Ban lists Darfur at top of daunting challenges

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) — New UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday acknowledged that he faced daunting challenges in many crises worldwide, from the Middle East to North Korea, and put troubled Darfur at the top of his list of priorities.

“I start my duties at a daunting time in international affairs, starting from Darfur to the Middle East, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, many other crises that trouble our world,” Ban told reporters on his first day of work at the helm of the world body at UN headquarters in New York.

“These challenges and issues need to be addressed collectively, with collective wisdom and collective efforts. Not a single person, including the secretary general of the United Nations, not a single country, however strong, powerful, resourceful it may be,” can address this alone, he said.

Still, Ban, 62, who took over from Kofi Annan and began a five-year term Tuesday, voiced hope that a peaceful solution to the almost four-year civil war and humanitarian tragedy in Sudan could be found.

“The crisis situation in Darfur is very high on my agenda. I will turn immediately my attention to this issue,” the new UN chief said.

He said he would meet starting Wednesday with the UN special envoy for Sudan, Jan Eliasson, before attending an African Union summit later in the month, where he was expected to meet with Sudanese President Omar Bashir.

“By engaging myself in the diplomatic process, I hope we’ll be able to resolve peacefully as soon as possible this very serious issue,” Ban said.

In a letter to Annan released last week, Bashir stated his government’s readiness “to start immediately” implementation of the Darfur peace plan, as agreed at a high-level meeting in Ethiopia last November and at a November 30 meeting of the AU Peace and Security Council in Abuja, Nigeria.

Bashir, who had until now steadfastly rejected any large-scale UN troop deployment in Darfur, endorsed the three-phase plan, including the deployment of the “hybrid” AU-UN peacekeeping force.

The United States had given Khartoum until January 1 to accept the UN package or face coercive action to end the conflict in Darfur, which has killed at least 200,000 people and displaced two million in nearly four years.

The conflict erupted in February 2003, when ethnic minority rebels complaining of marginalisation launched an uprising which was fiercely repressed by government troops and allied militias.

Asked if he approved of the execution of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on Saturday, Ban appeared to break with the UN’s traditional opposition to the death penalty, declining to condemn or defend Saddam’s hanging on Saturday.

“Saddam Hussein was responsible for committing heinous crimes and unspeakable atrocities against the Iraqi people,” Ban said.

“We should never forget the victims of his crimes. The issue of capital punishment is for each and every member state to decide.” He said he hoped countries would “pay due regard to all aspects of international humanitarian laws” and that he would work to bolster the rule of law.

Ban’s comments contradicted reaction Saturday from the UN envoy to Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, who said the United Nations opposed the death penalty — even in the case of crimes against humanity.

Ban also said he would try to make progress with North Korea, a responsibility with which he was charged as his own country’s foreign minister.

“The North Korean nuclear issue is one of the priorities on my agenda,” he said.

“As secretary general, I will first try to facilitate the smooth progress of the six-party talks, and I will discuss this matter very closely with the members of the six parties, as well as with Security Council members, so that I can be able to do my own role.”

Six-party talks — involving China, the two Koreas, the United States, Japan and Russia — are aimed at convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear programme. They resumed December 18 after a 13-month pause, but they ended four days later with no breakthrough.

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