New UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, began his new tenure cautiously on Tuesday. When asked for comment, the Secretary General did not criticize Iraq’s death by hanging of Saddam Hussein.

“The issue of capital punishment is for each and every member state to decide,” said Ban, inviting speculation on the UN’s position on the death penalty.

It is widely known that the oraganization officially opposes the death penalty. Ban’s new spokesperson, Michele Montas, was quick to label Ban’s comments as his “own nuance” on the issue and not a change of policy at the UN.

In his remarks on Hussein, the Secretary General stated that the former Iraqi president was responsible for “heinous crimes and unspeakable atrocities against Iraqi people.”

Interestingly enough, Ban did not say anything about Hussein not being tried for all of his crimes and that his second trial had not been completed. After all, Hussein’s death sentence was for relatively small incidents — considering his track record — in the city of Dujail. Those incidents, of course, were not minor, but one would expect a verdict on his use of chemical weapons and his comportment during the Iran-Iraq war. Yet Hussein was sentenced in a limited (Dujail only) and flawed trial, which has been criticized by Human Rights Watch and by a UN group.

As far as the UN position on the capital punishment is concerned, the policy is clear: no matter the degree of the crime, the organization does not support the death penalty. Ban’s comments made it seem like the death penalty was the just thing to do. In effect, Ban’s logic almost removes the UN policy, because the Secretary General simply refuses to voice it.

Is this the direction of the so-called “new UN”? While the organization has been criticized in the past (and has often faced scrutiny from the US), this does not mean that Ban must be a pushover. One of the strengths of having the UN as an International Organization, is the alternative voice it provides to the realpolitik rationale that often guides state decisions.

The UN’s policy is idealistic — Ban’s South Korea and Bush’s US will not change their laws on capital punishment because of the UN — but this does not mean that Ban must ignore it. As an ambassador of the UN, he must represent the policies of the organization. If he wants to change them, he should be transparent about them.

Instead, Ban simply left it to Michele Montas to spin his flop by calling it his “own nuance.” What is that supposed to mean anyway?

January 7, 2006. UPDATE 1: Ban Ki-moon’s comments this weekend differed from earlier in the week. The UN Secretary General has asked that Iraq postpone the execution of two Saddam Hussein aides, indicating that he is more in line with official UN policy.

To watch in 2007

January 1, 2007

Afghanistan. Often forgotten because of the headlines from Iraq, Afghanistan is not a solved affair. Only Kabul is somewhat stable, with Kandahar and other cities remaining unsafe.

Global Warming. Scientists have been talking about it for years, and Al Gore has now popularized it with a documentary film . Yet there is still no clear policies on tackling this global issue. The US has not returned to the Kyoto framework (and hasn’t offered a good alternative) and Canada’s new government has been defiant in backing out of the Kyoto protocol. Meanwhile, the arctic is shrinking.

Iran. Will the Republic bow to pressure and halt uranium enrichment? And if not, what will Ahmadinejad do next? Iran has potential to play a vital regional role in stabilizing Iraq. It also may face opposition from the US.

Iraq. Will British and US occupying forces leave Iraq and leave it to Iraqi forces to provide security?

Lebanon. The standoff in Beirut continues, with protesters vowing to stay on. Will Prime Minister Siniora give in? Will protesters patience run out?

Mexico. Mexico will spend 2007 with new president Felipe Calderon. Will he be able to solve the mess of Oaxaca? Will state violence be halted or will the President disregard Mexican citizens in favor of Governor Ruiz?

North Korea. The DPRK has vowed to continue to provide a strong defense of the country and called on the 1.1. million army to be prepared to “mercilessly defeat any invasion of the US imperialists.” If nuclear talks don’t go well, will the Koreans test another bomb?

Palestine. Fatah and Hamas are at a stand-off, with Israel allowing arms deliveries to Fatah. Will elections take place? Will Abbas reach a deal with Olmert? What if Hamas prevails in the elections?

Russia. A presidential election is set for March 2008, yet some cynics have contended that Putin will attempt to stay in power, despite constitutional law which allows for only two terms. Putin the dictator?

Somalia. The country has lived through a lot in the last six months, with power shifting from one leadership to another, violence starting and ending. Will it stabilize in 2007?

United Nations. Ban Ki-moon enters his official duties as Secretary General of the UN. Will the troubled international body gain influence with its new face and voice? The test will be how Ban Ki-moon — a South Korean — handles the nuclear crisis in North Korea.

United States. The presidential elections are set for 2008, but candidates are already stepping up to the race. Will Senator Clinton run? Will McCain enter the race?

And everything else.

Please post omissions, like some of the obvious ones (China, Darfur, Haiti).

It was reported yesterday that the US had offered to remove North Korea from its list of states sponsoring terrorism, if the DPRK agreed to dismantle its nuclear program. With the talks failing to lead to any result, it’s clear that North Korea declined. The regime is not interested in soft power assets, but wants concrete ones like its financial operations resumed. This is why the regime insisted on the removal of financial sanctions.

Secretary General of the UN designate Ban Ki-moon commented the six-party talks of last week by saying that “the issue requires time and patience.” The South Korean politician vowed to work on resolving the crisis once he starts his new job in the UN.

Ban Ki-moon has a good point: the issue is more complicated than a week of talks can resume. After all, North Korea has won a big battle by testing its nuclear weapon. The US, on the other hand, has found an effective tool in financial sanctions. Ironically, it is because of these sanctions that the DPRK had no other avenue than to test its weapon; with the test, the talks have resumed with the US and other states willing to be in dialogue with North Korea.

Finding a way to reconciliate the two positions will be difficult, considering that both the US and North Korea have certain strategic advantages in the negotiations. It will probably be up to one of the other states in the talks to take the first big step in the negotiations by offering a significant incentive, something North Korea and the US are not prepared to do.