Boutros-Ghali, more than an Ali G punchline
How to mark the passing of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former UN Secretary General and a major figure of late 20th Century global affairs? Perhaps by appraising the lessons to be learned from his life and work. The world in 2016 presents a set of problems distinct from those faced by Boutros-Ghali as the Cold War fizzled out in the early 1990s. He had hopes for a more just international order, hopes which were thwarted and cast aside, as the US and its NATO allies careered towards a new norm of “humanitarian intervention,” the unending, spreading wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the new migration crisis. So while his contribution to the international political landscape cannot exactly be appraised as a triumph, perhaps the lessons to be learned are from his dashed aspirations. With all of that in mind, we asked a few scholars in international relations to reflect on Boutros-Ghali’s life and career.
Boutros-Ghali – the first African to become UN Secretary General, started his tenure at a time of tumultuous world events that left the UN still incapable of creating an efficient organization for a new era. In 1992, the Berlin Wall had already fallen, the East-West divide had dissipated to the point of making it easier to pass UN Security Council resolutions, but the world also entered an era where complex humanitarian crises meant that peacekeeping operations meant no longer merely sending blue helmets to monitor cease-fires. These were the times of Boutros-Ghali.
Somalia and the US response to it in 1993 pitted Boutros-Ghali against the Clinton administration. The following year, Rwanda revealed the extent to which inaction had paralyzed the UNSC, eager to issue mandates without appropriate resources. For instance, as the Rwandan genocide was unfolding, the UN decided to reduce its presence from 2,500 to 200 troops, with the mandate of helping the parties negotiate to stop the killings. This failure certainly can’t be squarely imputed to Boutros-Ghali, but rather to the UNSC members. In 1995, Bosnia proved what everyone already knew: the UN was utterly incapable of delivering on its promise to preserve international security.
Yet, Boutros-Ghali had the perfect profile to be UN Secretary General, if there ever was one: African, Arab, Christian, Francophile, seasoned diplomat, international law scholar. His ambitious 1992 Agenda for Peace provided a blueprint for UN reforms, to address the new challenges of the post-Cold War politics and conflicts. It called for a more robust peacekeeping force on standby, with wider mandates and responsibilities in not only preserving peace, but also creating it, where necessary. But it would soon be obvious that the powers to be were not interested in implementing such agenda.
With the Clinton administration’s decision to bar him from serving a second term – and Madeleine Albright as the executioner of that decision – Boutros-Ghali left a UN that still struggled to draw a new blueprint for the 21st century. The man who wanted but failed to make the post of UN Secretary General more secretary than general later returned to the francophone world as the first Secretary General of the Organization Internationale de la Francohphonie.
That Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s legacy is tainted with major failures in humanitarian interventions is a mischaracterization of his role within the bigger picture. The pitfalls and disappointments of the post-Cold War United Nations should be placed within the context of larger issues that permeated that era. From a Western-centric perspective, the Cold War (not universally all that cold) was a success since no bullets were fired. From a non-Western perspective, conflicts such as the one in Somalia or Cambodia were direct echoes of the realpolitik going on between the two superpowers. Boutros Boutros-Ghali was the first UN secretary general of the post-Cold War global order and inherited a completely different organization. Was he set up for failure?
In hindsight, it is clear that the UN’s transition from a Cold War sabbatical mode to a more proactive international role had to face a few bumps along the way. Boutros-Ghali walking into his term viewed the early 1990s not as a time to celebrate the end of the Cold War; but as the duty of the international ‘community’ to repair the damage done at the Cold War’s margins, in Africa (mainly). He writes in his book Unvanquished: a U.S.-U.N. Saga “I had been elected as Africa’s candidate to take “Africa’s turn” in the job of UN secretary-general. Because of this, (…) I committed myself to try to advance the cause of the continent.”
In my view Boutros-Ghali treated the UN as a post-colonial body which was tasked to respond to issues primarily in the Global South, and specifically in Africa. He reiterated in several instances, controversially, that loss of life to conflicts in Europe and North America should not be valued more than those in Africa and Asia. He reportedly described the conflict in former Yugoslavia as “the war of the rich.” Needless to say such statements earned him heavy criticism.
His stand with the ‘wretched of the Earth’ in the Global South was admired by many, but the existential dilemma of his organization and its financial dependence on U.S. congress tied his hands. For US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and the Clinton administration, Boutros-Ghali had taken a little too seriously his title as general (as in secretary-general) more than secretary. In any event, Boutros-Ghali’s provocation and pressure on the US to pay its dues to the UN did not bode well, and was one of the cards used against reelecting him for a second term, and contributed to his disenchantment with the institution.
Yet, more controversy followed Boutros-Ghali’s legacy even long after his relationship with the UN. Recently, in an interview with Jeune Afrique, Boutros praised Egyptian president Al-Sissi as a selfless man who “only took over power because there was no other solutions,” adding that by doing so he “saved Egypt.” This support, and blunt denial of the existence of any political opposition in Egypt, earned Boutros-Ghali a lot of criticism at home and abroad as Al-Sissi’s regime has been denounced for severe violations of human and political rights.
As we mourn the loss of Boutros Boutros Ghali. We should remember his tireless efforts to promote diplomacy as the beacon of light in the darkest times. He showed us that even when war seems unending, there is a path to light. It’s important that even in the turbulent times that we live in today that we remember peace and prosperity are just over the horizon.
We highly recommend checking out Vijay Prashad’s superb piece for The Hindu. Here’s an excerpt:
During his tenure at the UN, Boutros-Ghali laid out an Agenda for Peace (1992) and an Agenda for Development (1995). In the former, he argued for more robust UN action towards the sources of instability in the world. It was not enough to increase UN peacekeeping missions — to send out the blue helmets to police the world. That was merely a symptomatic approach to crisis. The UN needed to tackle the roots, to understand how the “sources of instability in the economic, social, humanitarian and ecological fields have become threats to peace and security.” To get beyond symptoms, Boutros-Ghali hoped to drive a new “agenda for development,” which would counter the tendency to allow unfettered corporate power to undermine the interests of the millions. Impoverishment created the conditions for insecurity. A secure world would require the human needs of the people to be taken seriously. Debt of the Third World had to be forgiven. No International Monetary Fund-driven recipe for growth should be forced on weak countries. “Success is far from certain,” he wrote of his agenda, which seems charming in light of what followed.
Boutros-Ghali warned, in 1992, “The powerful must resist the dual but opposite calls of unilateralism and isolationism if the United Nations is to succeed.” He had in mind the U.S., which believed that it need not heed the diversity of opinion in the world but could push its own parochial agenda in the name of globalisation. Boutros-Ghali went unheeded. In 1993, at a lunch with Madeleine Albright, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and with Warren Christopher, U.S. Secretary of State, he said, “Please allow me from time to time to differ publicly from U.S. policy.” He recalled that Ms. Albright and Christopher “looked at each other as though the fish I had served was rotten.” They said nothing. There was nothing to be said. The sensibility of the moment was that the Secretary-General of the UN needed to take his marching orders from the White House. The Americans do not want you merely to say “yes”, he would later say, but “yes, sir!”.