U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is beginning his five-year term as leader of the United Nations at a time of crisis in Sudan's Darfur region, upheaval in Somalia and continuing war and unrest in the Middle East. The South Korean diplomat and President Bush are meeting at the White House today on those and other issues of worldwide concern. VOA's Kane Farabaugh, who has been covering Mr. Ban's first public appearances, reports from New York.
Before a crowd representing New York City's business community, Ban Ki-moon opened his first public address as U.N. secretary-general by joking about his name. "When I became secretary-general, I [thought I] should change my name [at] this time. But I have realized that in our world, there are so many things to "ban," in fact. As secretary-general, that is very relevant to my job."
But comedy soon turned to concern, as the career diplomat somberly identified the thrust of his efforts in the coming months -- the continuing crisis in Sudan.
"On my agenda, this situation of Darfur is the highest priority."
His address to the Association for a Better New York came at the same time as word from Khartoum, announced by American envoy Bill Richardson, that rebels in Darfur agreed to a 60-day ceasefire with the Sudanese government. The agreement comes ahead of an African Union summit later this month that Secretary-General Ban plans to attend. "I myself intend to participate in my first trip overseas [at] the African Union summit meeting ... later this month in Addis Abbaba in Ethiopia. There, I hope, I will be able to have diplomatic activities and negotiations with President [Omar al-]Bashir of Sudan and other leading players of the African Union. I am firmly committed to resolve this issue as soon as possible, to prevent further sufferings of innocent people in the Darfur area."
Just before he took over the top U.N. post, Secretary-General Ban came under fire from the international community for his failure to publicly condemn use of the death penalty -- at the time of Saddam Hussein's execution in Iraq.
Mr. Ban had written to the Iraqi High Tribunal, urging restraint in the Saddam case, and he tried to set the matter straight during his first news conference with correspondents who cover the United Nations. "I recognize the growing trend in international law, and in national practice, towards a phasing out of the death penalty. I encourage that trend. As member states are taking their decisions, I expect that they will comply with all aspects of international law."
The continuing violence in Iraq has the world's attention this week, following President Bush's decision to increase U.S. troop strength in Baghdad and other Iraqi trouble spots. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is heading to the Middle East (Friday) on a diplomatic campaign to boost support for U.S. policies.
Asked what the U.N. can do to help resolve the strife in Iraq, Secretary-General Ban avoided making any commitment to an expanded role for the United Nations in Iraq. "We will continue to participate in that process as much as we can. But our participation and contribution at this time is largely dictated by the security situation on the ground. We will closely monitor the situation."
Mr. Ban says the worldwide demand for U.N. peacekeeping and mediation services is at an all-time high, and he pledges to streamline those efforts and make them more efficient.