In his recently published autobiography, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says that three momentous events guaranteed that half of his heart would always belong in India.
In Resolved: Uniting Nations in a Divided World, the United Nation’s eighth Secretary-General says that he arrived in India in 1972 for his first diplomatic posting, accompanied by his wife and an eight-month-old baby daughter. His only son was born in India two years later. Mr. Ban says in his book “I used to joke with Indian people that my balance sheet with India is perfect because my son was born in India and my youngest daughter, Hyun Hee, is married to an Indian man,”
Who is this Indian national who completed the ‘balance sheet’ for Ban? Mr. Ban Ki Moon’s Indian son-in-law is remarkable in several ways, not least in the way some of the two men’s backgrounds bear certain parallels. Like former SG Ban, HyunHee’s husband Siddharth Chatterjee, a former Army officer, could also be described as a “man of peace” from a “child of war”.
While Ban’s parents were driven to penury by the Korean War in the 1950s, Siddharth’s paternal family also had to flee to India as refugees in 1947 from East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh), where his family had to start a new life. From his family’s humble beginnings, Siddharth’s resolve to overcome saw him defy expectations to join the Army and later pivot to diplomacy and global development as a United Nations international civil servant.
He is currently the UN Resident Coordinator in China. It is an appointment that many would have considered unlikely, given his country’s divergences with China on many pertinent issues, which have at times led to military confrontation.
The UN Secretary-General Mr. Antonio Guterres proposed Siddharth’s name as his representative to China. The Chinese government reverted back quickly in agreement with Mr. Guterres’s unorthodox and visionary proposal. Siddharth says his acceptance by China is a strong manifestation of the country’s 5000-year history, its support for multilateralism, and greater regard for development cooperation above all the belief in the independence and neutrality of the international civil service. Siddharth is a firm believer that the future of the world lies in how these two ancient civilizations deal with each other and the last 70 odd years of divergence are an aberration waiting to be corrected not just by the weight of history but the will of the people who seek cooperation and collaboration, not confrontation.
Indeed I agree with Siddharth. As a decorated and war-wounded military veteran myself, I have firsthand experience of how war and conflict can break down society and I know how thin the line between peace and development is. With India and China as the pillars of the emerging world order, I believe in the potential of the two countries to define the future destiny and direction of Asia and the world.
As the UN’s highest-ranking official in China, representing the UN Secretary-General, Mr. Antonio Guterres in China, his mission is to entrench the organization’s collaboration with the government in a wide range of areas, including advancing people and prosperity, protecting the planet, and forging partnerships to accelerate the Sustainable Development Goals in China, and support China’s ambitious 14th Five Year Plan. Siddharth feels it is important to share with the rest of the global South, China’s remarkable economic growth by lifting nearly 800 million people out of absolute poverty is less than four decades.
It is a major undertaking for a man whose teachers labeled him as a below-average student, who stood a better chance in a career with less emphasis on academics and instead on areas of vocational employment. He got 43% in his 10th class Indian board exams, very much at the bottom quintile of academic achievement.
“They laughed when I mentioned my ambition of a career in Government service,” recalls this Princeton University alumnus, a top Ivy League school in the USA.
The put-down was an inspiration when he later was accepted to the coveted National Defence Academy in India, rising to the rank of Major in the Special Forces – an elite force benefitting from the self-discipline and pursuit of defined goals imposed by the military.
A turning point came when the military decorated him for gallantry While it would ordinarily be a memorable achievement, the award gave Siddharth his first feelings of scepticism towards war. It was a period when India was conducting counterinsurgency operations in the North East, and, inspired by books such as Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, he became convinced of the futility of wars and incessant human conflicts. “There are too many wars with no endgame in sight, but the cost in lives lost and families shattered is unjustifiable,” he says.
He decided thereafter to leave the army as he wanted to contribute to making the world a safer place. He got his first civilian job as a security officer in the UN mission in Sarajevo – a region beset by violence, instability, and pain in Europe.
Wars and conflicts situations would remain part of his preoccupation. He realized that the instinct for conflict in seeded in young children as child soldiers and eager to work towards giving the children a better chance in life he joined UNICEF in South Sudan which was then in the midst of a conflict in the year 2000. There he led efforts to convince the fighting factions to demobilize child soldiers and oversaw the release, rehabilitation, and reintegration of 3551 child soldiers. This was perhaps the first-ever successful demobilization undertaken during an ongoing conflict.
It was a feat considered impossible by many that were key to his subsequent promotion and appointment as chief of the emergency section in UNICEF Indonesia, where he worked with more than a million internally displaced people as conflict raged in Aceh and the Malukus regions. In the challenging circumstances, he led efforts to give children access to health care, nutrition, and vaccines and set up tented schools when schools were being burnt down in Aceh in 2002. As he rose through the ranks, serving in different capacities, especially in conflict zones, Siddharth was soon to face another phase of challenges one that questioned his professional rise in the UN.
His appointments as Chief of Staff at the UN Mission in Iraq in 2008 and the as the head of the United Nation’s Population Fund in Kenya in 2014 were attributed to his being the son-in-law to then U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon. Despite having worked with the UN since 1997, ten years before Mr. Ban’s appointment as SG in 2007, and meeting his wife Ban Hyun Hee in 2004, Siddharth’s upward mobility was seen in some quarters as favoritism and nepotism.
He says that despite the physical and emotional toll the insinuations had on him and his family, such incidences only fed his determination to let results speak for him. And indeed it did.
In Kenya, under his leadership, UNFPA led a high-profile campaign against gender-based violence and inspired local governments to set aside resources for maternal and child health, bringing down the national maternal mortality ratio of 488 deaths per 100,000 live births to 366 in less than three years. It was a campaign that would give birth to a larger initiative bringing together the government of Kenya, six UN agencies, and six private companies to reduce preventable maternal and child deaths in six high-burden counties. An accomplishment of a unique public-private partnership that even led to an invitation to the World Economic Forum in 2017.
In 2016, he was picked as UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Representative in Kenya, a position that saw him oversee the UN’s ambitious reforms in the country. Amidst the challenges of implementing organizational and cultural shifts that the reforms demanded, Siddharth’s team worked with the government to confront the triple challenges of devastating floods, the worst locust invasion in the country’s recent memory, and later the coronavirus pandemic.
He inspired the UN country team to go beyond individual agency mandates to quickly establish instruments for rapid responses to the socio-economic impacts of the challenges, earning the confidence of the government and busting the common impression of the UN as an unwieldy bureaucracy.
Africa has a special place in his heart. He says he has ties forged both in tears of jubilation and tragic events. From Sudan where he met his wife to Kenya where he got married, to Somalia when the Tsunami struck in 2004 to the terror attacks in Kenya’s Westgate Mall and Garissa University.
“We can no longer view Africa only through the prism of crisis. It is the continent with the largest sources of arable land and minerals. In ten years one in five people on earth will be African; the continent’s workforce is growing faster than any other continent. I see part of my mission in China as helping grow South-South cooperation in scale and scope, especially in Africa,” he says about how he sees his latest challenge.
For the man who quit a secure job in India to start a UN career as a civilian staff in a modest position of a security officer with the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina only 25 years ago, it is a challenge he is determined to pursue just as the way he pursues a rigorous regimen of eating one meal a day, a daily practice of Wim Hof breathing combined with high-intensity interval training workouts and a half marathon every week.
Given that Siddharth is a man driven not just by a passion for peace but by boundless energy to accelerate the Sustainable Development Goals at a time when the world has suddenly plunged into grave volatility, his optimism and ‘can do’ attitude is infectious. As he says, “the UN remains a beacon of hope in a sea of hopelessness.