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Saturday, January 21, 2017
- It is no coincidence that Boutros Boutros-Ghali was the only Secretary General in the history of the United Nations able to serve only one term instead of the two that have become traditional. The United States vetoed his re-election, in spite of the favourable vote of the other members of the Security Council. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who died on February 16, was considered too independent. We have now forgotten that at the request of the Americans, in 1992 he authorized, a United Nations intervention in Somalia, run by an American general, whose aim was to distribute $90 million in food and aid to the former Italian colony, that had been shaken by an internal conflict between local warlords.
The intervention cost $900 million in military expenditure, and ended with the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters, and the tragic death of 18 American soldiers, dragged into the streets of Mogadishu.
An obvious expedient for the US was to place the blame on Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who became the scapegoat during the US electoral campaign. Bill Clinton referred to him in his campaign, calling him BoooBoooGhali, and an agreement was made with the then US Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeline Albright, to get rid of him, in exchange for becoming the US Secretary of State.
I traveled on the same flight to Paris with Boutros Boutros-Ghali, just after he left the UN (only the Italian ambassador went to say goodbye at the airport), and I remember the ease with which, when we arrived at the immigration queue, he went to the Non EU line, in spite of a policeman inviting him to the diplomatic exit. He said, my friend those times are gone, now I am a citizen just like you. And when we took a taxi, he had to dissuade the driver, who was an Egyptian, that he should pay even though the driver did not want to accept money from him.
The fact is, he was not popular at the UN. He was very strict, very private (he never attended a reception), and he was very aloof. He was, in reality, a professor of International Law, which was his real interest in life. And he did not enjoy socializing very much. He was suddenly alert when he met somebody with a personality, or an unusual person. But he saw the world of the UN as too pompous and formal.He always prefered a book to a diplomat. But if you could become his friend, you would find a very ironic and amusing mind, with a striking intellectual depth, and a shy human warmth.
He came from a traditional Egyptian orthodox family, who had been very rich, until President Gamal Abdel Nasser started the process of state nationalizations. He considered that because of his background, 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 of Secretary of State, while maintaining his tenure at the University. When he was vetoed by the US for a second mandate, 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 he openly wondered if he would have been given the same treatment had he been white and American or European. He sympathized with what he called the underdogs and the exploited, and he tried to make the United Nations once again, a place of global governance. We have to remember that when he became Secretary General, in January 1992, the UN was at the end of a long process of decline, initiated under Reagan, in 1981.
In 1973, for the first time in history, the General Assembly unanimously approved a global plan of governance, which made international cooperation the basis for all its actions. Out of this plan, for instance, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (Unido) was created. Even a Summit of Heads of States was held in Cancun, Mexico, in 1981, to advance a New Economic Order. It was the first outside visit of the newly elected American President, and he made immediately clear that the days of the UN were finished. The US would not accept to be straightjacketed into a democratic mechanism, where its vote had the same weight as that of Montecarlo (he probably intended Monaco). The US become rich thanks to trade, and his slogan was trade, not aid. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was part of the Cancun Summit, and a new alliance based on making markets and free movement of capital became 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 unencumbered by any governance.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali was not a left wing person. But he felt how the big powers were marginalizing the UN. The two engines of globalization, finance and trade, were already running outside of the organization. He spoke about this trend based on national interest with the concern of an Arab, and the distaste of a professor of International Law. He made a strong effort from the beginning of his term as Secretary General, establishing an Agenda for Peace, a strong juridical document with a clear role for the UN, which was conveniently ignored by the great powers.
He proceeded to hold a number of extraordinary conferences, from the Climate Change Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (the basis of the path to Paris), to the Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, the Conference on Population in Cairo in 1994, and the Social Summit in Copenhagen in 1995, and the Beijing Conference on Women in the same year. In all those conferences, the US and the other great powers had to bow down to the rules of international democracy, and accept resolutions and plan of actions that they would gladly have avoided.
When finally, they got rid of him, in 1996, the decline of the UN started again. Even Kofi Annan, who was chosen to succeed Boutros Boutros-Ghali on Madeline Albright’s request, eventually fell into disgrace, because he tried to keep a measure of independence in his actions. Now the UN has no funds for action, and has become a dignified Red Cross International, left with education, health, food, children and other humanitarian concerns, far away from the real sources of money and power.
The Millennium Development Goals, adopted with great fanfare by the Head of States of the world in 2000, would cost less than 5% of the world’s military expenses. The five permanent members of the Security Council are responsible for the international trade of 82% of weapons, and its legitimacy for military intervention is a blanket conveniently used according to the circumstances. The sad situation of Iraq, Syria and Libya is a case in point. And the great powers have not hidden their agenda of moving the debate on governance away from the UN. The Group of Seven has become the Group of 20, and the World Economic Forum a more important space for exchange than the General Assembly.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali viewed the decline of the UN with regret. He went into positions which were consistent with his concerns. He become Secretary General of the International Francophone Organization, where again he had trouble with the French, because he wanted to make alliances with other Latin language countries, as he had a cultural view and not merely linguistic one of the world. He then became Commissioner for Human Rights in Egypt, and he did not deviate from his overall political view by becoming the Honorary President of the European Centre for Peace and Development, an organization created by the General Assembly, based in Belgrade, that 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 the place where his ideals for justice and peace, development and cooperation, were still vibrant and active. He died right at the moment of clashes between the fundamentalists of Islam and the others. He tried to draw attention to this problem that he had clearly seen coming, and he leaves a world where his ideas and his views 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 closely at those ideas and ideals, and less at Boutros Boutros-Ghali as a human being, with its inevitable flaws and shortcoming which is also as he would want to be remembered. With him, we lived through what looks to have been the last great moment of the United Nations, with international law as e basis for cooperation and action.
Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News.