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King of the U.N.

August 13, 2007

The Secretary-General of the United Nations is properly addressed as "Your Excellency," not "Your Royal Highness." Ban Ki-moon appears to have forgotten that distinction recently in a couple of royal edicts issued in his name.

The issue is Taiwan -- tricky diplomatic waters to be sure, but ones that the world's top diplomat ought to be able to navigate successfully. Of all people, Mr. Ban, a former Foreign Minister of South Korea, itself a divided country, ought to understand the sensitivities.

Taiwan is not a member of the U.N. nor does it participate in any of its affiliated bodies. On one level Taipei can therefore count its blessings, and we're tempted to observe that the U.S. should be so lucky. But its exclusion is nevertheless a mark of disrespect.

However, for the past 15 years Taiwan at least has had the satisfaction of reminding Turtle Bay of its existence through an annual application for observer status or, in recent years, an even humbler request for a study group to be set up to study its status. After a couple of hours of discussion, the agenda committee of the General Assembly always votes to reject Taiwan's request. It undoubtedly would have done so again this year -- had it got the chance.

This year, however, Taiwan decided to go for the gold, and on July 19 President Chen Shui-bian wrote Mr. Ban a letter applying for membership. But instead of forwarding it to the Security Council, as required under Rule 59 of the Council's rules of procedure regarding membership applications, Mr. Ban took it upon himself to return the letter. He said, through his spokeswoman, that it "could not be received."

Mr. Chen followed up on July 31 with a second letter, noting that "according to the rules of the United Nations, only the Security Council and the General Assembly have the authority to review and decide on U.N. membership applications. The U.N. Secretariat does not have the power to decide on such matters." That letter was also returned.

In both cases, the spokeswoman explained Mr. Ban's decision to reject Taiwan's application by citing Resolution 2758, the 1971 resolution under which the People's Republic of China was given the seat previously held by the Republic of China. At a press conference in California on July 27, Mr. Ban observed that "the position of the United Nations is that Taiwan is part of China."

Oh, really? Mr. Ban's interpretation of Resolution 2758 goes well beyond what the General Assembly actually decided in 1971. The wording is deliberately ambiguous, noting merely that representatives of the People's Republic are the "only legitimate representatives of China to the United Nations." The word "Taiwan" does not appear.

In any case, it falls outside the authority of the Secretary-General to interpret resolutions as he wishes -- and Mr. Ban's actions are unprecedented. Not even Kofi Annan acted so imperiously. If he's allowed to put his own interpretation on Resolution 2758, does he, or a future SG, get to interpret and act on all other U.N. resolutions as well?

The United Nations is a membership organization, not a monarchy. If its members wish to reject Taiwan, that's a bad decision, but it's theirs to make. It's not up to Mr. Ban.