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?

Dmitri Marine blogs on Blogue North

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