma in June last year, he has barely mentioned the country in public.

Moreover, the UN is yet to appoint a successor to Ibrahim Gambari, the equally maligned UN special envoy to Burma who was reassigned to Sudan in late 2009. In January this year it defended the hiatus on reappointing an envoy by claiming that UN Chief of Staff Vijay Nambiar was temporarily filling the role.

But it has again been forced to defend accusations in the wake of the leaked report that it has been lax on pressuring the Burmese junta to reform. One reporter asked Ban’s spokesperson, Martin Nesirky, on 23 July whether the UN had indeed accomplished anything on Burma, which is heading towards widely-criticised elections this year.

“We continue to work, as I also said to you before; the good offices [team] is not one individual, if you like, it’s people working behind the scenes,” he said. “Not everything that happens is in the public eye…Sometimes you see those results quickly, sometimes it takes longer. Certainly we’ve been very public about the need for credible elections in Myanmar.

Nambiar also responded to the Ahlenius report by saying that Ban’s work as secretary general had been “visionary” and that he had balanced his UN role with “providing truly global leadership.”

But critics have argued that his method of dealing in “soft power” has reinforced the growing influence of China within the UN, at a time when Western nations are in a face-off over China’s support for the Burmese junta. Ahlenius said that Ban was “spineless and charmless” and was “struggling to show leadership”, an accusation that has apparently rattled his office.

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