Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the first African to head the United Nations (UN), died in Cairo, where he was born, at the age of 93. A broken leg last year did not stop him, nor did the chaos in the world and seeming ineffectualness of the UN. Boutros-Ghali hoped, till the very end, for a better world.
Boutros-Ghali came from a Coptic family of great prominence, with a grandfather who had served as prime minister of Egypt. He was not in temperament or politics anything other than conventional. By the time he came of age as a law professor, his convention was Arab socialism. As professor of law at Cairo University and as a Central Committee member of the Arab Socialist Union, Boutros-Ghali explored questions of inequality between the West and the Third World. He wrote widely about matters of development, with an eye to the difficulty of national projects given the rigged world economic system. His talents appealed to the government, which took him into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While he did help broker the Egypt-Israel peace deal, he would later say that the drift of his country away from Arab nationalism soured him. In 1982, he wrote, “Occupation by Israel of the West Bank and Gaza will have to end, for 3 million Israelis cannot go on forever governing one-and-a-half million Palestinians and ignoring their national rights and aspirations.” He came to this view as an Arab nationalist, but also as someone committed to the principles of non-alignment.
Sadly for Boutros-Ghali, his ascent as UN secretary-general came at the most difficult time. Restraints on Western power had been eroded by 1992. The USSR had collapsed and the Third World bloc had been weakened by the debt crisis. Surrender to the United States seemed the mood. Harmony between the US agenda and the UN seemed inevitable. Older ideas of development would be set aside in favor of globalization and liberalization. Multilateral discussions about security and peace would not stand a chance against the need to conduct regime change against rogue states. To preserve the independence of the UN became Boutros-Ghali’s impossible task.
During his tenure at the UN, Boutros-Ghali laid out an Agenda for Peace (1992) and an Agenda for Development (1995). In the former, he argued for more robust UN action toward the sources of instability in the world. It was not enough to increase UN peacekeeping missions — to send out the blue helmets to police the world. That was merely a symptomatic approach to crisis. The UN needed to tackle the roots, to understand how the “sources of instability in the economic, social, humanitarian and ecological fields have become threats to peace and security.” To get beyond symptoms, Boutros-Ghali hoped to drive a new “agenda for development,” which would counter the tendency to allow unfettered corporate power to undermine the interests of the millions. Impoverishment created the conditions for insecurity. A secure world would require the human needs of the people to be taken seriously.
Debt of the Third World had to be forgiven. No International Monetary Fund-driven recipe for growth should be forced on weak countries. “Success is far from certain,” he wrote of his agenda, which seems charming in light of what followed.
Boutros-Ghali warned in 1992, “The powerful must resist the dual but opposite calls of unilateralism and isolationism if the United Nations is to succeed.” He had in mind the US, which believed that it need not heed the diversity of opinion in the world, but could push its own parochial agenda in the name of globalization. Boutros-Ghali went unheeded. In 1993, at a lunch with Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the UN, and with Warren Christopher, US secretary of state, he said, “Please allow me from time to time to differ publicly from US policy.” He recalled that Albright and Christopher “looked at each other as though the fish I had served was rotten.” They said nothing. There was nothing to be said. The sensibility of the moment was that the secretary-general of the UN needed to take his marching orders from the White House.
The Americans do not want you merely to say “yes,” he would later say, but “yes, sir.”
A private man, Boutros-Ghali was not easy with the press nor with the diplomatic circuit. He did not build up his own power base. The media in the West pilloried him, as the countries of the Third World found themselves too weak to defend the secretary-general. One international disaster after the other marked his tenure — the second intervention in Somalia from 1993 to 1995 and the Rwandan Genocide being the most destructive. Boutros-Ghali took the blame for all this, despite the fact that these were US-driven. There was no second term for him.
Roberto Savio of Inter Press Service went with him to the airport as he left the UN. He refused the diplomatic lane. “My friend,” he said, “those times are gone. I am a citizen like you.”
This obituary first appeared in The Hindu.