Mainstream, VOL LIV No 41 New Delhi October 1, 2016
Boutros Boutros-Ghali and the UN Vanquished
In appreciation of an exceptional UN Secretary-General who dared...
Monday 3 October 2016, by
This essay, written as a personal homage to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is also a comment on the United Nations, predicaments and challenges confronting those occupying the office of UN Secretary-General, and the overarching North-South entanglement in the world body. This has been included as a chapter for a book in the memory of Boutros Boutros-Ghali being jointly edited by Mrs Boutros Ghali and Roberto Savio (founder of the Inter-Press Service who now edits the e-Bulletin, Other News; he has been the pioneer in propagating news from the Third World perspective). Savio has already carried the essay in his Other News.
It was in Caracas in the autumn of 1991 that I met Boutros Boutros-Ghali for the first time. However, my association with him and getting to know and appreciate him as a person, intellectual and world leader began only in 2003.
Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere, in his capacity as the Chairman of the South Centre, at that time a two-year South Commission follow-up Office,was in the Venezuelan capital for the scheduled Group of 15 Summit. The phone rang in his hotel room and the receptionist announced that Boutros Boutros-Ghali was at the front desk and would like to pay a courtesy call. After an animated and interesting discussion, during which Boutros-Ghali spoke, among other things, of his early association with the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and his involvement with the developing countries and the South-South cooperation efforts in Africa, he said: “Mr President, I have come to seek your advice and support. I would like to present my candidacy for the post of UN Secretary-General.”
When Boutros-Ghali left, the conclusion was that, given the disagreements in the African Group regarding possible candidates from the countries south of the Sahara, his candidacy was virtually certain to succeed. Then, I ventured the prediction that, if he was to secure the support of the United States, Boutros-Ghali would have to commit himself to closing the Centre on Transnational Corporations (UNCTC).
This was not a wild guess but was based on familiarity with the United Nations, including the study of and involvement with North-South issues, especially in the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the developing countries’ drive for a New Inter-national Economic Order (NIEO). One of the developing countries’ key NIEO institutional initiatives, echoing the 1972 Salvador Allende speech to the UN General Assembly on the impact and role of multinational corporations, was to obtain the establishment of the UN Commission on Transnational Corporations and of the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations, although with the reluctant approval of the developed countries. This represented a major political and institutional breakthrough. It is within this new framework that negotiations were initiated on a UN Code of Conduct on Transnational Corporations, negotiations that came to naught two decades later.
The UNCTC’s work and its often probing studies caused growing irritation and discom-fort, especially in the circles that opposed any kind of intergovernmental study, supervision or regulation, in the framework of the United Nations, of the TNCs’ activities and of what was considered the TNCs’ eminent domain. This feeling was quite acute and evident during that period and it was only logical to hypothesise that the main country concerned, pressed by its own TNCs, would use the appointment of a new UNSG to demand the dispensing with the UNCTC as a conditionality for its support of the top contender for the post. The end of the UNCTC was also an important objective of the North’s sustained efforts to roll back and take the remaining wind out of the sails of the G77/NAM policy, of the institutional initiatives and gains spawned by the 6th and 7th Special Sessions of the UN General Assembly, and, ultimately, further to diminish the influence and limit the core functions in the economic and social fields of the United Nations, which had become the main platform and instrument for advancing the international development strategy and the developing countries’ agenda.
And, indeed, the de facto dismantling of the UNCTC turned out to be among Boutros-Ghali’s first moves on becoming the UN Secretary-General. He started out with a ready-made plan for a series of administrative reforms in the socio-economic domain, which involved, among other measures, the streamlining and consolidating of activities concerning transnational corporations, private investment and science and technology. The latter included the closure of UNCTC, a measure that caught everyone by surprise. The Group of 77 failed formally to question, act and oppose this move of the first UN Secretary-General hailing from Africa, but one can safely assume that their outcry would have been quite loud had he been from the North.
These initial actions by Boutros-Ghali were carried out with a “slash and burn reorganisation fervour”, in the words of one who was directly involved, and included abolishing the important post of Director-General for Development and International Economic Cooperation, also established in the wake of the NIEO.
The undoing of the UNCTC, which was based at the New York UN Headquarters, was a highly unusual administrative move on the part of a UNSG, since it involved an institution established by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The work of the UNCTC, including on the Draft Code of Conduct on Transnational Corporations, was supported not only in the South and among the Nordic countries, but was also appreciated in some TNCs’ home countries in the North, including Switzerland, F.R. Germany and France. Yet, what mattered was that the United States and the US Chamber of Commerce were highly antagonistic to the UNCTC’s work and ideologically opposed to its goals. Jeanne Kirkpatrick is said to have remarked that it was an even greater threat to Western Civilisation than communism!
The displeasure with and opposition to the UNCTC demise and disbanding of its staff were assuaged, as part of this reorganisation and rationalisation of activities in the economic and social sector, by transferring some of the work and officials to UNCTAD in Geneva. There, the issue of the TNCs was steered in line with the ongoing neo-liberal globalisation and privati-sation tide, to which UNCTAD and its mandate were also subjected. UNCTAD’s principal output in this domain became the drawing up of the annual reports on private investment, a valuable but non-controversial activity welcomed by the TNCs. The reports attracted the attention of global media and competed with UNCTAD’s flagship Trade and Development Reports. The policy thrust and leadership projected by the UNCTC were no longer there.
More than two decades later, I raised the issue of the UNCTC episode with Boutros-Ghali a few times, but he always replied that he could not remember. It was his way of avoiding sensitive issues that he did not wish to discuss, in this case his election negotiations with the Americans, the price he had to pay to secure their support, and his response on assuming office.
This period also witnessed an across-the-board coordinated push by the North that led to a visible weakening of the central Charter-mandated role of the United Nations in vital, key economic areas and the rise of the Bretton Woods-World Trade Organisation (WTO) troika. In the reigning political environment, it was difficult to resist the mounting tide, a task that belonged to and was the responsibility of the developing countries, i.e. the Group of 77. An illustration of the North’s institutional, often sub rosa, onslaught, during this period,on the UN and the institutional strongholds of the South within the World Organisation’s system is a little known recommendation made by the independent Commission on Global Governance in its 1995 Report
Our Global Neighbourhood.
The Commission proposed the scrapping of UNCTAD and UNIDO (UN Industrial Development Organisation), as no longer needed and redundant institutions in the new politico-economic context of “changed realities” and in view of the “irrelevance” of the traditional North-South divisions.
This recommendation reflected the thinking at the Foggy Bottom but was sugar-coated and supposedly legitimised by being advanced in a background paper prepared for the Commission and signed by a former high-ranking UNCTAD official from a developing country. The recommen-dation summed up and articulated the basic objective of the key developed countries, the objective to eliminate the institutions that were set up on the initiative of the developing countries and provided those countries with significant support in the multilateral arena. Not surprisingly, the recommendation was cherry-picked from the Report and warmly welcomed by and in the developed countries. There was even serious talk of the 1996 G7 Summit in Lyon acting on this recommendation, a step that was probably not taken in the end only because of the strong opposition, voiced in extremis, by G77, in Vienna regarding UNIDO and in Geneva regarding UNCTAD.
Although aware of the kind of pressures Boutros-Ghali was being subjected to and concessions he had to make in order to accede to and survive in the UNSG post, and of the fact that his term of office coincided with the high point of the neo-liberal globalisation tide, I was critical of the UNCTC episode and, from afar, inclined, like many in the South and the development community, to view his term of office with a somewhat jaundiced eye. And this in spite of his initiatives taken in the economic and social domains, including prioritising of world conferences on highly important issues.
My opinion began to change on learning of his farsighted view that SFR Yugoslavia should not have been fragmented into separate independent states. However, my appreciation and esteem greatly increased after reading, with enthusiasm, Boutros-Ghali’s seminal book, equivocally titled
Unvanquished, A US-UN Saga
, published in 1999. In it, he depicted and placed on record, firsthand, the requirements and daily pressures of having to deal with the host country and its “wishes”, and, in general, the conditions under which a UN Secretary-General has to work in order to carry on with the onerous tasks or simply just to survive in the post.
can be read as a chronological memoir of the author’s tenure, focused on and seen through his interaction with the host country, as the book’s subtitle “A US-UN Saga” implies. It can also be read as a self-serving “revenge”, of a kind, on this member of the Security Council, whose veto denied him a second term of office. More importantly, however, it is a unique testimonial and exposé penned by a UN Secretary-General. While written in a popular style, it is an incisive, scholarly, empirical and theoretical study and analysis of the constraints imposed on the occupants of the UNSG post. It brings into full view and documents the environment in which a UN Secretary-General has to operate and the domineering role the host country plays vis-à-vis the UN Secretariat, one of the Organisation’s five principal organs under the UN Charter.
This intellectual tour de force was facilitated by the author’s academic background of a university professor and scholar of international relations, and his habit of keeping a detailed diary of events, which he wrote in longhand at the end of every day.
, a defiant firsthand account by the chief protagonist, cannot be dismissed and ignored as academic books and second-hand analyses usually are.
My first encounter with the “real” Boutros-Ghali took place during a meeting organised by the South Centre in Jordan in 2003, which he attended as one of the invited participants. He displayed a charming personality and wit, strongly supported the work and objectives of the South Centre, and underscored his interest in South-South cooperation and in the role of the media, information and communication. More than once, he highlighted the importance of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, as a progressive counter-alternative to the Davos World Economic Forum. He also commended Inter Press Service (IPS), as a South-based news service, and recalled the fundamental importance of the New World Information Order (NWIO) initiative of G77/NAM that was derailed in UNESCO by the two leading developed countries.
When, shortly thereafter, the Chairperson of the South Centre Board, Gamani Corea of Sri Lanka, was unable to continue due to failing health, Boutros-Ghali was a logical choice to take over this role. Informally approached to accept the appointment, he agreed readily and with enthusiasm.
During his tenure as the Chairperson of the South Centre Board, he provided high-level political leadership, dynamism, visibility and substantive support and guidance to the Centre’s work, which this fledgling intergovernmental organisation needed. Like Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere, the first Chairperson of the Board, Boutros-Ghali projected a charismatic aura of a world leader, which inspired those working with him, especially the small staff of the Centre’s Secretariat, who could count on his support and advice at any time and on any matter requiring his attention. His guidance and wisdom were of great importance in organising the work and consolidating and stabilising the Centre following an institutionally turbulent period in the wake of the passing away of Mwalimu Nyerere. Boutros-Ghali’s personal warmth and his informal style of an academic and intellectual, which reigned in the Centre during his chairmanship, were greatly appreciated. They were reminiscent of the days of Julius Nyerere while he headed the Centre’s Board and, prior to that, the South Commission.
Closer, personal association with Boutros-Ghali began only after my retirement from active duty in 2006, the same year he ended his term as the Chairperson of the South Centre Board, a function that was then assumed by the former President of Tanzania, Benjamin W. Mkapa.
Our academic backgrounds and interests as students and scholars of international relations, which we continued to nurture during our respective careers and engagements related to the United Nations, our Third-World outlooks and roots (Egypt and Yugoslavia), our getting to know each other better during Boutros-Ghali’s tenure as the Chairperson of the South Centre Board, and, importantly, the underlying closeness of our respective visions of global challenges helped strengthen our bonds.
It was a great privilege to have had the opportunity to closely work with Boutros-Ghali during the latter years of his long career and life, when he was in his eighties and nineties. He was a relaxed, natural self, no longer encumbered by official duties and responsibilities, political, protocol or hierarchical considerations. Until the very end of his life, he was teeming with vitality, energy, good humour, interest in world problems, and he projected the image of a committed internationalist and a genuine global leader. While he often joked about going “gaga”, his sharp intellect, acumen and erudition were truly admirable.
The catalyst for our academic collaboration was Boutros-Ghali’s article “Global Leadership: After the Cold War”, which appeared in Foreign Affairs, March/April 1996. After reading it, at one of our meetings I remarked, in gist, that this article and his ambitious vision of the active leadership role the UN Secretary-General should play in the post-Cold War period were likely one of the reasons why he was ruled out by the United States for the second term of office. He smiled but did not comment on yet another of my “hypotheses”.
In a letter at the end of January 2009, I suggested to Boutros-Ghali that he should write a sequel to this “visionary and ambitious article” on the global leadership role of the UN Secretary-General in the radically changed world, dominated by the neo-liberal globalisation and neo-con realpolitik. He declined and instead we decided to undertake to write a joint piece concerning the broader issue of “global leadership”, focused on “global”, i.e. “planetary systemic issues” of interest and concern to humankind as a whole, those that transcend any particular national or group interest. These included, for example, climate change and sustainable development, or “globalisation” and “governance”, namely the paradigm, system-related and organising principles and goals of human society and the world order. Eventually, this resulted in our jointly authored monograph,
Global Leadership and Global Systemic Issues: South, North and the United Nations in a 21st Century World
, first published by Transcend University Press and Kolofon Press in 2011.
For over a decade, I was in close contact and cooperating with Boutros-Ghali. He was always very discreet and diplomatic in expressing his personal views, leanings and political preferences. Still, I became convinced that deep down he was a genuine and sincere “Third Worlder”. Indeed, in the “Afterword” of
,Boutros-Ghali writes that, during his UN years, he was said to be “pro-Third World” and that this was taken to mean “anti-West”, a simplistic dichotomising of “you are with us or against us”, to which he objected vehemently.
He, both intellectually and politically, matured during the period of the anti-colonial and liberation struggles of developing countries and their movement’s rise on the world scene, and during the golden age of the United Nations. That age, which left a deep mark on his generation, had given rise to optimism and hope for systemic change. The developing countries saw the United Nations as the fulcrum and decisive means of the struggle against colonialism, imperialism, hegemony, aggression and wars, as a means for the promotion of world peace and global objectives, including of their own development aspirations, projected by the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77. This no doubt left a deep imprint on Boutros-Ghali’s personality and world outlook. His roots and intellectual pedigree, as well as his temperament, made it hard for him to bear the dominance of the “one and only superpower” and accounted for his occasional manifesting, to the extent to which that was possible and tolerated, of signs of dissent with the status of subservience and even of“rebellion” against the unipolar world order and one-power tutelage.
Indeed, Boutros-Ghali was a UN Secretary-General who ventured openly to show his interest in and support for the Group of 77, a posture that most likely “displeased” and “irritated” some members of Group B of developed countries. They must have considered it an “inimical” act not becoming a “neutral” official heading the UN Secretariat, who is not supposed “to take sides” in the North-South discord and show signs of sympathy for the developing countries’ struggle. He was also the only UN Secretary-General formally to address a Group of 77 meeting.
In spite of his realpolitik and real-world experiences on leaving the ivory tower of academia and entering domestic and foreign-policy arenas, and in spite of being characterised by an analyst as a “realist in the utopian city”, supposedly one who with skill navigated the turbulent and exigent waters of multilateral politics, Boutros-Ghali harboured and could not entirely mask his idealist, indeed “utopian”, streak. He sincerely hoped that the United Nations would help humankind in managing and overcoming problems, a vision shared by many academics who did not belong to the realist school of thinking, a vision that had also inspired and guided early leaders and personalities of the Third World.
In his book
, Boutros-Ghali made explicit his view that the duty and role of any UN Secretary-General, from whichever region of the world, was to “advocate the cause of the developing countries”. He also presented his conviction that, in a world of “many big and wealthy powers”, the job of the United Nations was to look after “those marginalised because of ethnicity, gender, religion, age, health, poverty” and that the UN must “continue to be the main voice for the weakest and least regarded peoples, to defend them from the detrimental effects of globalization, and to help them find ways to succeed in global economy”.
This activist outlook on world problems and advocacy role of the United Nations, which he harboured and aired on some occasions while in the UN office, and his braving to suggest to the US Secretary of State and the US Permanent Representative to the UN that he, as the UN Secretary-General, should be allowed “from time to time to differ publicly from US policy” in all probability contributed, among many other things, to his being considered “troublesome” and eventually ruled out for the second term.
In his concluding remarks towards the end of
, to illustrate his efforts to be accommodating vis-à-vis the host country, Boutros-Ghali uses newspaper citations to depict his own actions and stance. One quoted a Deputy US Permanent Representative to the UN as saying when asked what it was that the United States had against Boutros-Ghali: “He would not do what we wanted him to do as quickly as we wanted him to do it”, and another from the Washington Times: “He has done nearly all the US wanted—even if he squawked about it.”
When telling of his unsuccessful efforts to get re-elected, he recalls his own comments and prediction, based on his experience, that his likely successor, who, he said was favoured by the United States, would have to be a “puppet” of the US, which wanted an even more pliant UN Secretary-General than he had been, one who would do as told ungrudgingly.
And, indeed, the tenure of the Secretary-General who followed Boutros-Ghali was also marked by a number of actions and initiatives at the behest of Washington and its allies. They found it practical to rely on the occupant of the UNSG post from the South to articulate, advance or endorse concepts that favoured and served their own objectives and legitimised their actions. Examples of this include the notion of “humanitarian intervention” and R2P, which the North has repeatedly been steering in a way to advance its own interests and strategic goals. There are also the UN Global Compact, which helped to deflate the demands for international regulation of transnational corporations, and the MDGs, which diverted the focus of the international dialogue and negotiations away from the key economic issues central to North-South relations. These affected the nature and priorities of the United Nations and were unfavourable for the South and the international development agenda. The developing countries, as a grouping, again remained largely silent, undecided and on a defensive because the Secretary-General happened to be from their own ranks. And when, on one occasion, he dared “squawk” in public and questioned the legality of unilateral action of some Western powers, which ignored and bypassed the UN and the Security Council, retribution and disciplining was quick to come, but this is another story that remains and needs to be told.
Boutros-Ghali’s “misfortune” was that he served as the UN Secretary-General at the very crossroads in the evolution of the post-WWII world order. During a period of rising unilate-ralism, when the “end of history” was announced and when the multi-polar, or bipolar, world system collapsed and was superseded by a newly assertive, hegemonic order of uni-polarity and global expansionism of the “victorious centre”, imbued with the missionary zeal of “exceptionalism” and emboldened by the free hand it enjoyed. The traditional constraints imposed on the UN Secretaries-General by the Western powers thus intensified during Boutros-Ghali’s term.
The self-appointed “centre”, heavily tilting to the right of the political spectrum, was now finally in a position to demand and exact nothing less than total obedience and absolute sub-mission of anyone occupying this UN post and to treat the United Nations primarily as a tool and an extension of its own domestic and global policies and aspirations, rather than as a democratic institution of “we the peoples” and the diverse family of sovereign and equal member states.
Therefore, one can surmise that had Boutros-Ghali served during an earlier period, when a different balance of forces and political outlook existed, he would have enjoyed somewhat greater policy space for “independent” initiatives. In spite of his “shortcomings” and an occasional intellectually assertive and politically audacious “independent” stance in a ring where elephants tread, he most likely would have served a second term, like all the other occupants of that office, before and, indeed, after him. Much more importantly, however, given his convictions, intellectual background and strength of character, he would have been in a better position to play a role in resisting the erosion and undermining of the United Nations and its functions in the neo-liberal and neo-con dominated global setting.
Boutros-Ghali’s intellectual assuredness and demeanour of an academic, his optimistic expectations about the promise of and the opportunities that would materialise in the period “after the Cold War”, a naïve, rosy view shared by many other world leaders and thinkers of the East, the South and some in the West, who failed to recognise the true nature of the ongoing changes and the deep-set global-empire instincts and designs of the “sole” remaining superpower, his vision of a key and constructive role that the UN Secretary-General could or, indeed, ought to play in building a new world order, including by standing up for worthy causes and the powerless, a role of the kind he sketched in his 1996 article “Global Leadership After the Cold War”, and, ultimately, his Third-World and “non-aligned” roots and leanings and his having been Vice-President of the Socialist International could not be tolerated in the radically changed political environment, once more dominated by the resurgent forces of reaction and political views that the Third World liberation and independence movements had fought against.He thus simply had to go.
In the post-Cold War age, during which Boutros-Ghali was anticipating to serve a second term, the policy space enjoyed by the UNSG incumbents shrank even further, contrary to his hopes. Indeed, he on several occasions recounted to me his “induction” as the UN Secretary-General on his first day in office, when a UN colleague asked to see him and informed him that he was required every Friday to send a weekly report to Washington about his main activities and actions. Boutros-Ghali, as a seasoned “realist”, grasped the meaning of this and proceeded to promote that colleague to a higher rank and from then on to invite him to be present at important meetings and visits that took place in his office, “so that he could also submit his own report [sic]to the interested party”. Whom the top international civil servant was to please and follow became obvious by the end of Boutros-Ghali’s term.
Similar to other UN Secretaries-General, the limitations that Boutros-Ghali chaffed under by having to toe the policy line and unilaterally imposed constraints on his office and the UN Organisation as a whole, which he in some detail describes in his book, are of priority concern for the United Nations and international organisations in general. They matter in the continuing quest for an equitable and democratic world order and the democratisation of international affairs, objectives that Boutros-Ghali harboured and the Global South and many in civil society continue to believe in and struggle for. Experiences and encounters in this UN post that he gives an account of raise some basic questions about the United Nations, its role in the world, and the Charter-defined but disregarded functions of one of the United Nations’ five principal organs, the Secretariat, its staff and its Secretary-General. These issues are commonly overlooked in current analyses of the UN, in attempts at its reform and when the post of Secretary-General is discussed. Instead, consideration usually centres on administrative and management functions, or on the election process.
In this “utopian city”, the UN Secretary-General should not just be a CEO who manages and administers the Organisation. In fact, the individual who holds this post is de jure, if not de facto, positioned on a higher, supranational plane, above rather than below those powerful member states (viz. principal “shareholders” in the Organisation) whose officials and represen-tatives usually perceive and treat the highest UN official as their underling and obedient employee. In his 1996 Foreign Affairs article, Boutros-Ghali, referring to Article 100 of the Charter, concludes that above all “indepen-dence” should characterise the role of the UN Secretary-General, as a keystone of the mission envisaged for the holder of that office. The incumbent must defend the Charter’s call for all member-states to respect the “exclusively international character of responsibilities of the Secretary-General and the staff and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities”.
Regrettably, the realities of multilateral and world politics overshadow the views of idealists, views that are treated with scorn by the realist school of practitioners and thinkers, especially the ones at the global “centre”, who feel that the “centre’s” power, and its supposedly superior enlightenment and qualities, entitle it to impose its own vision and interests on and “lead” the rest of the world.
Thus, while Boutros-Ghali may have personally felt “unvanquished”, as the title of his book can be taken to imply, the UN high office that he held was more thoroughly “vanquished” by the end of his term and even more so in the period that has followed.
What has been billed as supposedly a new “democratic and transparent process of electing the next UN Secretary-General” has been launched. While the performance partly unfolds on the open stage and the same old process, requiring the unanimity of the P5 in the Security Council, continues behind the scene and will persist, the underlying question posed in Boutros-Ghali’s writings needs to be asked anew. Is the UN Secretary-General, who heads the world’s civil service, to be a “puppet on a string”, primarily subservient to the signals, whims, and the worldview of a single country, one supported by its customary and obedient retinue of member states?
Or, as Boutros-Ghali implied, is the world’s leading civil servant to be allowed to fulfil his/her Charter-assigned functions and also act as a global “leader”. As one who has the necessary authority, latitude and resources to perform the assigned roles, who works for global objectives of humanity personified by the United Nations, without being pressured into following the “centre’s” preferred line and fearing the outcry of influential voices in its public, including for allegedly planning to set up a “world government”. As one who takes stands on major issues and advances proposals that reflect the basic objectives of the United Nations, i.e. of the world community, and enjoys broad international support, in particular of those who constitute the overwhelming majority of humankind but are, nevertheless, sidelined and ignored by the realities and hypocrisies of power and the global realpolitik that the World Organisation was meant to overcome. This is an important issue for the future evolution of the United Nations, which continues to be bridled and increasingly marginalised, bypassed and ignored by the realities of raw power, double standards, hypocrisy, money and hegemony, and to beincreasingly targeted by the mounting right-wing populism that considers it a mere bureaucracy and a bastion of “internationalism”.
In the jointly authored monograph
Global Leadership and Global Systemic Issues: South, North and the United Nations in a 21st Century World
, we suggest the relocation of the United Nations Headquarters out of the United States.
Boutros-Ghali recalled the deep anger of the host country when Germany had dared to raise the possibility of moving the New York UN HQs to Bonn. After his own experiences in New York, he seemed convinced of the benefits for multilateralism that would come from moving the UN to a neutral and friendly location, one physically removed from the overbearing presence and round-the-clock intrusiveness of the host country, which intensifies the unilateralism and hegemony that haunt the Organisation. A location away from the proximity of US domestic politics and its many actors, including the government and its next door permanent mission, Congress, media, various interest groups and influential power-wielding and opinion-making individuals. The pressures have intensified in the period since September 11, as the host country has felt entitled, in line with its own national security interests and concerns, increasingly to control and have its way in running the United Nations, an “enemy” organisation in the eyes of many in the US establishment, elites and large vociferous segments of the public.
Though most would say that this is impossible and an empty dream, given the interests, political, institutional and practical obstacles involved, and the deep roots of the UN in New York, it is an outstanding existential issue that merits to be, and needs to be placed on the UN agenda, as an item for discussion, study and review, and action.
The relocation of the UN headquarters from the United States would, at the very least, help to ease the current omnipresence of this country, provide an opportunity for the Secretariat and the Secretary-General to breathe more freely and be relieved of the burden and exigencies of daily interaction with a country that sees itself as the main “shareholder” in the World Organisation, if not the owner. While not necessarily changing the power equation, no doubt a move to a location where the United Nations, multilateralism and international cooperation are valued would be a symbol of system-change and democratisation of the World Organisation, and would be welcomed and widely appreciated not only in the South but in the North as well. It would imbue the UN, including all of its principal organs, with a fresh vision and dynamism, which would contribute to the Organisation’s renewal and ability to act as the leading institution of the world community in evolving a democratic, i.e. participatory and equitable multilateralism in the 21st century, an objective that Boutros-Ghali had cherished and worked for.
In our discussions, I had suggested to Boutros-Ghali that, as a scholar and practitioner, he ought to write his UN “testament”, in which, based on his experiences and insights, he would outline key policy and practical measures for the revitalisation and strengthening of the World Organisation to capacitate it to meet not only the current challenges but also those lying ahead. He declined.
Boutros-Ghali’s turbulent UN trajectory, his writings, initiatives and documents that he took part in preparing as the UN Secretary-General, such as the Agenda for Peace, are part of his legacy to the world community. His views were views of a person committed to and engagé in the struggle for the democratisation of international relations, of an individual who dared sincerely to believe in the mission and potential of the United Nations, and who, while balancing on the tightrope that UN Secretaries-General have to walk, tried, to the extent possible, to steer the UN so that it would play a greater and more central role in world affairs.
The saga depicted in his book
merits special attention. It isa unique study by an international relations scholar, though one hailing from the Third World and with a different political outlook and world vision from his many peers rooted in the Western academia who are wedded to and constrained by its reigning paradigm. It should be read not only by students of international relations, future UN Secretaries-General, and UN staff, but needs to be discussed and followed up on by the UN member-states, which have failed formally to take into consideration Boutros-Ghali’s views or, indeed, the implications of his pessimistic parting message in the last paragraph of his book. Namely, his conclusion that the transforming of the United Nations, with a view to enabling it effectively to act in changing the world, will be possible “if the United States allows it...” To put it differently, the future of the World Organisation depends on positive changes in that country, whose outlook, interests and domestic, often log-jammed, politics radiate worldwide and reduce many key UN processes and outcomes to the lowest common denominator determined by the speed of the slowest ship in the convoy that that country represents, and often stall for decades or simply block action on vital issues for humankind.
As posited by Boutros-Ghali, until a process of a political transformation of that country, its dominant worldview and self-defined,—proclaimed and—assigned global mission, inspired by its national interests and dogmas, sustained by the education and outlook on the world imparted to its citizens from a tender age, comes about and is crowned with success (or until such a moment when the global balance of power changes significantly), the UN Secretaries-General will continue to face the challenge of how to avoid doing the bidding of that centre’s holders of political, economic cum financial, military and media power, as well as S&T and cyber superiority, backed by the carefully nurtured intellectual hegemony they deploy in the ongoing worldwide clashes of ideas and paradigms and efforts to impress and form global public opinion in this information and knowledge age. All these factors play an important role in the revived and aggressive push to consolidate, diversify and modernise the traditional dominion of the West in a changing world, and evolve new and sophisticated forms of 21st century imperialism, a comprehensive drive that ought to be a key concern of the World Organisation and humankind.
In the years to come, regardless of the compromises and concessions he had to make as the UN Secretary-General, Boutros-Ghali’s insights and ideas articulated in his writings and pronouncements will keep on being relevant as an important reference in the study and evolution of the United Nations and the UN system.
They will remain as a political and academic memorial of the author, a genuine internationa-list and visionary personality, an intellectual and scholar of international relations and international organisations, an international civil servant who had dared “occasionally” to stand up to his “superior(s)”, a champion of effective international law and structures not “parodied” by hegemony. One who highlighted the vital importance of the role of the United Nations as a “think-tank for the global future”, an all-important function that is frowned upon and is not allowed to develop. One who genuinely believed in the UN’s role of evolving conceptual and ethical foundations for charting the course for the world community. One who saw the World Organisation as a multilateral instrument that should offer alternatives and act as a counterweight to the entrenched intellectual, political and, indeed, linguistic and administrative cum management “super-power hegemony” exercised by the West, spearheaded by its Anglo-Saxon noyau dur.
This “spunky” Third-World UN Secretary-General, the first one from Africa, defiantly stated in his written message to the UN Secretariat Staff at the end of his term, “You are the UN!” Indeed, this fundamental truth that the United Nations staff are in fact, or ought to be, the brain, spine and soul of the World Organisation and be empowered and endowed with the necessary resources for the fulfilment of their roles, has for years deliberately been undermined,neglected and not acted upon. Boutros or BBG, as friends and peers used to call Boutros-Ghali, highlighted the crucial impor-tance of the UN Secretariat staff, including its all-important potential role of a progressive international vanguard in the domain of political thought and ideas. A field that continues to be dominated and guarded by the North, the North’s think tanks, some of which have the role to conceptualise, justify and “market” policies of war and planet-wide aggression, the North’s establishment-loyal academia, and increasingly by the North’s corporate and financial sectors, and individual magnates wielding their billions to influence national and world politics and political thought, all working in tandem with their governments, security and defense institutions and structures to project and defend what is in fact a self-serving “reactionary” paradigm.
Boutros-Ghali drew attention to the unilateral subjugation, control and neutralisaton of this principal UN organ by a variety of means, including by turning it into a mere executive tool, which is increasingly submerged in financial, management, and administrative morass, overwhelmed by operational activities and exposed to insecure employment and short-term contracts. Also, by subjecting the raison d’être of this tangible and visible embodiment of the World Organisation to unceasing attacks, especially by the political far-right of the host country, and by creating an atmosphere and a political environment that make international civil service careers unattractive to best brains and visionary individuals and constrain the UN Secretariat staff to carry on with their duties and mission as envisaged under the UN Charter.
One cannot but be tempted to daydream that someone of similar academic formation, inspiration and outlook as the “real” Boutros-Ghali will assume the post of UNSG and have the necessary vision and courage to elaborate a contemporary “Agenda for Peace”, a compre-hensive agenda that would not have to deal, like its predecessor, only with peace-keeping and how the UN is to be used to control the turbulent spots in the South, but with fundamental causes of the growing threats to world peace, including multifaceted aggressions across the globe, the nature and state of the world economy and society, the global environmental issues, and the democratisation of the nascent system of global governance.
The tenure, trials and tribulations of Boutros Boutros-Ghali as UN Secretary-General mirrored the ongoing and interrelated confrontations on the world scene, namely, the confrontation between the North and the South, and the confrontation between the realpolitik of power and systemic status quo and the aspirations for international cooperation as embodied in the UN Charter and reflected in much of the United Nations’ work over decades, but now strongly challenged and denied.
Boutros-Ghali’s academic and intellectual prowess, his roots, political vision and personal courage made it possible for these two confrontations fully to surface and go on record. The Global South is politically predisposed and today has the power and is able to play a leading role in addressing and following up on these outstanding issues, in cooperation with many likeminded but often marginalised actors in the North, including those in civil society. This is both a challenge for the South, its countries, especially the major ones, and its peoples and an opportunity for them, via South-South cooperation and collective self-empowerment, to assume a leading position and role in the world arena in this century. The United Nations is the vehicle and a ready-made platform for such epic undertaking.
The author was a former Acting Director of the South Centre, Geneva. He was also a UN official working in the area of environment. He is the author of The Quest for World Environmental Cooperation: The Case of the UN Global Environment Monitoring System, Routledge, London and New York, 1002.