By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - South Korean diplomat Ban Ki-moon is virtually assured of securing a second five-year term as U.N. chief, but he has been no stranger to criticism since he took the helm of the world body in January 2007.
Ban formally announced his candidacy for the post of U.N. secretary-general on Monday. So far no other candidate has emerged to oppose him and U.N. diplomats say the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly will likely complete the re-election process before the end of June.
U.N. diplomats said in March that Ban had already secured the crucial support of the United States and the other four veto powers on the council -- Britain, China, France and Russia. Officially the General Assembly approves him, but in reality the Security Council selects him, U.N. envoys say.
Ban used a news conference in New York on Monday to explain why he deserved a second term. Among his successes, Ban said, were his push to get climate change on the top of the world's agenda, overcoming humanitarian crises in Haiti, Myanmar, Pakistan and elsewhere, and his support for the world's poor.
Ban, 66, holds a bachelor's degree in international relations from Seoul National University and a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University. He was South Korean foreign minister from 2004-2006, when he worked hard to reduce tensions between North Korea and the South.
It is difficult to find a U.N. delegate who despises Ban, but it is almost as difficult to find a diplomat from anywhere in the world who speaks in superlatives about him or suggests that he has outdone his seven predecessors in the job.
"It's not as if he's lightning in a bottle, but we can live with him," a senior Western official said earlier this year.
Western diplomats who support a new term for Ban cite his lobbying for aggressive military interventions in Libya and Ivory Coast as proof he wants to protect civilians threatened by leaders who worry more about power than their own people.
Ban said on Monday that "advancing human rights and international justice" were among his top priorities.
But some diplomats say Ban has been inconsistent on human rights and has only taken hard stances in cases where at least one of the five permanent Security Council members backed him.
Human rights groups often cite the example of China as an case where Ban has failed to take a strong stand on abuses. Last year rights groups criticized Ban for failing to mention the jailing of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo during a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in China. Ban has never congratulated Liu or publicly called for his release.
"Soon he won't have to worry about his re-election anymore but he should start worrying about his legacy," said Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch.
"Will he stand up to the permanent members of the Security Council, including China, where he has failed to say a single word about one of the most severe crackdowns against dissidents in years?" Bolopion asked.
Ban has received public rebukes from Russia and China for his handling of Kosovo's secession from Serbia and his vocal support for pro-democracy protesters in North Africa and the Middle East this year. But he has been careful not to alienate all five veto powers on any given issue, diplomats say.
One of the harshest criticisms of Ban came in the form of a leaked 2009 memo from Norway's former Deputy U.N. Ambassador Mona Juul, who said Ban was someone who suffered from a "lack of charisma" and succumbed to "constant temper tantrums."
Juul described Ban as a "powerless observer" during the 2009 fighting in Sri Lanka when thousands of innocent civilians were killed as government forces ended a 25-year civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels.
The hawkish former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who had criticized Ban's predecessor Kofi Annan for branding the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq illegal, was among those who praised Ban. He said Ban knows that the U.N. secretary-general should defer to the member states.
"He understands that the role of the secretary-general is that he works for the member governments -- unlike his predecessor, who sent his press people around at one point to say that the role of the secretary-general is really comparable to a secular pope," Bolton said.
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Eric Walsh)