US votes alone to see off Boutros-Ghali

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The Independent Online
Exactly as promised, the United States did the deed at the United Nations yesterday, casting a lone and defiant vote against a proposal to grant a second term to Boutros Boutros-Ghali as Secretary General, taking no heed of the majority that supported him and instantly throwing the organisation into crisis.

The American veto was delivered in a secret ballot of the Security Council by US Ambassador Madeleine Albright, on a resolution backing Mr Boutros- Ghali sponsored by ten of the fifteen members, including France and Germany.

Not a single state offered the US the slightest solace either by voting with it or even ducking from the fight by abstaining.

The UN headquarters was left positively vibrating with private and not- so-private expressions of indignation at the widely perceived arrogance of the US in the affair as well as anguished speculation as to what should happen next.

The position of Africa is now critical. By convention, Africans have the right to expect that someone from the continent holds the post of Secretary General for the next five-year term.

For now, the Boutros-Ghali camp is taking heart from the 14-to-one vote and the Secretary General himself has given no sign that he will quickly withdraw from the race.

But as America is within its right to use its veto as a permanent Council member - whatever the diplomatic costs to it may be - his chances of surviving beyond the conclusion of his first term on 31 December, have to be slim at best.

Sylvana Foa, the UN spokeswoman, spoke for many when she suggested that the US, which is fond of presenting itself as the champion of world democracy, seemed in this instance to have willfully ignored that principle.

"Clearly, this is not a democratic process," she told reporters. One African ambassador was heard to murmur: "In a football game when the result is fourteen goals to one, it is not usually the side that scored one that is declared the winner".

Members of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) went into an immediate huddle yesterday to consider whether to stand by its endorsement, made in the summer, of Mr Boutros-Ghali or whether to abandon him in the face of America's intransigence and put submit new African names for consideration.

A decision from the OAU should come within days. The Council has agreed that any discussions of alternative candidates will focus, at least in the first instance, on Africans.

For Washington, there can be scant glory in the predicament it has created for itself and for the organisation as a whole.

It is hard not to conclude that from the start of the affair America's strategy has been one born of ingrained foreign policy weakness.

Ever since June, moreover, it has been caught in the classic trap of not wanting to appear even more feeble by backing down, either by supporting the Egyptian for a second term or agreeing to a compromise one- or two- year extension of his tenure.

The US frailty has been evident in the argument presented by the White House to justify its treatment of Mr Boutros-Ghali - that only by ditching him can it begin to start prevailing on the US Congress to change its attitude towards the UN and, hopefully, then release the $1.4 billion in back-dues that it owes to the organisation.

It has also been glaringly demonstrated in the astonishing failure of the US, the world's last remaining superpower, to rally even its allies to its point of view in time for the vote yesterday.

The risk for the UN now is that the squabbling, rather than being resolved by yesterday's events, will only intensify over the coming weeks.

"The most damaging thing for the UN is not having a clear idea who is leading it," remarked Sir John Weston, the British Ambassador.

"We must no move forward as quickly as possible to resolve the leadership issue".

In the most extreme scenario, the Council could remain deadlocked even into late December, if Mr Boutros-Ghali insists on remaining a candidate and if any of the permanent members decide to continue backing him and exercising their own vetoes to block any alternatives that may surface.

In that case, the events of 1954, when Norway's Trygve Lie was reappointed by the General Assembly in defiance of a Soviet veto in the Council, could repeat itself.

Such an outcome could drive the final nail in the coffin of American distrust of the UN and plunge the organisation into terminal constitutional crisis.

The path could be cleared, however, by a decision by the OAU to abandon Mr Boutros-Ghali. At that moment, which could come any day this week, his prospects would surely be hopeless and a list of new names would come forward.