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Why Washington wants rid of Mr Boutros-Ghali

Le Monde Diplomatique 11/1996


There is a growing list of disagreements between France and the United States. These range from sponsorship of the Arab-Israeli talks, to the sanctions that Washington would like to see imposed on countries that trade with Cuba, Iran or Libya, which is not to ignore their important differences over the Afghan Taliban. Moreover, there is ongoing discord regarding the candidacy of Boutros Boutros-Ghali for a second term as UN Secretary-General: if Washington threatens to use its veto, Paris makes clear that it will resort to similar steps to oppose candidates who are not French-speaking.

By Eric Rouleau


In an unprecedented turn of events, the Secretary-General of the United Nations is accused by the United States of being an obstacle to reform, as well as being useless, conceited and a megalomaniac into the bargain, if not corrupt. The Clinton administration is not slow to rid itself of undesirables. Mr Boutros-Ghali is enjoined not to seek a second mandate, or he will be vetoed by Washington.

The sole remaining superpower has declared war on a man who enjoys the sympathy of the vast majority of the member countries of the UN. No matter, comes the chilling reply from US representative Madeleine Albright. Her government’s decision is unchangeable: Mr Boutros-Ghali must go, whatever the opinion of the international community. The worst of all this is that the accusations against him are generally little more than unsubstantiated smears, originated anonymously and then taken up by the press. One of them, circulated in late July, was actually false. For instance, in an off-the-cuff comment to a group of journalists, Robert Rubin, one of Mrs Albright’s associates, let slip that the US government intended to keep a very close watch on the use made by Mr Boutros-Ghali of UN personnel to promote his re-election; and pointed out, by way of example, that a top-ranking official had made a trip to Africa at the American taxpayer’s expense. The head of the UN was thus placed under suspicion of misuse of public funds. This prompted a furious outburst from UN representative Sylvana Foa, herself a US citizen, accusing her government of practices reminiscent of the McCarthy era (the period during the 1950s when Senator Joe McCarthy led the US in persecuting communists, both real and imagined).

The heat of the debate suggests that Mr Boutros-Ghali is a dangerous subversive; but the truth is quite the opposite. Coming from a distinguished and wealthy family, he is seen in his own country as an enlightened conservative.

He was professor of international law when Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, promoted him to the top echelons of Egyptian diplomacy. This was his reward for accompanying him to Jerusalem in November 1977 for peace talks with Israel. Mr Boutros-Ghali was one of the architects of the Camp David accords, for which he incurred the wrath of Arab nationalists, leftists and Islamists alike. He worked first for Mr Sadat and then for the current president, Hosni Mubarak, who made him deputy prime minister. In late 1991, he therefore appeared to be the ideal candidate for the post of secretary-general. At the time, the US press was happy to highlight the merits of a man who was African, Arab, Christian (a member of the Coptic church), married to a wife from one of Egypt’s leading Jewish families, anti-communist and pro-Israel to boot.

However, contrary to expectations, his qualities were not sufficient to win him the backing of Washington. At the time, it was thought that US reservations arose from the candidate’s francophile leanings, since he was being actively canvassed by France.

It was only the lack of suitable alternatives that eventually resigned the United States to voting for the man they saw as "the French candidate".

Prior to the 1991 elections, President Bush was warned by a psychological profile contained in a CIA report that Mr Boutros-Ghali was "uncontrollable" and "unpredictable". He was quite the opposite of the kind of person the US administration wanted to see heading a United Nations that was now unencumbered by the traditional countervailing presence of the non-aligned nations and, more particularly, the Soviet bloc. The fall of the Berlin wall had enabled the United States to conduct the Gulf war almost as it pleased and this suggested a model for the future: the UN proposes, on Washington’s initiative, and the US disposes (1). But Mr Boutros-Ghali did not share that view of the end of the cold war. The UN was now free from the constraints of East-West rivalries. He thought it should therefore, in the interests of peace, accept its full responsibilities and even extend and strengthen them. Suiting action to word, he presented two core documents, agendas for peace and for development, which called for a wide-ranging programme of reform.

In America, these proposals met with scepticism, laughter and gnashing of teeth. Stating her government’s position with her familiar abruptness, Mrs Albright said that the secretary-general was only trying to increase his powers. His proposals, especially for a system of "preventive diplomacy" to avert confrontations, set up rapid deployment units which would allow the UN to nip potential conflicts in the bud, and even levy taxes to finance its operations, were considered completely out of place. Mr Boutros-Ghali would do better to confine himseld to acting as the UN’s chief administrative officer, Mrs Albright venomously warned in a speech on 25 June 1995. In other words, all-powerful America only wanted to deal with an ordinary bureaucrat, who would, by definition, have to obey or resign.

According to this scheme of things, that would mean sacking an official who had not given full satisfaction. In this particular case, one might ask how Mr Boutros-Ghali has been an "obstacle to reform"? Did he not respond quickly to America’s request to "slim down" the world body? His success so far has been described as remarkable: UN personnel has been cut 25%, from 12,000 to 9,000, and will fall to 8,000 in two years’ time. Highly paid top posts are down from 48 to 37, 40% fewer than in 1984. And the operating budget for 1996-1997 is 117 million dollars less than the previous year’s.

The American government regards these achievements as insignificant. But Mr Boutros-Ghali has repeatedly pointed out that the unprecedented financial crisis that the organisation is going through is due not to current expenditure, but to the cost of peace-keeping operations. Since 1992 this has increased fourfold, from 600 million dollars to 2.6 billion. The "blue berets" have intervened on 17 different occasions in the last four years - with United States agreement. This has not stopped Washington withholding its dues from the UN: these now amount to 1.5 billion dollars, more than half of what the organisation is owed (2.9 billion dollars last July). The secretary-general has therefore not hesitated to take the United States to task, though often not by name. In a speech in London last January, he denounced the "dishonesty" of those who made the UN ineffective by depriving it of essential funds while refusing to pay the funds due to it on the pretext that it was ineffective.

Mr Boutros-Ghali complains publicly that the Americans are making his work more difficult, that the members of the Security Council are giving him impossible tasks and that they are trying to escape responsibility for their own failures by laying them at the door of UN officials.

"Too much support for the third world

Obviously, he takes account of the fact that most of the member states to which he owes his election are developing countries, whose sympathies and aspirations he shares. Mild as it is, his support for the third world irritates the American establishment, notably the conservative element. He says it is his duty to defend the "orphans" (the poor countries) against the ethnocentrism of the dominant powers. For example, a section of western opinion was shocked when he described the Bosnian conflict as a "war of the rich", drawing attention to Somalia where, he said, one third of the population was likely to die of hunger. Later, he accused the United States of standing idly by during the genocide in Rwanda and of only getting involved when the massacres had already decimated the population.

Mr Boutros-Ghali clashed with the United States again when he hesitated to give the green light to the American plan to use NATO air power to bomb Serbian positions. Washington’s anger peaked when, in April 1996, he insisted on publishing the findings of the UN inquiry implicating Israel in the killing of some hundred civilians who had taken refuge in a United Nations camp in Kanaa in south Lebanon.

Was this the straw that broke the camel’s back? The American government suddenly announced on 19 June that it would use its veto if the Egyptian diplomat were reelected.

In the middle of an election campaign, Bill Clinton no doubt considered it unwise to allow the Republican Party the privilege of being the only one to defend United States "sovereignty" against the encroachments of the "supranational" state that the UN had supposedly become in Mr Boutros-Ghali’s hands. Playing on the nationalism of his compatriots, Robert Dole repeatedly said in his speeches that the deployment of American forces abroad would be decided in Washington, not in New York, and by the President of the United States, not by Boo-Boo (2).

Mr Dole himself is spurred on by the right wing of his party. For example, Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, recently proposed that the UN be given an ultimatum to "reform itself radically" (in effect giving up virtually all its humanitarian work) by the year 2000, failing which the United States would withdraw from the organisation once and for all (3). In like vein, Joe Scarborough, a Republican deputy, presented a bill to Congress for America’s immediate withdrawal from the United Nations and its accession to a yet to be founded League of Democracies.

Is it a case of north against south? The United States against Europe? That is what James Philips, a political analyst with the Heritage Foundation, suggests. In a study published by this ultra-conservative institution, he writes in substance that the UN should be purged of the stigmata of "statism" and "socialism" that have impregnated its structures, and that it should stop giving aid to countries that need it and to "utopian objectives" such as the eradication of poverty and the provision of medical care for all.

The debate therefore goes far beyond Mr Boutros-Ghali’s management or personality. Post-cold war America is tempted to take control of the world organisation as an instrument of power. And it is no accident that a large number of countries, and important ones at that, have announced their support for Mr Boutros-Ghali’s candidature: several west European states, including France and Germany, African countries (through the Organisation of African Unity), China, Russia, Japan and Canada, for example, have in turn announced that Mr Boutros-Ghali continues to enjoy their highest esteem.

Are we heading for a confrontation inside the Security Council? And, if the disagreement persists, will the United Nations General Assembly be asked to arbitrate since, under its charter, it has the right to impose the secretary-general of its choice? There is a precedent for this: in 1950 Trygve Lie was elected to the post despite the Soviet veto. In fact everything depends on the determination of the "dissidents", especially the members of the Security Council, not to bend to the American diktat. But also, no doubt, on Washington’s desire to avoid a trial of strength that might affect the prestige of the United States and the credibility of the United Nations.


1) See Gilbert Achcar, "l’ONU, mais si elle est docile" in "Le nouveau modele americain", Maniere de Voir no 31, August 1996.

(2) A pet name coined by the Republican candidate to amuse his audiences at the UN Secretary-General’s expense.

(3) The Wall Street Journal, 21 August 1996.






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