Profile: The big noise at the UN - Boutros Boutros-Ghali: The Secretary-General has solutions to the world's problems but, asks Leonard Doyle, is he making too many enemies on the way?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FOR A diplomat, it has been a remarkably undiplomatic fortnight. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Secretary-General of the United Nations, has warned the big powers on the Security Council that their policy in Bosnia risks drawing UN forces into 'a new Vietnam'. He has contrasted their concern with that conflict - 'a rich people's war' - with their failure to take an interest in the collapse of Somalia. He has aired a controversial view that his office has 'an equal footing' with the Security Council and the General Assembly. He has complained about an 'ego problem' among some members of the council (no one doubts he was referring to the British ambassador, Sir David Hannay). And when critical articles about him appeared in the British press, he wondered aloud if it was 'maybe because I'm a wog'.

This was supposed to be the beginning of a new age of influence for the United Nations. Gone was the paralysis of the superpower stand-off, and in its place were a dozen regional 'hot wars' for the UN to contain and bring to an end. With this moment of destiny came a new man, Mr Boutros-Ghali. He was old, but he had energy and wisdom. His personal background was unusual and complex, but it also left little room for dogma, bigotry or illusion. And he professed a welcome zeal to make war on the deep-seated faults of the organisation he was taking over. Perhaps, it was thought, he would be the man of the hour.

Seven months later, the Secretary- General is at war all right, but his chosen enemy appears to be the Security Council. And it would be difficult to exaggerate the outrage that has greeted his words, some public, the rest private but promptly leaked. In America, still less at the UN and least of all in interviews in the New York Times, words such as 'wog' simply do not pass the lips of public figures. 'New Vietnams' are hardly more popular.

Even those who shared the early optimism about Mr Boutros-Ghali, were dismayed. Diego Arria, Venezuela's ambassador, thought one clash with the Security Council was enough. 'We thought it had ended,' he said, 'but then he gave another interview, using so many strong words . . .' What, such men are asking, does the Secretary- General think he is doing?

BOUTROS Boutros-Ghali was born in Egypt on 14 November 1922. His family are Copts, members of Egypt's Christian Church, descended from the stubborn minority who refused to accept the faith of the Islamic conquerors in the seventh century. Although most Copts are poor peasants, Mr Boutros- Ghali was born to high privilege: his grandfather, Boutros Pasha Ghali, had been prime minister of Egypt. But that was in an age when Britain dominated Egypt; many Egyptians thought Boutros Pasha Ghali too much a puppet, and he was assassinated by a Muslim extremist in 1910. None the less, this was patrician stock, and Mr Boutros- Ghali's father, too, rose to become finance minister.

In due course, the young man made his own, cosmopolitan way as a lawyer and academic. Graduating from Cairo in 1946, he chose not a British but a French university, the Sorbonne, for his postgraduate studies. Later, he won a scholarship for a year at Columbia in New York. He became professor of international law at Cairo, and wrote a string of books on diplomacy (mainly in French), and a regular column for al- Ahram. He was 55 years old when Anwar Sadat brought him into government as deputy foreign minister.

Two years later, Mr Boutros-Ghali travelled at Sadat's side to Jerusalem for the meeting with Menachem Begin that was to lead to the Camp David accords and peace with Israel. It was he who consequently felt the wrath of the Arab world, and who formed the country's foreign policy at a time when the most populous Arab nation was a pariah among its fellows. He has never been happy with Israel's handling of the Palestinian question since Camp David, and he lambasted the United States for its failure to prevent or punish Israel's invasion of Lebanon. But he has stood by Camp David as irreversible.

When he formed the ambition of becoming Secretary-General, we do not know, but ambition there certainly was. Any international lawyer who has been successful in politics would be tempted by the job. Mr Boutros-Ghali announced that he was 'born' for it, and circumstances conspired to thrust it upon him: it was Africa's turn; France wanted a French-speaker; other Security Council members were anxious not to have an American puppet; the Gulf war had left the US owing Egypt a favour. From the muddle of the selection process, he emerged as victor with surprising ease.

'The first Egyptian, the first Arab, the first African,' gushed al-Ahram. Here, many said, was an Egyptian Christian, married to a Jew, educated in France and trained in international law, who had played a vital part in the historic peace with Israel: how could he fail to be tolerant, courageous, visionary and a champion of the weak?

Well, yes, say his critics, but that background could just as easily leave a man with a bagful of complexes. Being a successful Copt in Egypt may teach you tolerance, but it also teaches you that you are barred from the very top. A little less Sorbonne and a little more Columbia might have given him a better understanding of Americans who, like it or not, are the people who count at the UN. And isn't it time to forget what recently he wrote about 'the sentiments of frustration and hatred that the colonial period can bring to mind'?

In policy, however, Mr Boutros- Ghali has brought to the United Nations just what many on both sides of today's arguments used to insist it needed. A whirlwind of activity and a stickler for detail, he has the vigour to get an overweight international body into shape. He has challenged the 'barons' who run the great UN agencies, such as Unesco and the Food and Agriculture Organisation. And his 'agenda for peace' strategy for a multinational force on permanent standby would better equip the UN for the fire-fighting task that appears likely to be its most important role for years to come.

The UN has problems: he has solutions. The question is, is he going about it in the right way?

THAT HE should make enemies within the secretariat may be no bad thing, and make them he certainly has: from the secretaries who complain that he does not even bid them good morning, to under secretaries-general whom he treats like clerks, and assistant secretaries-general whom he does not address by name. Neither has he endeared himself to women: not one has been appointed to a top-flight post.

Among the diplomatic corps his stock is hardly higher. He is accused of a tendency to go over diplomats' heads and speak directly to their foreign ministers, and a failure to follow the time- honoured UN protocol of hearing out whatever ambassadors have to say. The Jamaican ambassador was astonished that her audience with Mr Boutros- Ghali was wound up after just 45 seconds.

His main problem, however, is that he cannot hope to harry the Security Council into submission. It has 15 members, five of which - the US, Russia, Britain, France and China - hold their seats permanently and enjoy the power of veto. For 45 years, the council's functions were extremely closely circumscribed, and the Secretary-General's principal role was to make the best of the slightest chance of consensus. But with the passing of the Cold War, the permanent five and the Secretary-General have scented the chance to exercise true power. The events of the past two weeks are one consequence of that power struggle.

Bosnia provided the spark, but the gunpowder was all around. The Secretary-General, busy with an unprecedented workload of peace-keeping operations worldwide and a nightmarish budget problem, had been skipping Security Council sessions. In his absence, the council assigned a new role to the hard-pressed peace-keepers in Bosnia. He hit the roof, and has remained there ever since, showering those below with insults.

One subtext undoubtedly was personal friction with Sir David, now a dominant figure on the Security Council. Another was the council's dislike of Mr Boutros-Ghali's plan for a rapid- reaction force which, it was noted, would be at his disposal, not the council's. A third was the Secretary-General's attitude to the role of regional organisations, such as the European Community. His view, expounded 46 years ago in a university thesis, is bluntly that such bodies have their uses but must be subordinate to the UN.

At bottom is the question of power. Mr Boutros-Ghali's contention that 'the secretariat is an organ (of the UN) on equal footing with the other organs' runs counter to the prevailing Security Council view that the Secretary-General is more a secretary than a general. Council members, particularly the permanent five, are especially jealous of their authority, now that there are opportunities to wield it.

Mr Arria, the Venezuelan ambassador, believes that even if Mr Boutros- Ghali scores points now, he cannot win the contest. 'Conquest by war does not bring a permanent peace,' he says. 'This will unfortunately impact on his leadership.' A former supporter declares: 'They will nail him to the wall.'

Mr Boutros-Ghali is phlegmatic, determined, apparently relaxed. It is all, he implies, part of a plan. He is a man in a hurry, trying to cure a sick organisation at the same time as addressing a plethora of world problems. And he seems content to ruffle feathers on the way. 'It is my job to be provocative,' he told the New York Times.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments