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Farewell to a Pharaonic scholar-diplomat


United-Nations-Secretary-General-Boutros-Boutros-GhaliEgyptian scholar-diplomat, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who died at the age of 93 last month, served as the first African and first Arab United Nations (UN) Secretary-General between 1992 and 1996. He assumed the post at the age of 69, and was steeped in the intricacies of Third World diplomacy, having served as Egypt’s minister of state for foreign affairs between 1977 and 1991. The Egyptian also had a profound and intuitive grasp of the global South and was deeply involved in both the Arab-Israeli dispute and the politics of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

Having obtained a doctorate in international law from the Sorbonne in Paris and taught at Cairo University for 28 years, Boutros-Ghali was the most intellectually accomplished secretary-general in the history of the post. As Chinmaya Gharekhan, India’s former ambassador to the UN, noted: “Boutros-Ghali is an intellectual giant. . . . He provoked us into thinking along new, creative lines. He frequently liked to act as the devil’s advocate. His own contributions were original and unorthodox.” David Hannay, Britain’s former ambassador to the UN, similarly noted: “Boutros-Ghali . . . was a man of charm and erudition. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of international, and in particular of African, affairs. . . . He was forceful and decisive, perhaps sometimes too much so for his own good.”

Boutros-Ghali was a Coptic Christian and scion of a rich and politically connected family. His grandfather Boutros Ghali Pasha had served as prime minister of Egypt under the British protectorate before being assassinated. His father had been finance minister, while two uncles served as foreign minister. Boutros-Ghali was aloof and often impatient with people who were less intelligent than him. UN staff referred to him as “the Pharaoh” due to his authoritarian leadership style. He did not endear himself to them when he noted that the only way to run a bureaucracy was the way he had treated the Egyptian civil service: “by stealth and sudden violence”.

Boutros-Ghali broke with tradition by appointing a “personal representative” to the 15-member Security Council, thus failing to attend himself the informal meetings of the UN’s most powerful body. He found the Council tedious and some of its ambassadors mediocre. The Egyptian would annoy ambassadors during meetings by cutting them off in mid-sentence to inform them that he had previously talked to their foreign ministers or presidents. He frequently scolded African ambassadors in New York for not keeping abreast of issues concerning their continent.

The introverted and workaholic Boutros-Ghali bluntly condemned the double standards of powerful Western powers in selectively authorising UN interventions in “rich men’s wars” in the Balkans while ignoring Africa’s “orphan conflicts”. During his tenure in office, the Egyptian displayed a fierce and often courageous independence, insisting on maintaining a veto over air strikes in Bosnia, and complaining that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was trying to manipulate the UN. To Washington’s annoyance, he refused to approve a UN deployment in Haiti in 1994 until the troop contributors and time-frames had been agreed. During the Rwandan genocide in the same year, after an initial lethargic response, he dared call “genocide” by its name, again annoying the Bill Clinton administration which did not want to describe the massacre for what it was for fear that it might be asked to intervene to stop it. He consistently complained about the undemocratic nature of the Security Council. He chastised his political masters for manipulating the UN over Iraq and Libya, and berated them for dumping impossible tasks on the world body without providing it with the resources to do the job. All of this was recorded in a bitter 1999 memoir, Unvanquished.

Boutros-Ghali’s enduring legacy to the UN will be An Agenda for Peace, a landmark document published in 1992 on the tools and techniques of peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding for a post–Cold War era. The document called for “preventive deployment”, a rapid reaction UN force to enable action without the need to seek new troops for each mission, heavily armed peace enforcers for dangerous missions, and the strengthening of regional peacekeeping bodies to lighten the burden on the UN. But the Egyptian was also a pragmatist who recognised the limits of the “Secular Pope” in implementing these ideas. As he put it: “I do not claim to elevate the vision of the Utopian city called for by the Islamic thinker Al-Farabi to that of a Utopian world, for I cannot promise to go beyond what is feasible and what is possible.”

Boutros-Ghali criticised Washington relentlessly for refusing to pay its $1.3 billion debt to the UN while domineeringly seeking to set its agenda. Nativist American politicians eventually turned on him, erroneously blaming the Egyptian for everything from the death of U.S. soldiers in Somalia, to the failure to protect “safe havens” in Bosnia, to obstruction of the reform of the UN bureaucracy. The Pharaoh thus became a pawn in a cynical political chess game that resulted in the end of his reign. The pugnacious US ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, accused the UN of “betrayal” over Bosnia, and when Boutros-Ghali complained about the “vulgarity” of her language, it was clear that the time was fast approaching when an irresistible force would confront an immovable object. The Clinton administration often failed to defend the UN, and instead criticised its alleged profligacy. Boutros-Ghali complained prophetically that he felt like a man condemned to execution. His nemesis, Madeleine Albright – whom the Egyptian had treated as a shrill, rookie diplomat – would eventually act as Clinton’s willing executioner in vetoing his re-election in 1996.

However, though Boutros-Ghali focused much of his venom on the US, he often failed to criticise some of the shortcomings of other powerful members of the UN. For example, he was often soft on France, the closest ally of this Sorbonne-educated intellectual who headed the French-led La Francophonie between 1997 and 2002, and shuttled between Paris and Cairo upon retirement. Despite Gallic training and arming of Hutu death squads before Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, Boutros-Ghali enthusiastically supported the controversial French post-genocide military intervention in the central African country.

Like the Shakespearean Iago’s hatred of the black Othello, the venom of the attacks on Boutros-Ghali by his Western critics was often irrational. The Egyptian himself complained that the British media was unhappy with him over the Bosnian crisis “because I am a wog”. He often expressed the Southern criticism that the rich North was too focused on security issues and did not pay enough attention to socio-economic development. He thus frequently decried the lack of democratisation in the decision-making structures of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Boutros-Ghali’s tenure witnessed peacekeeping successes in Cambodia, El Salvador, and Mozambique, while his 1992 Agenda for Peace remains an indispensable guide to conflict management efforts in the post-Cold War era. However, for all his undoubted achievements, the pompous Pharaoh eventually earned himself the unenviable distinction of being the only UN Secretary-General to have been denied a second term in office.

Dr. Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg, both in South Africa.

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  • Sunny Oke.