Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the only secretary general of the United Nations to serve a single term in office (1992-1996), died aged 93 on February 16.
His single term should not be mistaken for failure. Being respected and/or accepted by the “big five” – the permanent members of the Security Council, who through their veto power play a decisive role in the appointment of a secretary general – as a precondition for being elected or re-elected renders any autonomy in the office a risk.
Boutros-Ghali’s successor Kofi Annan, in his personal memoir, Interventions, is critical of his predecessor and points to his weaknesses and failures. But he also characterises him as having “a fierce intelligence and a global perspective, an academic mind-set and a visceral distaste for the post-Cold War dominance of the United States”.
These views, which made Boutros-Ghali very popular among the member states of the Global South, were a liability for hegemonic policy at a time when, after the collapse of the communist bloc, “the end of history” was understood as the ultimate victory of Western capitalism.
Dag Hammarskjöld, who served as the UN’s second secretary general (1953-1961), was adamant that the autonomy of his office and the secretariat was necessary to serve the spirit and meaning of the UN Charter. For him, the UN was there to serve – especially the countries without global leverage – instead of being an instrument of the big powers. Interventions by the global body had to be strictly under the supervision and command of the secretary general’s office.
As different as Hammarskjöld and Boutros-Ghali might have been in their backgrounds, characters and personalities, their approach to the independence of their office was the same. Boutros-Ghali had opposed military intervention in Bosnia outside of a UN operation. He had insisted, without success, on UN control of the international peacekeeping force.
A campaign was begun to prevent another Boutros-Ghali term in office. When a US raid in October 1993 in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu ended in disaster, the Clinton administration was eager to put the blame on the UN. The US permanent representative to the UN, Madeleine Albright, almost single-handedly managed to ensure that Annan succeeded Boutros-Ghali in 1997.
Boutros-Ghali’s greatest legacy may be the report An Agenda for Peace: Preventative Diplomacy, Peacemaking and Peacekeeping (1993), in which he wrote: “The Security Council has been assigned by all member states the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security under the Charter … this responsibility must be shared by the general assembly and by all the functional elements of the world organisation. Each has a special and indispensable role to play in an integrated approach to human security.”
But Boutros-Ghali was too independent to facilitate such interaction in line with Western superpower expectations.