Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Turning Point in the United Nations

ROME, Feb. 17 – It is no coincidence that Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who died on Feb. 16, was the only Secretary-General in the history of the United Nations to have served only one of the two terms that have always been allowed. The United States vetoed his re-election, in spite of the favourable vote of the other members of the Security Council. He was considered too independent.

We have now forgotten that in 1992, on U.S. request, BBG authorised a UN intervention in Somalia, run by a U.S. general, the aim of which was to distribute 90 million dollars of food and aid to the former Italian colony, shaken by an internal conflict among several war lords. The intervention cost 900 million U.S. dollars in military expenses, and ended with the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters and the tragic death of 18 American soldiers, dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

An obvious expedient for the United States was to put the blame squarely on BBG, who become the scapegoat during the electoral campaign for the 1996 U.S. presidential election. In his campaign, Bill Clinton referred to him as “Boo Boo Ghali”, and an alliance was made with the then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeline Albright, to get rid of him in exchange for her becoming Secretary of State.

As you can see, I do not intend to write a ritual commemoration of BBG. I travelled with him on the same flight to Paris when he left the United Nations (only the Italian ambassador went to say goodbye at the airport), and I remember the ease with which, when we arrived at the immigration line, he went to the Non-EU queue, in spite of a policeman inviting him to the diplomats' exit. He said: “My friend, those times are gone, now I am a citizen like you.” And when we took a taxi, he had to fight with the driver, an Egyptian, who did not want him to pay.

BBG was not popular in the United Nations. He was very strict, very private (he never went to any reception) and very aloof. He was, in reality, a Professor of International Law, which was his real interest in life. He did not like very many people but suddenly became alert when he met somebody with a personality, or an unusual person. And he looked on the world of the United Nations as too pompous and formal. He always preferred a book to a diplomat, but if you became his friend, you found a very ironic and amusing mind, with striking intellectual depth and shy human warmth.

BBG came from an historical Egyptian orthodox family, which was very rich until [President Gamal Abdel] Nasser's nationalisations. He consider that, because of his family, he could not be conditioned by power. He was a Copt, married to a strong and intelligent Jewish Egyptian, Leila, and he was able to make a career up to the level Secretary of State, while maintaining his university tenure. When he was vetoed by the United States for a second UN term, he told me: “Americans do not want you to say 'yes',  they want you to say 'yes sir'.”

He  never forgot his identity. He spoke of himself as an Arab, and openly wondered whether he would have had the same treatment had he been white and American or European. He openly sympathised with what he called the “underdogs” and the “exploited”, and he tried to make the United Nations once again a forum of global governance. We have to remember that when BBG became Secretary-General in January 1992, the United Nations was at the end of a long process of decline which has started with [U.S. President Ronald] Reagan in 1981.

Eight years earlier, in 1973, the UN General Assembly had unanimously approved a global plan of governance, under which international cooperation became the basis for its actions. Out of this plan, for example, the UN International Development Organisation (UNIDO) was created, and a Summit of Heads of State was even held in Cancun, Mexico, in 1981 to advance on a New Economic Order. It was the first overseas visit of newly-elected U.S. President Reagan, and he immediately made it clear that the days of the United Nations were finished. The United States, he said, would not tolerate being straightjacketed in an absurd democratic mechanism in which its vote was equal to that of Monte Carlo (he probably meant Monaco!). The United States had become rich because of trade, and its slogan was 'trade not aid'. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was also part of the Cancun Summit, and she and Reagan established an alliance making markets and the free movement of capital the new basis for international relations.

From 1981 to 1992, the world changed dramatically, not only because of the collapse of a bilateral world with the end of the Soviet Union, but because the winners took literally the end of communism as a mandate for a capitalism disencumbered from any form of governance.

BBG was not a left-wing person, but he felt how the big powers were marginalising the United Nations. Finance and Trade – the two engines of globalisation – were already running outside of the organisation and BBG spoke about this trend based on national interest with the concern of an Arab and the distaste of a Professor of International Law.

In his early days as Secretary-General, he made a strong effort to establish an Agenda for Peace, a strong juridical document on a clear role for the United Nations, which was conveniently ignored by the great powers. He then proceeded to convene a number of extraordinary conferences, from the one on Environment (Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (the basis of the path towards the Paris Climate Conference at the end of last year),to the conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, the conference on Population in Cairo in 1994, the Social Summit in Copenhagen in 1995 and the conference on Women in Beijing in the same year. In all those conferences, the United States and the other great powers had to bow again to the rules of international democracy, and accept resolutions and plans of action that they would gladly have avoided.

When they finally got rid of him in 1996, the decline of the United Nations resumed its course. Even Kofi Annan, who was chosen to succeed BBG on Madeline Albright's request, eventually fell into disgrace, because he tried to retain some independence for his actions.

Today, the United Nations has no funds for action, and has become a dignified International Red Cross, left with education, health, food, children and any other humanitarian sector which is totally extraneous to the arena in which the politics of money and power is played out. The Millennium Development Goals, adopted with great fanfare from the world's Heads of States in 2000, would cost less than 5 percent of the world's military expenses. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are responsible for the international trade of 82 percent of weapons, and the Council's legitimacy for military intervention is a blanket conveniently used according to circumstances. The sad situation of Iraq, Syria and Libya is a good example. Meanwhile, the great powers have not hidden their agenda of displacing the debate on governance from the United Nations. The Group of Seven has become the Group of 20, and the World Economic Forum in Davos a more important space for exchange than the UN General Assembly.

BBG viewed the decline of the UN with regret. After he left, he moved into positions which were consistent with his concerns. He became the 18th President of SID at a critical juncture of its history, providing support that enabled the Society to navigate a complicated transition. His term, which ran from 1997 through to 2000 oversaw the professionalization of the Secretariat and the rolling out of a robust programme framework that allowed SID to regain prominence in Africa, South Asia and Latin America. This was also a period of intense dialogue on what changes SID needed to enact in order to survive in the new century, one in which would see the traditional pillars of development shift and the impact of globalization become more pervasive. BBG also took up the posiution of Secretary-General of the International Organisation of La Francophonie, where again he had trouble with the French because he wanted to make alliances with other Latin language areas given his a cultural not merely linguistic view of the world to be mobilised.  He then became Commissioner for Human Rights in Egypt, and did not deviate from his overall political view by becoming Honorary President of the Belgrade-based European Centre for Peace and Development, an organisation created by the UN General Assembly which has played a unique role in creating academic cooperation all over the Balkans and other countries of Eastern and Central Europe. In this centre, he found a place where his ideals of justice and peace, development and cooperation, were still vibrant and active.

BBG died in the moment of clashes between the fundamentalists of Islam and the others. He had tried to draw attention to this problem which he had clearly seen looming, and he leaves a world where his ideas and ideals have become too noble for a world where nationalism, xenophobia and conflict have become the main actors in international relations.

It is time now to look more at those idea and ideals, and less to BBG as a human being, with his inevitable flaws and shortcomings. This would also be as he would like to be remembered. With him, we lived through what unfortunately looks now as the last great moment of the United Nations, and of international law as the basis for cooperation and action.

Photo: UNU-WIDER Archive 1986-2007, Flickr, Some Rights Reserved