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UN chief to focus on sustaining Arab Spring

By Edith M. Lederer

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 30 2011 11:55 p.m. MST

FILE - In this April 14, 2011 file photo, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks at a news conference after a meeting of international organizations on Libya at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. As he embarks on a second five-year term starting Jan. 1, 2012, Ban said one of his top priorities is to help Arab countries sustain their moves toward democracy. He also said he intended to do more for young people and women, and address frustrations over the growing gap between the rich and poor expressed by the Occupy movement.

Khalil Hamra, File, Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his second term as chief of the United Nations, wants to help people who rose up in the Arab Spring attain and sustain freedom and democracy.

As he embarks on a new five-year term starting New Year's Day, Ban said one of his top priorities is to help Arab countries sustain their moves toward democracy. He also said he intended to do more for young people and women, and address frustrations over the growing gap between the rich and poor expressed by the Occupy movement.

This is a moment of historic change "which we have to seize and help them," Ban said.

Ban's ability to influence what happens is limited because the U.N. secretary-general has no independent power over international affairs. It is up to the U.N.'s 193 member states to take action, and only the actions of the powerful 15-member Security Council are legally binding.

But the position is a powerful megaphone, and following his unanimous reelection by the U.N. General Assembly in June to a second and final five-year term, diplomats say Ban may feel less constrained on the need to satisfy all U.N. members, and may become more outspoken and perhaps more influential on global issues.

Ban said that the uprisings that spread "like a wildfire" across the Middle East and North Africa and inspired demonstrations in the United States and other developed nations were propelled by the younger generation's rebellion against oppression and inequality — and their yearning for democratization.

He won praise in the Middle East and elsewhere for speaking out early and strongly in support of demonstrators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, urging the countries' leaders to listen to their demands.

In Syria, the limitations of his position have been more clear. While Ban has been outspoken against the ongoing attacks on civilians in Syria, he has not been able to influence the deeply divided Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the violence which the U.N. says has killed more than 5,000 people.

On Friday, Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky expressed the U.N.'s support of an Arab League mission to Syria, saying it was critical that the government give full cooperation and unhindered access to the observers.

During his first five years at the U.N.'s helm, Ban has won plaudits for helping to raise climate change close to the top of the global agenda, for creating a new agency, UN Women, to focus on the fight for gender equality, and for keeping a spotlight on nuclear disarmament and nuclear security.

The secretary-general has traveled more than any of his predecessors on U.N. business, but is far from having a household name. In some polls people still think his immediate predecessor, Kofi Annan, is secretary-general.

The workaholic Ban has also been criticized for his lack of charisma, his low-key style which observers say is typical of his South Korean roots, and his failure to criticize human rights abuses in powerful countries, especially China and Russia.

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin recently expressed unhappiness with the secretary-general over his comment that NATO acted within its mandate in its bombing campaign in Libya. Russia has called for an independent U.N. investigation of civilian casualties, claiming NATO overstepped the U.N. mandate to protect civilians and used the bombing campaign to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Syria's President Bashar Assad is also a close Russian ally.

Asked to look back at Ban's first term and ahead to his second, Churkin told AP that his overall performance has been "quite positive"under difficult and stressful circumstances.

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