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UN Looks Back on Challenging Year

The United Nations has faced a number of challenges during the past year, among them, the ongoing crisis in Sudan's Darfur region and a brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrators in Burma. VOA's Cindy Saine takes a look at how the world body dealt with these issues, and the performance of its new secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.

Late last year when Ban Ki-moon was formally approved as U.N. secretary-general, he pledged his determination to get things done without a lot of fanfare:

"We should be more modest in our words, but not in our performance," he said. "The true measure of success for the U.N. is not how much we promise, but how much we deliver for those who need us most."

The soft-spoken former South Korean foreign minister welcomed his appointment as evidence of Asia's rise on the world stage, and noted that modesty is a highly-prized quality in Asia.

Ban Ki-moon appears most comfortable out in the field, interacting one-on-one with refugees or U.N. peacekeepers, and not as an orator, speaking to large crowds.

Edward Luck of the International Peace Academy in New York, an expert on the United Nations, describes Ban as determined, resilient and practical.

"I sometimes think of him as our first blue-collar secretary-general, someone who really rolls up his sleeves and just gets to work," he explained. "He is not one for lofty statements and grand protocol."

Ban inherited an ongoing tragedy in Sudan's Darfur region. The conflict has killed an estimated 200,000 people since 2003 and displaced an additional 2.5 million. The United Nations has approved a joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force of 26,000 troops for the region. But as analyst Chantal de Jonge Oudraat points out, the world body has had difficulty coming up with enough troops and equipment for the ambitious mission.

"The problem is that the U.N. is not able to generate the forces necessary to actually deploy and it has a number of equipment needs that are not being met," said Oudraat, a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations in Washington.

Analyst Edward Luck agrees about the problems the mission is facing, but is still hopeful for the future.

"If the new mission can be properly equipped, and there are still questions about that, particularly in terms of helicopters, and then if it has an appropriate mix of African and non-African military components, something that the regime has been resisting in Khartoum, I think over time it could make a real difference," he noted.

Experts agree that Darfur will remain a top U.N. priority in 2008.

Another major area of concern for the world body is Burma. The U.N. special investigator for Burma says he has pleaded with the country's military rulers to engage in serious dialogue about human rights, following a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

A U.N. report says the crackdown by Burmese security forces in September left at least 31 people dead. Diplomats and human-rights groups say an unknown number of protesters and many of the Buddhist monks that spearheaded the protests remain in prison, and new arrests are reported almost every day.

But Edward Luck believes U.N. efforts in Burma since the crackdown have played a positive role:

"I think the fact that there is even been some inching forward recently is due in large part to the pressure and sustained attention that the U.N. has devoted to this issue," he added.

U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari has visited Burma several times and is planning another visit. Ban Ki-moon says Gambari will continue his efforts to bring Burma's generals and detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to the negotiating table to heal the country.

Another issue the United Nations has been grappling with is global climate change.

A U.N.-sponsored climate change conference in Bali has agreed on a plan to negotiate a new treaty on global warming by 2009. The agreement was reached after a personal appeal to the delegates by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The conference had been deadlocked by a dispute between the European Union and the United States, which had been resisting efforts to include targets for the reduction of so-called "greenhouse gases" in a final agreement.

The last year has also seen more U.N. "blue-helmet" peacekeeping troops deployed around the world than any other time in history.

2008 promises to be another challenging year, with the United Nations continuing to focus on nuclear proliferation issues in Iran and North Korea, and unresolved conflicts and disputes in Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.