moonRather than modernising the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon has begun to drag it, kicking and screaming, back into the 1980s.  He has spent seven years as an “invisible man” (his own description) but now the Secretary General is starting to make his mark. One can only hope it does not leave a permanent stain.

Ban emerged as front-runner for the General-Secretary position in 2006, “largely thanks to the United States, which was looking for an especially bland candidate after knocking heads so often with Kofi Annan over the Iraq war”.(1)

In keeping with this expectation, Ban likes to boast that in Korea he is known as the “slippery eel” because it is impossible to hold onto anything he says. It is little wonder, then, that those who wanted progressive change in the UN soon became exasperated. In fact, there have been calls for his resignation since 2009. This is what Foreign Policy magazine had to say:

“…at a time when global leadership is urgently needed, when climate change and international terrorism and the biggest financial crisis in 60 years might seem to require some—any!—response, the former South Korean foreign minister has instead been trotting the globe collecting honorary degrees, issuing utterly forgettable statements, and generally frittering away any influence he might command.”(2)

More recently, Ban has become visible. Unfortunately, his true colours are not a pretty sight. In fact, his recent bureaucratic manouevres are an open betrayal of the organisation’s founding ideals.

Here is what has happened:

In April this year the General Assembly passed a resolution on human resources issues. The full text is accessible here: In May, Ban cited this as a reason for refusing to negotiate with staff unions. In fact, he went so far as to say this decision had been forced on him by the April resolution. (Read it for yourself – this is certainly not the case). He then formalised the decision unilaterally in June, in direct contravention of staff rights under International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions 87 and 98. (Remember, the ILO is a specialized UN agency!)  Freedom of association is also written into other international conventions such as Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. UN lawyers have confirmed that Ban’s action is both unconstitutional and in breach of the UN legal framework. (3)  On top of that, his actions are a breach of the UN Staff Regulations:

The Secretary-General shall establish and maintain continuous contact and communication with the staff in order to ensure the effective participation of the staff in identifying, examining and resolving issues relating to staff welfare, including conditions of work, general conditions of life and other human resources policies.
United Nations Staff Regulations, Section 8.1 (4)

Perhaps more serious, though, is Ban’s betrayal of the founding vision. The United Nations was founded in 1945 – the year World War Two ended — to promote dialogue as an alternative to conflict.  A few months later the International Labour Organisation became the UN’s first specialized agency, promoting “meaningful social dialogue“. Nowadays, 185 nations are members of both organisations.

In refusing to negotiate with staff through their elected representatives, Ban is asserting that dialogue is a privilege, rather than a right. It is an option — a gift from management that can be withdrawn at will. This is an extraordinary piece of hypocrisy. For one thing, the UN General Assembly has endorsed “the effective recognition of the right of collective bargaining” (5). In 1998 it was agreed that all ILO member states would respect the conventions, regardless of whether or not they had been formally ratified. Furthermore…

“Businesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining”
Third principle of the United Nations’ “Global Compact”, an initiative that advises businesses on human rights issues (6)

“The freedoms to associate and to bargain collectively are fundamental rights.”
ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (7)

“Don’t wait for every country to introduce laws protecting freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. You can at least make your own employees, and those of your subcontractors, enjoy those rights”
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, speaking about standards for corporate and social responsibility in 1999 (8)

The United Nations and its agencies are supposed to lead the world in promoting the virtues of dialogue over conflict. One could almost say this is their raison d’etre. They are not private corporations. Ban Ki-moon is not a CEO. The member states are not shareholders. The staff are not hired consultants.

It will be argued that Ban Ki-moon is in a difficult position. He has a diminishing budget and a clear mandate to reform the organisation. But unfortunately (for all of us), he has chosen to exercise this mandate in the most unimaginative and  outmoded manner imaginable. Rather than engaging staff in a democratic fashion and making the most of their problem-solving nous and creativity, he has decided to foster disengagement. He does not even seem to be aware of the ILO’s “Decent Work” agenda, jointly developed by the member states’ governments, employers and workers. Among the four strategic objectives:

#2. Guaranteeing rights at work – to obtain recognition and respect for the rights of workers. All workers, and in particular disadvantaged or poor workers, need representation, participation, and laws that work for their interests.

#4: Promoting social dialogue – Involving strong and independent workers’ and employers’ organizations is central to increasing productivity, avoiding disputes at work, and building cohesive societies. (9)

The next few months will see a huge tussle within the United Nations. Some of it may surface in the form of traditional industrial action, but most of it will find its form in deepening employee cynicism and disengagement. Things are bad enough without this. “Last week was a grim one for the reputation of the United Nations. In the face of mounting evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime, and with more than one million children made refugees by the civil war, the U.N. Security Council responded with a statement of “serious concern.” (10)

Sooner or later such failures will become more than we can bear. Ban will have to go. But we will not have learned a thing from the whole dismal season unless we get rid of him ourselves, and demand much more of his successor. It is not enough to wait for the Secretary-General to announce he will not stand again. The longer he stays, the more complicit the member states become. The legacy of Ban Ki-moon will not be measured in terms of dollars saved, but in lives lost or ruined as the UN dithers in times of crisis.


By Peter Hall-Jones, October 2013.
Please note that this piece represents the opinions of the author, rather than the network as a whole.



(1) Der Spiegel, 2009. Accessed 30-09-13.

(2) Foreign Policy, June 22, 2009. Retrieved 30-09-13.

(3) Coordinating Committee for International Staff Unions and Associations, “United Nations Secretary General
de-recognizes trade unions” briefing document, 2013. Retrieved 30-09-13.

(4) The U.N. Staff Regulations can be downloaded here:

(5) General Assembly Resolution 128, Section on Trade Union Rights. See

(6) The Ten Principles of the United Nations’ “Global Compact” are set out here: Retrieved 5-10-13.

(7) See–en/index.htm. Retrieved 5-10-13.

(8) See Retrieved 5-10-13.

(9) See–en/index.htm. Retrieved 5-10-13.

(10) “The United Nations Isn’t Failing—Its Members Are” by Charles Kenny, Bloomberg Businessweek, August 26, 2013 . See Retrieved 5-10-13.