Ban Ki-Moon ran into trouble on his first day of work as UN secretary-general on Tuesday over Saddam Hussein's execution when he twice failed to state the United Nations' opposition to the death penalty and stressed instead that capital punishment should be a decision of every country.
Michele Montas, his new spokesperson, insisted that there was no change in UN policy, and what Ban said "was his own nuance" on the death penalty. "The UN policy still remains that the organization is not for capital punishment," she said. "However, the way the law is applied in different countries, he left it open to those different countries." But Ban's ambiguous answer put a question mark over the UN's stance on the death penalty. It also gave the new UN chief a nearly taste of how tricky and difficult global issues are, and how every word can make a difference. The former South Korean foreign minister took over the reins of the UN on New Year's Day from Kofi Annan, the first Asian to serve as secretary-general in 35 years, but it was a UN holiday so Tuesday was his first day at UN headquarters. Speaking to reporters Ban vowed to end mistrust of the United Nations and called for action to tackle "daunting" problems from crises in Darfur, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq to cutting extreme poverty by half by 2015. He renewed his promise to give priority to the North Korean nuclear issue and to defend human rights. Ban also announced that his first overseas trip will be to attend the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Jan 29-30, and he hopes to meet Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir there. Ban will chair a meeting Thursday of the Darfur Task Force, which includes all UN agencies involved in trying to end the conflict, Montas said. But it was Ban's response when asked whether Saddam should have been executed that raised questions, because Annan always reiterated the UN's policy against capital punishment and the top UN envoy in Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, restated it again on Saturday after the former Iraqi leader was hanged. Qazi said that while the UN stands firmly against impunity and understands the desire for justice, it remains opposed to capital punishment, even in the case of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Ban, however, took a different approach. "Saddam Hussein was responsible for committing heinous crimes and unspeakable atrocities against Iraqi people and we should never forget victims of his crime," he said. "The issue of capital punishment is for each and every member state to decide." "As the secretary-general, at the same time, while I am firmly against impunity, I also hope that members of the international community should pay due regard to all aspects of international humanitarian laws.