External Affairs

The UN Secretary General the West Loved to Hate

Boutros Boutros Ghali in his office in 1996. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
November 14, 1922-February 16, 2016
Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who died last month in Cairo at the age of 93, was the right secretary-general of the United Nations at the right time. (Boutros was his given name and’ Boutros-Ghali’ was his family name.)

The Berlin Wall had come down. The Soviet Union had disintegrated and been replaced by a smaller and weaker Russian Federation. The Cold War had ended; in fact, history itself had ended according to a leading American intellectual. The West had won. The United States was triumphant.  An air of despondency prevailed in the delegates’ lounge at the United Nations. “Balance has gone out of the international order” was the common refrain.

The behaviour of American diplomats verged on arrogant.   Pax Americana had arrived, it was proclaimed. A new world order would be ushered in, with the United States leading it. America was the indispensable power, claimed its ambassador to the UN. But the non-Western world did not share in this sense of jubilation or euphoria; it felt concerned at the prospect of the sole surviving superpower imposing its will and values on the rest of the world.

Into this atmosphere of apprehension stepped in Boutros-Ghali, the sixth secretary-general (SG) of the world organisation. It was as if the arrogance of the mightiest power was met by the intellectual hauteur of a single person who came to occupy the most difficult job in the world.

Boutros-Ghali had problems with Washington from almost from the time he announced his candidature for the SG’s office. The big powers preferred to have a national of a small country as the SG.  A person from a big, influential country might not be deferential enough to the permanent five; there was a risk of his attempting to act in an independent manner.

Boutros-Ghali got elected because of lack of alertness on the part of the US. The Americans expected the Security Council to become stalemated since in the informal straw poll, BBG and Bernard Chidzero, the finance minister of Zimbabwe, obtained the required majority without veto. If the US had the slightest suspicion about the outcome, they would have vetoed Boutros-Ghali.

During the first four and a half decades of its existence, the UN Security Council (UNSC) had been able to act under chapter VII of the UN charter only once, namely on the Korean crisis, and that too because  the Soviet representative was not present at the time of the vote. As if to make up for this frustration, the UNSC became hyper-active  in the post-Cold War  era. It passed a series of resolutions authorizing deployment of UN troops in peace-keeping and peace-enforcement missions, most of them in Africa. Peacekeeping missions became complex, multidimensional operations, with mandates difficult to implement because the Council refused to authorise the required resources to implement them.

The SG was at heart an activist, an interventionist. He not only did not shirk responsibility in the area of peacekeeping, he welcomed it. (He was eager to help us on the Kashmir issue!) He genuinely believed that the UN could and ought to respond to the crises in different hot spots.  However, he demanded adequate resources which he did not get. For example, the UNSC designated six towns in Bosnia-Herzegovina as ‘safe havens’. The SG said he needed 34,000 troops to implement this mandate, but got authorisation for only 7,600. (The British ambassador said the SG must be out of his mind to expect 34,000 troops.) The result was the UN simply could not guarantee the safety of the safe havens; the Bosnian Serbs overran several of them, with the worst atrocities being committed in Srebrenica, for  which the UN was blamed. The SG on this occasion could have refused to accept the mission, but was under immense pressure from some permanent and even non-permanent members, especially the ambassador of Venezuela.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali at a press conference in Phnom Penh in April 1993. Chinmaya Gharekhan, Special Political Advisor to the Secretary-General, is on the right. Credit: UN Photo/Pernaca Sudhakaran

Boutros Boutros-Ghali at a press conference in Phnom Penh in April 1993. Chinmaya Gharekhan, Special Political Advisor to the Secretary-General, is on the right. Credit: UN Photo/Pernaca Sudhakaran

Then there was the disaster of Somalia in October 1993, when 18 American elite rangers were killed in an operation which was entirely run by the Americans, without any consultation, let alone coordination with the UN mission which was already in place in the country. President Clinton gambled on the superiority of his troops and authorised them to launch a plan to get rid of Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid, who was defying the UN and the international community. His gamble failed miserably, resulting in large number of casualties. The video of the body of an American soldier being dragged around Mogadishu created a massive outcry in the US and a storm of negative publicity against the administration. Clinton’s spin masters tried to deflect the criticism to the UN, even though, as mentioned above, the SG or his force commander in Somalia had absolutely nothing to do with the debacle. In fact, it was the UN troops – Pakistanis mainly – who extricated the trapped US soldiers; otherwise the death toll would have been much higher.

Rwanda was a huge black mark against the UN and rightly so. Here too, the big powers, mainly the US, UK and Belgium, did not authorise the troop strength asked for by BBG and in fact brought down the strength of United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda to fewer than 300. The US refused to describe the massacre in Rwanda as genocide; it was the SG who used the term, much to the annoyance of the Americans.

The situation in the former Yugoslavia was perhaps one issue on which  there were sharp differences between the SG and the West, mainly the US and UK. There were also bit players such as Hungary. The US did not have boots on the ground in Bosnia and was hence eager for air attacks against the Serbs, but those who had were very cautious about using air power. There was huge tension between the SG and the US throughout the Bosnian crisis. The SG earned a howl of protest when he described the Bosnian conflict as a ‘rich men’s war’, since the West poured men and money there in contrast with Somalia where only developing countries deployed military contingents.  Similarly, when Bertrand Aristide, the elected president of Haiti, was overthrown in a coup, the Council authorised a peacekeeping mission. The US insisted on an American general being appointed force commander, but the SG refused on the principle that the country providing the biggest contingent had the right to provide the force commander. BBG was adamant and refused to comply with the American request even when Clinton personally asked for it. Some of his advisors counseled the SG to agree, which he finally did but not before a lot of bad blood had developed between him and US. And there were many more such incidents. The final straw was the inquiry he conducted into the killing of civilians in Qana, Lebanon during Israel’s 1996 invasion of that country.

It was therefore no surprise when the Americans vetoed a second term for Boutros-Ghali.

Enduring legacy

All the major international conferences such as those on the environment, human rights, etc, were held on BBG’s watch. He made significant contributions via UN documents like the Agenda for Peace and Agenda for Development, as well as in the rationalisation of the secretariat. The concept of peace building was developed by him. He was very supportive of his advisors and special representatives. I had a tough time dealing with Madeleine Albright on some occasions , but he told me not to accept any nonsense from anyone. He had major differences on occasion with Yasushi Akashi when the latter was his representative in Zagreb, but never once let him down .

Those of us who came to know Boutros-Ghali a little more closely found him charming in his personal relationships. He was full of anecdotes, mostly about the Egyptian and other top leaders. Since he knew most of the ruling establishments in the world, having served as minister of state for foreign affairs for 14 years, he tended to ignore the permanent representatives which made them not too well disposed to him. He even snubbed Albright, which was a huge mistake since she was nominated secretary of state in the second Clinton administration with a direct say in the election of the SG. He realised this when, during the last meeting with his senior advisors on December 19, 1996, he said: ‘Perhaps the one mistake I made was I did not give sufficient attention to the United States.’

On the whole, though, Boutros-Ghali had no regrets over his conduct as the top diplomat of the world. He told us at that meeting that he attached particular importance to the principle that his office be independent of the big powers. ‘This is not always easy to do, he said, but the SG had to exercise at least a minimum of independence’. No one can accuse him of not living up to this principle.

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan is a former  under secretary general and senior advisor to the UN secretary general,  a former Indian ambassador to the UN, and author of The Horseshoe Table: An Inside View of the UN Security Council