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.
"For his second term, there is just one wish, if you will, and one expectation which I'm sure the secretary-general is going to be up to — the secretary-general must continue to serve the entire international community," he said.
The comments appeared to be an indirect criticism of Ban's pro-Western views on the NATO bombing as well as his criticism of the crackdown by Assad.
Ban said it's important to look at what's happening in Syria and many countries around the world as part of a broader political and historical evolution that began with early yearnings for democracy in Eastern Europe in the 1950s, saw democratic governments installed in South Korea and some Asian and African countries, and led to the collapse of communism, the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany in the late 1980s.
"Then, another 20 years, or another generation later, we are seeing such yearnings" in the Arab world, he said.
Ban said the Occupy Wall Street protest that spread from New York throughout the developed world also reflected frustration at the growing gap between the rich and poor people who feel ignored and marginalized.
This is "a generational opportunity for the United Nations to address these issues," he said at a news conference earlier this month.
Exactly what the U.N. can do remains to be seen.
The U.N. often provides electoral assistance and Ban said it is helping to provide technical and logistical support for elections in Tunisia and Egypt — and will do so as well in Libya.
He said the United Nations is discussing with world leaders how to provide social and economic support so that young people, women and marginalized groups in particular can find jobs and "good opportunities." He said he is also discussing with his senior advisors other ways in which the U.N. can be relevant and helpful in trying "to bridge the gap of inequity and provide equal opportunities to as many people as possible."
U.N. agencies focusing on development, labor and employment, and women are likely to be asked to play a key role.
Egypt's U.N. Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz, whose country heads the 120-member Nonaligned Movement of mainly developing countries, told AP the secretary-general "has been instrumental in garnering support for developing countries in their efforts to avoid the negative effects" of the financial and economic crisis, the food crisis, the energy crisis and climate change.
He said NAM is hoping that Ban will push for "tangible results" at the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, to be held in Brazil in June — a follow-up to the first international summit about the environment in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
At his year-end news conference, Ban said that at Rio+20 "we must connect the dots — between climate change, energy, food, water, health and education, and oceans."
Egypt's Abdelaziz said NAM is also looking for the U.N. to play an "enhanced role" in trying to achieve political settlements to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; Somalia, which hasn't had a functioning government since 1991; and the Great Lakes region of central Africa, which is plagued by violence.