Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the first African to serve as U.N. secretary-general, died on Tuesday at the age of 93. Boutros-Ghali, who served from 1992 to 1996, oversaw the intergovernmental organization during a tumultuous time in international diplomacy. An international law expert and former foreign minister of Egypt, he was at the helm of the U.N. during the Rwandan Genocide, the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the conflict in Somalia.
Here, Denise Garcia, Sadeleer Research Faculty and associate professor of political science and international affairs at Northeastern, explains the challenges Boutros-Ghali faced as well as his greater contributions to the global community.
During Boutros-Ghali’s tenure as secretary-general, many international crises came to the forefront. While he has received criticism for the U.N.’s handling of those crises, could this tumultuous time be considered a fool’s errand for anyone in the position at that time?
It was indeed a fool’s errand. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the U.N. as an organization came to be utilized more often and with greater urgency. It was a moment of significant uncertainty in which the bipolar configuration of world politics was being recast under a unipolar-multipolar light and with the ambiguities brought by a highly complex world emerging in front of everyone’s eyes. Concretely, the way this new era impacted the work of the U.N. was through an explosion in the demand for peace-keeping operations and resulting needs for more funding.
It also coincided with the beginning of some of the most horrific intra-state conflicts in the history of humanity, including genocides and Rwanda and Bosnia, for which Boutros-Ghali was criticized for the U.N.’s failure to act in. The criticisms against Boutros-Ghali have to be considered in light of the particular role of the Secretary-General that is usually less. The secretary-general’s role has two principal functions. The first is the role of peacemaker in mediation and negotiations, many of which are carried out of the media. The second is bringing to the attention of member states threats to peace and security.
The U.N. is a vehicle for action in world politics, the most unprecedented attempt to bring world order to international relations where no single authority reigns. Someone who does not really know how the United Nations works would think that this vehicle is piloted by the secretary-general. But it is not. It is the U.N. Security Council that is in the driver’s seat. Without the Security Council’s will to act, there is no action.
At the time of Boutros-Ghali’s appointment, there was a strong push for the secretary-general to be from Africa. Why was that, and what set him apart from other candidates?
The secretary-general is selected in a highly political game of musical chairs drawn out of different regions of the world by the Security Council and ultimately voted on by the General Assembly. Three Europeans, an Asian, and a Latin American had held the high post and it was Africa’s turn.
The relative recent peace between Egypt and Israel, and the need to further settle the situation in the volatile Middle East after the end of the Cold War, and in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, thrust Boutros-Ghali to the forefront of eligible candidates. Boutros-Ghali was seen as someone who could relate to the developing world as the first African to hold the post. It was believed he could also navigate the waters following the first Gulf War and of the troubled Middle East as an Arab-speaking secretary-general who had been in the inner halls of the negotiations with the Israelis.
The U.N. will soon have to pick the next secretary-general with incumbent Ban-Ki Moon stepping down, and the world is ripe to have the first woman secretary-general. I predict either former Irish president Mary Robinson, or Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand.
How has his legacy impacted how diplomatic relations are carried out around the world and how the U.N. operates today?
Perhaps Boutros-Ghali’s biggest achievement was unfortunately largely unheralded. It was his document “Agenda for Peace.” It initiated a plan for the U.N. to start examining social-economic dimensions of development in a more integrated way, especially in the aftermath of conflict.
Before, the realms of social and economic development were largely viewed separately in the work of the organization. Boutros-Ghali termed the concept “post-conflict peace-building,” which entailed new ways to view post-conflict scenarios. These new lenses paved the way for strengthening an agenda known as disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration.
In the “Agenda for Peace,” Boutros-Ghali said, “I wish to concentrate on what might be called ‘micro-disarmament.’ By this I mean practical disarmament in the context of the conflicts the United Nations is actually dealing with and of the weapons, most of them light weapons, that are actually killing people in the hundreds of thousands.” This call ushered in an era where demining, disarmament, and reintegration of fighters had to be seen as a holistic social-economic perspective in the negotiation, mediation, and peace-keeping efforts led by the U.N.