Does the world really want a credible United Nations?

No more mediocrities for the post of secretary general would be a good start.

The post of UN secretary general is a prestigious but frequently thankless role. It also tends to be filled by men (it has always been men so far) who achieve their global status through their office, not on their own merit, and who appear to be wearing a suit slightly too big or too grand for them – they don't quite live up to the job, in other words.

In recent years we have had Kofi Annan – saintly, but ineffectual – and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, whose chippiness would have been amusing, were it not so serious. (He wondered whether British criticism of him, you will recall, was "because I'm a wog".)

And now we have Ban Ki-moon. Leave aside that he looks like the mild-mannered provincial bank manager of ancient stereotype. Here is what he's been up to recently.

Yesterday he opined of the elections in Burma, scheduled for 7 November, that unless the military regime released all political prisoners, "then there may certainly be some issue of legitimacy or credibility". Well, you don't say, Mr Secretary General.

Next he ended a trip to Cambodia after being ambushed by Prime Minister Hun Sen's announcement that the current UN-backed tribunal trial of four leading Khmer Rouge leaders will be the last. No more of Pol Pot's followers will face justice. Hun Sen – himself ex-Khmer Rouge – doesn't believe in turning over any more stones. You don't know what you might find underneath. Oh, and would Mr Ban mind shutting the UN's Cambodian human rights office while he's at it? There's a good fellow.

Where else has he been of late? Thailand, where, according to the Bangkok Post, he courageously declared that the country's long-standing and bloody confrontations between the Red and Yellow Shirts was really none of his business. That was "an internal affair and the Thai people must settle the problem on their own", apparently.

Regular readers will know that I'm not much in favour of western politicians jetting in to developing nations and giving them the benefit of their callow advice (cf: David Miliband in India last year). But for those of us who hope against hope that the UN can be a credible body and an influence for the good, the role of secretary general is crucial.

He – or maybe, eventually, she – has to inject the role with clout through the force of his own personality. The secretary general has to be so impressive that, in future, a Mandela, say, will consider the job an important one, and not a step down from having been chief executive of their own state.

If Ban secures another five-year term – his current one concludes at the end of next year – that day will be even further off. Until then, it's all hail the mediocrity-in-chief.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.