WHEN Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the first African to occupy the exalted office of the Secretary General of the United Nations died the other day at the age of 93, the world lost one of its best diplomats and Africa lost one of its most illustrious sons. Boutros-Ghali was the sixth Secretary-General of the United Nations but the first to suffer the indignity of being denied a second term.
His tenure, by a curious dealing of fate, was marked by momentous events around the world, which culminated in a severely tested stewardship and sealed his destiny as a one-term scribe of the global body. The forced nations of Eastern Europe collapsed, a development that triggered bloody war in the old Yugoslavia and even on the African continent; there was war and famine in Somalia as well as a genocide in Rwanda.
While Boutros-Ghali did his best in the management of these crises that beset the world on his watch, his style and independence of mind did not endear him to the global powers- that-be. Renowned for his relentlessness at making the UN an effective ‘global government’, he organized the first massive UN relief peace-keeping operations in Somalia, Cambodia, Yugoslavia and Rwanda. While he succeeded in Cambodia, he was blamed for the failure in other places. His efforts in Rwanda notwithstanding, the super powers criticized him for failure to act decisively to curb the 1994 genocide.
Frank to a fault, the straight-talking diplomat was always ready to challenge critics and confront even protesters against the UN. “I am used to fundamentalists arguing with me in Egypt”, he once said to a band of protesters at the United Nations headquarters in New York. And he also caused a controversy in Sarajevo when he told some critics, who accused him of paying too much attention to the wars in other places at the expense of the pogrom in Eastern Europe, that he was not trying to belittle the horrors in Bosnia-Herzegovina but the fact was that there were other countries where the “total dead was greater than here.”
Of course, it was only a matter of time before the United States and her allies moved against Boutros-Ghali, with his refusal to bend to their wishes, even clashing spectacularly with the American envoy to the UN, Madeline Albright.
In 1996, some Security Council members led by African states sponsored a resolution backing the Egyptian for a second five-year term but the United States vetoed his reappointment.
It was perhaps to the shame of his traducers that after his ouster from the UN, Boutros-Ghali lived to witness an increasingly factionalised world, the rise of terrorism and an unprecedented refugee crisis. Even his own beloved country, Egypt has not been spared the tentacles of terrorism now ravaging the world. And the UN bureaucracy he set about reforming is, of course, still convoluted while calls for its reform has not relented.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali was born in Cairo into one of Egypt’s most prominent families on November 14, 1922. A Coptic Christian, his grandfather, Ghali Pasha, had been Prime Minister of Egypt from 1908 till 1910 when he was assassinated by a religious fanatic. His father, Yusef Ghali, also rose to become Finance Minister of Egypt under the royal rule of King Fuad.
The man who would become UN Secretary-General bagged a law degree from Cairo University, studied at the Sorbonne in France where he got a doctorate in international law in 1949 and completed his law studies at the Columbia University in New York.
He taught political science and international law at his alma mater, Cairo University in the 60s during which he wrote many books and essays on development in the third world, Africa especially.
He joined the Egyptian government of the late Anwar Sadat in 1977 as a junior minister for foreign affairs. He was highly regarded for his brilliance and he participated in such historic events as Sadat’s visit to hawkish Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s Israel, the first by an Arab leader, and the Camp David accords that led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
Upon Anwar Sadat’s assassination, Boutros-Ghali went on to work for his successor, Hosni Mubarak, and rose to the position of deputy prime minister.
He succeeded the Peruvian, Javier Perez de Cuellar at the United Nations in 1992 at the age of 69. An ambitious man, he had grand ideas for the United Nations. Impatient with its bureaucracy, he embarked on reforms, which the world body’s civil servants and peculiar super power interests resisted. Hence his success at making the world body more nimble and responsive was little.
He showed no bitterness when he was denied a second term in office and felt he was fulfilled as a person even if his mission at the world body was incomplete. He remained active in the diplomatic world by chairing the South Centre, a group of 46 developing countries devoted to their common interests in global affairs. He also became the secretary general of an inter-governmental association of French-speaking nations called the International Organisation of Francophonie.
Boutros-Ghali made good his promise to spend his retirement on the French Riviera, ‘writing my memoirs and watching pretty girls,’ by penning a remarkable memoir titled, Unvanquished: A US-UN Saga, an account of his stewardship at the United Nations.
The world has, indeed, not only lost an accomplished academic, a consummate diplomat and a revered statesman, humanity has been made poorer by the death of Boutros Boutros-Ghali.