UN seeks deal for new Boutros term

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Diplomatic Editor

A high-level deal is under discussion at the United Nations to guarantee the re-election of the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, on condition that he steps down after two more years in office.

Mr Boutros-Ghali, 73, completes his first term at the end of this year, and most senior UN officials believe he will want to run for a second five-year term. The Secretary-General has not stated his intentions publicly and on a visit to London this month gave the impression in private that he was undecided. He has, however, engaged a high-profile spokeswoman, Sylvana Foa, to improve the UN's presentation of its case at headquarters in New York.

The attraction of the bargain is that it would allow Mr Boutros-Ghali to preserve his dignity and it would avoid an embarrassing conflict over a job that is falsely supposed to be decided by international goodwill and consensus. "None of the credible contenders would want to run in a contested election against an incumbent," said a diplomat. "That's the way it is."

The deal would require Mr Boutros-Ghali to step down at the end of 1998, when he will be 76, thus creating the precedent for a single seven-year period in office. Critics of the present UN system argue that restricting the Secretary-General to one seven-year term would remove the propensity for patronage and electioneering which plagues all top UN jobs and hampers reform.

The arrangement is under informal discussion among diplomats from the major regional powers at the UN. According to Article 97 of the UN Charter, "the Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council." In practice the appointment involves a delicate harmony between regional, racial and linguistic sensitivities.

Mr Boutros-Ghali, a former minister of state for foreign affairs of Egypt, appeared an ideal candidate before his election in 1991 - a Coptic Christian married to a Jew, an Arab from the African continent with the gift of elegant French and fluent English.

But his period in office has coincided with the sharp decline in hopes for a greater UN role in global affairs and a continuing budgetary crisis which has sapped the morale of the organisation. He has disappointed some key member states who wanted wholesale reform of the UN, while he has become involved in sharp conflicts with the US over UN peace-keeping operations in Somalia and Bosnia. His personal relations with the US ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, are said by one official to be "prickly ... breaking into shouting matches on occasion".

Some member states believe Mr Boutros-Ghali's style, like that of his predecessors, has become too similar to the protocol of a minor head of state. They would prefer the job to revert to its original description in the UN Charter as "the chief administrative officer of the Organisation" as part of a general reform of the UN.