S-G Ban is briefing the Security Council on his recent trip to Burma today. And while Britain’s Foreign Minister may have praised Ban’s trip, others were less sanguine about the outcome of his meetings with Burma’s ruling junta. Most of this criticism has focused on the fact that Ban was not able to meet with jailed “on trial” opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But Refugees International’s Sean Garcia has a different objection, which I think is more worth looking at: that Ban was too focused on his political mission.

Garcia argues that by calling on Burma’s generals to adopt political reforms — and receiving blithe promises to transition to civilian rule in exchange — he fed their insecurities about an international agenda of regime change. Putting political pressure on recalcitrant leaders-for-life is of course important — but, because of their very recalcitrance, this is also very likely to only strengthen their anti-democratic resolve. It also made Ban look worse for not securing a meeting with Daw Aung; as unfortunate as it may be, there was very little likelihood that the Burmese generals would have consented to more than a superficial meeting between the two, and there is little that Ban Ki-moon can do to ensure that the opposition leader’s trial will be anything more than grossly unfair.

Yet I am also not as optimistic as Garcia that Ban could have achieved too much more in the way of allowing humanitarian aid into the country either. The international community did succeed, eventually (and sort of), in convincing the junta to permit aid to reach the population after last year’s devastating Cyclone Nargis. But as that case demonstrated, for such a ruthless and desperate cadre of leaders, even (or especially) the humanitarian assistance is political.

This is not to say that Ban’s visit was in vain, or that his pursuit of both tracks, that of political reform and that of human rights and humanitarian aid, were dead ends. The Secretary-General’s office is one of the bully pulpit, even if his rhetoric is not of the brow-beating variety. Than Shwe and company do not need any further reasons to oppress their own people; but they know that they are pariahs, and that joining the community of nations as a respected member requires some modicum of both political and human rights.  Conveying this is the balance that the S-G needs to strike every time he opens his mouth, no less in an environment as fraught as Burma’s than in the Security Council chamber.

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