The heavy hand of Boutros-Ghali: While the UN busies itself with peace-keeping, its Secretary-General is accumulating adversaries, writes Leonard Doyle

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The Independent Online
In the past three months, something has happened at the United Nations. Senior advisers and prominent ambassadors are doing what was once unspeakable: bad-mouthing the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the man chosen eight months ago to shepherd the organisation through the most challenging period in its history. The question now being asked by staff and diplomats is whether the new man at the helm will last the five-year term, or be forced to resign, something that has happened only once before in the UN's history (Trygve Lie of Norway went in 1952 after feuding with the Russians).

United States sources are the most outspoken in their dislike of Mr Boutros-Ghali, and have taken to comparing his abrupt style of management to that of Ross Perot, the billionaire who wanted to run the US like a corporation, but realised that the public didn't have the stomach for his autocratic style. 'He'll just have to be given a reality check,' an American official said of the US strategy for dealing with Mr Boutros-Ghali. 'He'll come around, just wait and see.'

After decades of easy living at the UN under a series of undemanding Secretaries-General, the former Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs has come as something of a shock. His style is to humiliate and berate those who work for him, while dismissing with a gesture of irritation and impatience ambassadors who try and get his ear. The result is that instead of becoming a reinvigorated organisation, the UN has turned into a cat's cradle of unresolved and increasingly messy crises.

Of the bluntness of Mr Boutros-Ghali's methods there can be no doubt; but is that the root of the problem? The UN should be revelling in the challenges being thrown at it by a Security Council finally freed of the constraints of superpower rivalry, but instead, morale is at an all-time low. Perhaps these challenges are too much for the new man in charge, so early in his tenure. The UN is, after all, in the midst of deploying more than 45,000 peace-keeping troops in Cambodia and Yugoslavia, while preparing to intervene further in Somalia and Western Sahara. And at a time when a failure by many member states - notably the US - to pay dues has left it with a shortfall of almost dollars 1bn.

Last week the Secretary-General correctly pointed out to the council that while the UN was pouring resources into the conflict in Yugoslavia, little or nothing was being done for Somalia, where a third of the country's 4.5 million people are likely to starve to death within six months. But what was unforgivable to diplomats and UN staffers was Mr Boutros-Ghali's plaint that Yugoslavia was getting the lion's share of attention because it was a 'war of the rich'.

African diplomats who stood by in quiet disbelief while Mr Boutros-Ghali downgraded the UN's economic and humanitarian role in Africa, were appalled to see him use the Somalia tragedy to score political points in the Security Council. Western diplomats, who acknowledge that the US has been at fault for getting in the way of an aggressive peace-keeping operation in Somalia, say that while the Secretary-General brought badly needed attention to the crisis, he did so at a terrible price. 'He has torn up the principle of the universality of peace-keeping,' one diplomat said.

In 1990, before Mr Boutros-Ghali's emergence, two highly respected UN watchers, Sir Brian Urquhart and Erskine Childers, wrote in a Ford Foundation paper that the selection procedure for the Secretary-General should be changed from the archaic system of having governments promote their favourite son, to the establishment of a special search committee of governments from all regions of the world.

They went on to suggest that top calibre leaders for the highest international office in the world should be held up to scrutiny, if the organisation was to be assured a leader who was both competent and capable of the enormously complex task of being Secretary-General. They advised that an age limit be introduced to ensure that the leader would have the extraordinary stamina needed to run the organisation.

Needless to say, none of their suggestions was taken on board by the Security Council. The permanent members, in particular, feared that opening up the selection process would rob them of the ability to influence the outcome of the selection process.

The irony of Mr Boutros-Ghali's emergence as Secretary-General is that only France, among the permanent members, openly championed his cause. Britain and the US opposed his candidacy, but in the spirit of consensus that descended on the UN after the Cold War, and in a gesture of thanks to Egypt for its role in the Gulf war, neither was willing to cast a veto.

Unfancied and old as he was (a year younger than Javier Perez de Cuellar on his retirement), he had the advantage of being from the continent of Africa, at a time when it was deemed to be Africa's turn to have a Secretary-General. Being an Arab was not a shortcoming in the eyes of Washington and its ally Israel, because of the role Mr Boutros-Ghali played in the Camp David process and in accompanying Anwar Sadat on his historic visit to Jerusalem.

In fact, as a member of one of Egypt's most distinguished and politically active Christian Coptic families, with a grandfather who had been prime minister and a father Minister of Finance, Mr Boutros-Ghali was seen as an ideal candidate from the Arab world, at a time when peace with Israel was in the air once again. His marriage to the Jewish daughter of a well-known industrialist from Alexandria did not hurt his candidacy either.

Sir Brian and Mr Childers made some prescient points in that 1990 paper: 'Someone whose autocratic ways were tolerable in some smaller agency outside the UN can be revealed, once in position in a large UN body, as an arrogant unguided missile.'

They continued: 'Or the unassuming, quiet personage of yesterday can become an incipient megalomaniac in high office in a UN organisation . . . it is vital that the UN's system of leadership be capable of change when change is clearly needed.' They added that at the UN there is no provision for removal from office, or impeachment for grave dereliction of duty or gross inadequacy.

So far, the big powers at the UN - the US, Britain, France, China and Russia (the five permanent members with a veto in the Security Council) - seem determined to work things out with Mr Boutros-Ghali, however unhappy they are with his behaviour. Ultimately, however, he owes his job to the Security Council and he will have to mend his ways if he is to survive.

(Photograph omitted)