Tuesday 21 November 2017

Obituary: Boutros Boutros-Ghali, UN General Secretary

Born: November 14, 1922; died: February 16, 2016

Boutros Boutros-Ghali
Boutros Boutros-Ghali

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who has died aged 93, was the sixth Secretary-General of the United Nations (1992-1996) but suffered the indignity of becoming the first head of the organisation to be denied a second term.

A former academic and Egyptian deputy prime minister, Boutros-Ghali took up his post when the organisation was flush with victory in the Gulf War and seemed on the brink of a golden age in which it might finally realise its goal of providing "collective security". In Washington the new Clinton administration had proclaimed a policy of "assertive multilateralism" with the UN as its agent.

It was clear, though, that to carry out this new role, the UN needed to clarify lines of accountability and slim down its bloated bureaucracy. Declaring that "half the UN workforce does nothing useful", Boutros-Ghali announced a raft of radical administrative changes. But, partly as a result of opposition from national interest groups, virtually no one was sacked and only cosmetic reforms were made. Boutros-Ghali's aloofness also made him unpopular among UN insiders and his frequent absences abroad contributed to a bureaucratic backlog as papers piled up on his desk.

Despite a reputation as a practitioner of Realpolitik, he seemed to see himself, not as what the UN charter calls "Chief Administration Officer", but as a quasi head of state, and resented it when this was not universally acknowledged.

Nowhere was the Secretary-General's profile higher than in peace-keeping operations, and Boutros-Ghali presided over the largest in UN history: in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Somalia and Rwanda, among other trouble spots.

When, in 1993, 18 US Rangers serving beside UN peacekeepers in Somalia were killed in a fire fight, President Clinton blamed Boutros-Ghali for the failure of the policy of hunting down the warlord General Aideed.

In fact, the hunt for General Aideed had been mainly an American operation and the Ranger mission was under Pentagon, not UN, control. But Boutros-Ghali did irritate the United States and other UN members by pursuing the hunt for General Aideed long after it had been given up as a lost cause.

Boutros-Ghali made it clear that his priority was the North-South divide and angered western nations by dismissing the carnage in the Balkans as "a rich man's war". On a visit to Sarajevo in December 1992, he infuriated the besieged citizens by telling them that he could give them a list of 10 places with worse problems.

When, in 1995, news came in of the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in the UN "safe haven" of Srebrenica, Boutros-Ghali did not help his cause by pressing ahead with a scheduled visit to Africa and dismissing Srebrenica as "a village in Europe".

In contrast to his stance on Bosnia, in the run-up to the slaughter of half a million Tutsis by Hutus in 1994, Boutros-Ghali lobbied hard for a UN force to be sent to Rwanda, but he was hardly the best man to handle the crisis. As a member of the Egyptian government, it emerged that he had been responsible for providing the Hutus with a good deal of the weaponry later used in the genocide.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali was born in Cairo into one of Egypt's most aristocratic Coptic Christian families on November 14, 1922, the year in which Egypt's royal constitution was proclaimed, ending eight years as a British protectorate and decades of British influence.

His grandfather, Boutros Ghali Pasha, had been Prime Minister of Egypt from 1908 to 1910, when he was assassinated by a Muslim fanatic for trying to sell a concession to the Suez Canal Company. Boutros-Ghali's father, Yusef, became a finance minister under King Fuad.

The young Boutros-Ghali grew up fluent in three languages, Arabic, English and French, graduated with a law degree from Cairo University and went on to study at the Sorbonne, where he took a doctorate in international law in 1949. He completed his legal studies at Columbia University, New York.

Returning to Cairo in the early 1960s, he became a lecturer in political science and international law at Cairo University, where he acquired the nicknames "Peter Precious", an almost literal translation of his name, and "Bo Bo", a nickname that would resurface during his UN years.

At the same time, he gained a reputation as a writer and political commentator, contributing articles to the liberal-Right newspaper Al Ahram. He was the author of some 12 books as well as essays on Third World development and the special problems of Africa. In 1977 he joined Anwar Sadat's government as minister of state for foreign affairs and accompanied the president to Jerusalem on his historic visit to the Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin. In 1978 he played a leading role in framing the Camp David accords that led to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

After Sadat's assassination in 1981, Boutros-Ghali continued to work for his successor Hosni Mubarak. During his 14 years at the Egyptian foreign ministry, he was credited as the architect of Egypt's African and non-aligned policies. In 1991, Mubarak promoted him to the post of deputy prime minister.

The Gulf War in 1990 brought renewed hopes of a reconciliation between Israel and its Arab neighbours, and in Boutros-Ghali, the Bush administration thought they had a man who shared their aims. When his name appeared on the list of possible candidates for the post of UN Secretary-General at the end of December 1991, the Americans added their support to that of France and most African nations.

Boutros-Ghali had grandiose ambitions for the UN. Among other things, he proposed a "world army", with up to 20 states contributing a battalion on permanent standby for UN duties.

The controversies surrounding the UN's new role as international peace-keeper soon brought Boutros-Ghali into conflict with Madeleine Albright, the United States ambassador to the UN under the Clinton administration.

The last straw was his decision in May 1996 to release a report on Israel's shelling of the UN compound at Qana in Lebanon. The report concluded it was "unlikely that the shelling of the UN compound was the result of gross technical error". In December 1996 Boutros-Ghali was forced out of office.

He once said he planned to spend his retirement on the Riviera writing his memoirs and watching pretty girls. He and his wife Leia had no children.

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