When They Were Kings

The United Nations has long been a playground for bad boy dictators. But there are a few notables who won't be making the trek to New York for the festivities and powwows this week.


How times have changed. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his top lieutenants have applauded the fall of an aging generation of Middle East and African autocrats, swept from power by a wave of uprising spurred by popular discontent. In the months leading up to this year’s U.N. General Assembly which kicks off on Wednesday, Sept. 21, Ban has openly encouraged NATO’s military efforts to topple the likes of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, and accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of reneging on his promise to halt military operations against unarmed demonstrators.

But in previous General Assembly sessions — indeed as recently as last year — U.N. officials and foreign dignitaries treated these very same leaders like diplomatic royalty, perhaps seeing them, wrongly, as bastions of stability in an otherwise unstable part of the world.

How swiftly a leader can turn from being an honored guest at U.N. headquarters, to a defiled rogue. Still the absence of these players may portend a duller General Assembly session this year. While the attendance of the ever-controversial Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who once made headlines in New York for declaring his country free of homosexuals, can likely be counted on to liven the agenda, his own standing is diminished in Iran and the novelty of his provocations is wearing ever thinner. Venezuelan President, Hugo Chávez who, in 2006, famously compared former President George W. Bush to the devil before the U.N. podium, is undergoing cancer treatment and will not attend.


Moammar al-Qaddafi

Two years ago, Libya’s strongman traveled to New York to address the annual gathering of world leaders, and revel in his new status as a respectable statesman. Qaddafi’s pariah status seemed a thing of the past, with his government ascending to the chairmanship of the African Union, a seat on the U.N. Security Council, and the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly. Qaddafi’s embrace by the United Nations followed years of diplomatic spade work by Britain and the United States, including a carefully crafted deal that secured an end to U.N. sanctions in exchange for a deal to compensate families of those killed in the Lockerbie bombing, the destruction of its weapons of mass destruction program, and access to Libya’s oil fields.

In September, 2008, Ban Ki-moon traveled all the way to Qaddafi’s home town, Sirte, where he praised his “very important and constructive role” in mediating a peace deal that ended fighting between Chad and Sudan. But, just one year later, Qaddafi lived up to his reputation as the world’s leading eccentric, delivering a hour and forty minute rambling address to the U.N. General Assembly in which he tore up the U.N. Charter, denounced the U.N. Security Council as a terror organization, demanded war crimes investigations into former U.S. President George W. Bush’s and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s conduct of the Iraq war. He even insisted that the U.N. open an inquiry into the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

While that performance was tolerated as a somewhat amusing circus, the organization quickly turned on the Libyan leader after he launched a bloody crackdown on protesters in Feb. 2011. The U.N. Security Council that he had so bitterly reviled authorized a bombing campaign that helped bring him down, and then ordered the International Criminal Court prosecutor to conduct an investigation into crimes against humanity against Qaddafi and his closest aides.”Qaddafi has lost all legitimacy,” Ban told the Spanish daily El Mundo in March. “He cannot stay in power in Libya. Whatever happens, he has to go.”

Courtesy of the United Nations

Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali

Ousted Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was the first casualty of the Arab Spring, when he was forced to flee the country he ruled for more than 24 years after weeks of riots. Since taking flight, Ben Ali has faced allegations of corruption, cronyism, and favoritism from the current Tunisian government. But before his fall from grace, he had been lauded by top U.N. officials as a model for the region. Following a meeting with Ben Ali, Ban Ki-moon told reporters:

“I commended his leadership under which the Tunisian people have been enjoying political, economic, social stability, and sustained economic growth over the rate of [5 percent] during the last 20 years, goes to the great leadership of President Ben Ali. I also commended the smooth progress in meeting and realizing the Millennium Development Goals of the Tunisian Government. And I hope that this would be a good example to many other countries in the region.”

Courtesy of the United Nations

Hosni Mubarak

The former Egyptian leader was a towering figure in U.N. and Middle East diplomacy during his 30-year reign, and no diplomatic visit to the region was complete without a stop in Cairo or Sharm El Sheik. Mubarak’s influence at the U.N. was so great that he even succeeded in appointing his own Egyptian candidate, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, as secretary general. In his first meeting with Mubarak in March 2007, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accorded the Egyptian leader the reverence one might confer on an elder statesmen, hailing Mubarak as one of the “most respected leaders in the region,” a font of deep knowledge and experience in Middle East peace. “I was very happy to see him in still very dynamic leadership and as secretary-general I count on the counsel of President Mubarak and the support of Egypt to address all the problems in this region,” said Ban.

Fast forward to Feb. 2, when Ban, joined by British Prime Minister David Cameron, condemned Mubarak’s government crackdown as “unacceptable” and urged the aging leader to move aside to allow a transition to new government. At the same time, Ban sought to credit the United Nations with having been on the side of the forces of reform all along, saying that the U.N. Human Development reports on the Arab world had “warned” about the need for change for the past decade.

While it is true that the reports, which were produced under the guidance of former deputy secretary general Mark Malloch Brown in the face of intense institutional resistance, there is little in the public record showing that Ban or any of his predecessors were delivering that message in their public comments. Mubarak, meanwhile, is facing charges of complicity in the killing of protesters during the popular uprising that ousted him from power.

Courtesy of the United Nations

Bashar al-Assad

For two generations, the late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad and his son, President Bashar al-Assad have been viewed as vital players in establishing a greater Middle East peace, attracting a constant stream of international dignitaries to Damascus. In his first visit as U.N. secretary general to Syria, Ban paid homage to Bashar, saying he was encouraged by his commitment “to cooperate in all matters related to peace and security in this region.” Never mind that everyone knew that Syria was arming anti-Israeli insurgents in Lebanon, and allowing arms and insurgents to cross its borders into Iraq. “Syria is a very important country and I expect that Syria can play a very constructive role in bringing peace and security to this region,” Ban said in April 2007. 

But in recent months, Ban has sounded a far less diplomatic tone, badgering Assad, even refusing his calls for stretch back in June. The U.N.’s top human rights champion, Navi Pillay, meanwhile, has called on the U.N. Security Council to authorize an investigation into rights violations in Syria by the International Criminal Court prosecutor. Ban has all but accused Assad of lying to him when the Syrian president pledged in a subsequent conversation to halt his military crackdown on unarmed protesters. “It’s been almost six months,” Ban complained in a recent press conference. “I have been speaking with him several times, and he made all these promises, but these promises have become now broken promises.” For the time being, Assad has shaken off the mounting pressure from the United States and European powers to step down, relying in part on Security Council countries — including China, India, and Russia — that have blocked the adoption of U.N. sanctions. But don’t expect to see him addressing the assembled leaders at this year’s General Assembly session.


Laurent Gbagbo  

Deposed Ivoirian President Laurent Gbagbo began his political career as a political outsider, a union activist who was imprisoned twice by the country’s ruler, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, and forced into exile in France. Gbagbo returned to Ivory Coast, where he became president in 2000. Two years later, the country slid into civil war. But he repeatedly refused to allow democratic elections to take place after his mandate ended in 2005, and continued to be recognized as Ivory Coast’s president until late 2010, when he was declared the loser in an election race against long-time rival, Alassane Ouattara. Gbagbo refused to accept the U.N.-certified election results, and launched a campaign of military intimidation against Ouattara’s supporters and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast.

In January 2011, forces loyal to Gbagbo unleashed a systematic campaign of harassment that severely diminished the U.N. mission’s capacity to protect civilians. An assortment of pro-Gbagbo regular army forces, youth militia, foreign mercenaries, and special forces blocked U.N. food and fuel deliveries, torched vehicles, heaved Molotov cocktails at U.N. installations, and shot and kidnapped U.N. peacekeepers. But the attack on the U.N. was shortlived. Backed by French air and ground forces, the United Nations helped mount a campaign against Gbgabo and his forces. Following a French military operation against Gbagbo’s palace, a team of Ivoirian forces loyal to Ouattara detained Ggabgo, his wife Simone, and family.



Ali Abdullah Saleh

Yemen’s long-ruling president Ali Abdullah Saleh is the epitome of a political survivor, overcoming a politically disastrous decision to back Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, prompting diplomatic reprisals from the United States and from Kuwait, which ejected Yemeni workers from the country.

But Saleh was able to convince the United States that he could be a useful ally in the war on terrorism following the 9/11 attacks, providing intelligence on terrorist groups and allowing the United States to conduct drone attacks against suspected al Qaeda figures operating out of Yemen. In a Jan. 2010 meeting with Gen. David Petraeus who was, at the time, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Saleh pledged his commitment, saying that he would claim responsibility for those attacks. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”

Then came the Arab Spring and widespread protests. Saleh promised a transition out of power, but again and again reneged, even going so far as to reject a compromise solution from the Gulf Cooperation Council. Then, in June, Saleh fled the country for Saudi Arabia to seek medical treatment for serious burns incurred during a rocket attack against his palace. He has not returned to his country. It appeared that Saleh had retired from political life, but he has since refused to resign his presidency, and forces loyal to Saleh mounted another brutal crackdown on demonstrators over the weekend.


Ratko Mladic

During the Bosnia civil war, Bosnian Serb military commander, Ratko Mladic, inspired such fear in the hearts of U.N. brass that they once warned him about incoming NATO airstrikes because they were afraid it would just make him mad. As Samantha Power describes in her biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. commander alerted Maldic to the NATO air strikes to halt a move against the Bosnian town of Gorazde “in order to avoid inflaming Serb tempers.” The forewarned Serb tanks shot down a British Sea Harrier with a shoulder-fired missile,” the first time in NATO’s history that a plane had been shot down in a combat operation.

Mladic, now 69, cuts a far less terrifying figure. Captured in May by Serbian police and extradited to the Hague, he has been indicted on 11 counts of genocide and war crimes — accused of ordering the slaughter of more than 7,000 men and boys in the largest mass killing in Western Europe since World War II. He remains defiant in the face of his accusers: “I was just defending my country.”

Courtesy of the United Nations 

Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa

Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Khalifa has come under withering fire from human rights groups for violently repressing anti-government demonstrators and opposition figures. In March, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay denounced the government’s “shocking” use of force against peaceful demonstrators, warning that its efforts to prevent medical workers from treating the wounded might violate international law. That same month, Ban Ki-moon’s office issued a statement expressing “his deepest concern over reports of excessive and indiscriminate use of force by the security forces and police in Bahrain against unarmed civilians, including, allegedly, against medical personnel.” But Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, possesses a powerful ally in the United States. It has largely avoided the kind of scrutiny and censure bestowed on other repressive Arab governments, such as Syria. The United States, meanwhile, has made it clear it would oppose any discussion of Bahrain’s conduct in the U.N. Security Council. And thus it’s not surprising that King Hamad, with friends in high places, is in town this week for the U.N. General Assembly. It’s been a big year for the United Nations, but not everything has changed.

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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