UN Head Denied 2nd Term | The Canadian Encyclopedia


UN Head Denied 2nd Term

It does not help Boutros Boutros-Ghali that he has a name some Americans seem to find hysterical. All David Letterman has to do for an easy laugh is work the secretary general of the UNITED NATIONS, yet again, into one of his Top 10 lists.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on December 2, 1996

UN Head Denied 2nd Term

It does not help Boutros Boutros-Ghali that he has a name some Americans seem to find hysterical. All David Letterman has to do for an easy laugh is work the secretary general of the UNITED NATIONS, yet again, into one of his Top 10 lists. Other Americans find Boutros-Ghali positively sinister: a cruise of the Internet turns up many warnings from right-wing groups with names like the American Sovereignty Action Project that he is leading a plot to impose "world government" on the United States. Joke or menace, Boutros-Ghali is, in the colorful phrase of one U.S. official, "radioactive" among a significant segment of the American public. That includes many conservative members of Congress - so many that the United States carried through last week on its long-standing threat to veto the nomination of Boutros-Ghali for a second term as head of the United Nations. American Ambassador Madeleine Albright cast the lone vote against him in the 15-member UN Security Council, setting the stage for a bitter battle that risks inflicting more damage on the already weakened world body.

The U.S. veto came as no surprise. As long ago as June, when Boutros-Ghali announced that he intended to seek a second five-year term when his current mandate expires at midnight on Dec. 31, Washington made clear its disapproval. The 74-year-old Egyptian diplomat brushed aside an American offer to let him stay on for one more year, and now both sides are dug in. Boutros-Ghali's supporters held out some hope that the Clinton administration might soften its position once the Nov. 5 presidential election was out of the way, but the administration stayed firm. "The Americans," observes a Canadian official in Washington, "have left themselves no wiggle room on this." Technically, the 185-member General Assembly could override the Security Council and reappoint Boutros-Ghali over American objections. In reality, the United States is so important a player that such a move would paralyze the United Nations, and possibly destroy it.

At issue is the present structure of the organization - as well as its future role. Washington, spurred on by the United Nations' conservative critics, argues that the world body is a bloated bureaucracy that urgently needs to be reformed. The many agencies that make up "the UN system", say the Americans, often overlap and devote themselves more to promoting quasi-socialist policies than tackling urgent problems. At the same time, the explosion of UN peacekeeping operations since the end of the Cold War has fuelled American suspicions. Only far-right fringe groups seriously argue that Boutros-Ghali heads a Third World-dominated, global-government conspiracy. But mainstream conservatives share some of their fears. They were alarmed last January when the secretary general discussed with a British interviewer the possibility of a UN tax on airline ticket sales or international currency transactions to give the organization a source of financing independent of its 185-member states.

Boutros-Ghali's spokesmen insist he was only talking about ideas raised by other people, and is not entirely comfortable being interviewed in English (his first languages are Arabic and French). But the idea that the United Nations was thinking of imposing its own taxes has become an accepted belief among American right-wingers. In a typical comment, analyst James Phillips of The Heritage Foundation in Washington wrote recently that Boutros-Ghali has a "long-term agenda" of transforming the United Nations "into a supranational government directed by an increasingly independent and powerful secretary general."

His defenders, including Canada, argue that Boutros-Ghali has made a good start on the difficult task of reforming the United Nations. He has cut some 1,000 jobs (about 10 per cent) at UN headquarters in New York City, frozen its annual budget at about $1.8 billion and established a financial oversight office. Canadian Maurice Strong is advising the secretary general on further reforms, but the Americans argue it is too little, too late. They say Congress cannot be persuaded to pay the money the United States owes the United Nations in back dues as long as Boutros-Ghali is in control. That adds up to $2 billion by the United Nations' reckoning - about 60 per cent of the $3.4 billion that the United Nations is owed by its members.

The result is stalemate - at least for now. His spokesmen insist that "B.B.G.," as he is known around UN headquarters, intends to fight on. And last week, African nations, who are determined that the secretary general's post remain with one of their number for another term, reaffirmed their support for Boutros-Ghali. Traditionally, a secretary general serves two terms, and even Washington has said it will give "special preference" to an African candidate. But it is far from sure that support for Boutros-Ghali will hold up over the next few weeks.

According to some insiders, even the Africans are divided: North Africans firmly support Boutros-Ghali, but others are more likely to waver. Several Africans have been mentioned as likely candidates, including Kofi Anan, a Ghanaian who is undersecretary general for peacekeeping; Hamid Algabid of Niger, president of the Islamic Conference; and Salim Salim, the Tanzanian head of the Organization of African Unity, who the United States vetoed for the top job in 1981. Others have pushed the cause of a woman secretary general, such as Norway's recently resigned prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, or Japan's Sadako Ogata, the UN high commissioner for refugees. But there is no obvious front-runner. The only sure bet seems to be that with Washington dead set against him, Boutros-Ghali will be out of a job on Jan. 1.

Maclean's December 2, 1996