US votes alone to see off Boutros-Ghali

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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.

The UN headquarters was left vibrating with expressions of members' indignation at the widely perceived arrogance of the US, and speculation as to what should happen next.

The position of Africa is critical. By convention, Africans have the right to expect that someone from the continent will hold the post of Secretary General for the next five years.

For now, the Boutros-Ghali camp is taking heart from the 14-to-one vote. But, as America is within its right to use its veto, 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, 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 a huddle yesterday to consider whether to stand by their endorsement, made in the summer, of Mr Boutros-Ghali, or to abandon him in the face of America's intransigence and submit new African names.

A decision from the OAU should come within days.

It is hard not to conclude that America's strategy has beenborn of ingrained foreign-policy weakness. That frailty is evident in the argument the White House uses to justify its treatment of Mr Boutros-Ghali - that only by ditching him can it prevail on Congress to change its attitude to the UN and release the $1.4bn (pounds 838m) in back-dues that it owes the organisation. Weakness is also apparent in the failure of the US to rally even its allies to its point of view in time for the vote yesterday.

"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 move forward as quickly as possible.

In the most extreme scenario, the Council could remain deadlocked - if Mr Boutros-Ghali insists on remaining a candidate, and if any of the permanent members continue to back him and to exercise their vetoes. In that case, the events of 1950, when Norway's Trygve Lie was reappointed by the General Assembly in defiance of a Soviet veto, could repeat themselves.

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.