Boutros-Ghali faces crunch over US veto

Security Council set to decide fate of UN chief today. David Usborne reports
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New York - After weeks of diplomatic shadow-boxing, members of the United Nations Security Council are expected this morning to begin formal consideration of the fate of Boutros Boutros- Ghali, the UN Secretary-General.

Mr Boutros-Ghali is intent on winning a second term. But if there is a first show of hands taken on a proposal to reappoint him, the US ambassador, Madeleine Albright, may well deliver her government's long- promised blocking vote against his re-election.

There seems scant chance that Mr Boutros-Ghali will take such a veto as a cue to retire. "Rumours to the effect that Boutros-Ghali will withdraw are false," Ahmed Fawzi, the Secretary-General's spokesman, said.

The festering dispute over Mr Boutros-Ghali - who faces the humiliation of becoming the first secretary-general in the UN's history not to win a second five-year term - could escalate before being resolved. But some decision must be made before 31 December, when his first term expires.

The procedure in the Security Council for selecting a secretary-general requires votes to be taken until there is a candidate acceptable to the majority and to the five permanent members. So far, the US appears immovable on the subject, but is virtually alone in its efforts to oust the incumbent.

Since his re-election, President Bill Clinton has received letters - reputedly from President Nelson Mandela, President Jacques Chirac, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and the Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien - asking him to reconsider his position. A resolution calling for the extension of Mr Boutros-Ghali's term has been tabled by Egypt, Guinea-Bissau and Botswana.

But any manoeuvring over the next few days will focus on the US. Speculation still persists that Washington could conclude that its unpopular move would benefit from a final compromise, perhaps in the form of a one- or two-year extension for Mr Boutros-Ghali. In secret, the US offered a one-year extension to Mr Boutros-Ghali earlier this year, but he turned it down.

American antagonism to the former Egyptian foreign minister stems in part from the belief that he has been in- sufficiently resolute in forcing reforms in the UN. Behind that, however, lies the conviction that only the "beheading" of Mr Boutros-Ghali would be enough to assuage congressional hostility to the organisation and lead to the release of unpaid US dues for it.

In the meantime, the list of possible replacements for Mr Boutros-Ghali grows. Some 30 names are in circulation. Because of a convention that gives each continent a two-term hold on the secretary-generalship, it is generally assumed that Africa - Mr Boutros-Ghali's continent - will have the edge in providing candidates.

Two Africans most commonly mentioned are Salim Salim, the head of the Organisation of African Unity, and Kofi Annan, a senior UN official in charge of peace-keeping, from Ghana.

As yet, there is no name that has fired anything close to general enthusiasm, so Mr Boutros-Ghali is probably calculating that he has nothing to lose from holding on.