Boutros Boutros-Ghali goes home to rest in peace

African Update – 03/03/16

On 16th February 2016 Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian born Coptic Christian Arab, aristocrat, academic, politician and diplomat, was called home to rest in peace with the Pantheon of African ancestors. Born in November 1922 he rose to international limelight almost 70 years later when he was elected the 6th Secretary General of the United Nations. For continental Africa he was and would continue to be remembered as the first son of the soil to head the international organisation. Because he hailed from Egypt, Boutros was equally the first from the Arab world to hold the position. He was certainly the first post-cold war Secretary General and remains the first Secretary General whose quest for a second term was famously or infamously shot down in 1996 by the venom of American veto power.

Boutros presided over some of the most challenging times of world conflicts and came off not too well complimented by critics. In Africa, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 during which an estimated 800,000 people were killed within 100 days was heaped on the UN for dragging its feet at best or turning a blind eye at worst. The carnage therefrom was staggering and still beggar belief today. Although few will disagree that the Security Council was more to blame than the office of the Secretary General, the critics of Boutros would have us believe that a year before he assumed office, he was responsible for the sale of weapons worth some $26 million to the Rwandan government while he was Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, weapons that may have been stockpiled for the eventual genocide.

Before the Rwandan tragedy, the Secretary General was already accused of taking sides in the Somali conflict and thus protracting the killing sprees there needlessly. The accusation was again premised on his time as Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs during which Egypt gave strong support to President Siad Barre and his ruling clan. Some Somalis believed he still favoured same clan against the clan of warlord Farah Aideed who ousted Barre in 1991. When Boutros persuaded the US Secretary of State to capture Aideed in the “Black Hawk Down” helicopter attack, it put paid to belief that he could not be an impartial arbiter in the Somali conflict even as Secretary General of the UN.

Elsewhere in Europe, Boutros remained entangled in the breakup of Yugoslavia. The failure of the UN to prevent the massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica further indicted the ability of the world body to protect lives and foster peace and security. It made the position of the Secretary General particularly dicey and the critics were implacable. They accused him of staying aloof from the Bosnian crisis, a criticism he did not seem to parry. Instead he shrugged off the Balkans as a “rich man’s war” and suggested he could count ten places in the world with worse problems than Srebrenica.

The submission infuriated many Bosnians and irritated the Anglo-Saxon Western axis of the US and UK. The cup of Boutros quickly filled up in the aftermath of the Black Hawk Down when 18 American marines were killed by Somali militias. The sight of one of the bodies of the marines being dragged in streets of Mogadishu had nailed the urbane Secretary General in a made in the USA coffin long before the veto that killed his ambition to pursue “An Agenda for Peace” in a second term. The outrage was immediate and complete, and the political establishment in Washington soon began to bay for his exit.

Scathing as the criticisms might be, Boutros did not become Secretary General on the back of Africa or the Arab world by default, neither did he define incompetence, conceit or any of the negatives pelted at him. He straddled his Arab and African identities with an almost equal appeal. He was already the President of the Society of African Studies in Egypt and Vice-President of Socialist International when he run for the position of Secretary General. Having navigated the corridors of power in many foreign capitals outside of Cairo whilst he was Egypt’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, the shenanigans of world politics and international relations was very familiar territory.

As a scholar he was par excellence with over 100 publications in law, diplomacy and politics to his name. The Sorbonne trained law professor lectured at many universities across the world and chaired International Law and International Relations at Cairo University for many years. In addition to his native Arabic and English, he spoke French without flaw which possibly explained why France actively campaigned for him. Even as the US abstained when the vote was cast for the new Secretary General in December 1991 there was no second round as some had hoped from the field of seven other candidates that contested him from the continent. Boutros won handsomely!

Long before becoming UN Secretary General, he had already distinguished himself in the historic Camp David accords where he was one of the architects that negotiated the peace deal which still governs relations between Egypt and Israel today. Apart from cementing peace between the two otherwise adversarial countries the accords notably returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. It was a landmark in Israeli relations with an Arab country. His reputation therefrom must have won him enough plaudits and rightly so. If he needed a competitive advantage to stake a claim for the coveted position of Secretary General at the UN this was it and it more than sufficed.

As Secretary General, Boutros is reputed for his resolve to place human rights at the centre of the UN policy objectives and initiatives. His 1992 Agenda for Peace may have been largely unsung but the document remains the most comprehensive concept of peace attempted by the world body. It represents the core of what the UN should be all about, peace. For Boutros, peace building has to be those actions that solidify peace and prevent relapse into conflict. He argued for preventive diplomacy and ushered in an era of disarmament and reintegration of combatants in a holistic approach to peacekeeping. If the Agenda for Peace is not the success that Boutros envisioned, it is palpably because the US punitively withheld critical funding from the UN, not because he lacked will.

Boutros was a Francophile and did nothing to disguise it. From language to fine wines he simply loved everything French. He was known to be a personal friend of the then French President and is credited for bringing Egypt into the International Organisation of La Francophonie of which he would become the first Secretary General upon leaving the UN. As if that was not unbecoming enough, Boutros was his own man and steadfastly so. Barely six months to the election for a second term he infuriated Israel and their allies with an objective publication that suggested Israeli killings of Lebanese civilians taking shelter in a UN post were targeted. What happened six months later when his mandate as Secretary General was up for renewal is history.

Back home in Africa the press, policy makers and civil organisations were aghast that the US alone could find Boutros unworthy of a second term. Many lamented that right wing bullies in Capitol Hill had turned the world body into a punching bag of sorts. Others praised Boutros for a special $25 billion UN development initiative for Africa launched at his behest. Every Secretary General before him got a second term. The exception in the case of Africa’s Boutros was unfathomable. The entire continent was resolute in solidarity and stood by him to the very last minute albeit in vain. The combined African muscle is still far too weak against the full force of American veto power.

Some say there is a very thin line between diplomacy and deception. Perhaps, bringing a mind of his own into the office of Secretary General within the very first term was never the best way to deliver diplomacy or win a second term. Yet, for the same reason, Boutros would always remain an icon in Africa as the Secretary General who did not hesitate to take on the new unipolar hegemony and stood up for his conscience and objectivity even at the peril of privilege. May he rest in peace!

The writer is the International Spokesperson for Humanitas Afrika

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