May 25, 2020
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Washington’s Veto Vendetta

The US finds itself isolated on a second term for Boutros-Ghali

Washington’s Veto Vendetta

IT was a muddled Monday. While a closed-door meet on Afghanistan at the United Nations (UN) drew little or no notice on November 18, all attention was focused on the UN Security Council on the second floor of the world body’s New York headquarters. Mediapersons keenly shadowed every diplomat around to pose one question: would controversial UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali secure another five-year term?

While Boutros-Ghali was on a visit to Bonn this June, sources in the US administration disclosed to the New York Times that Washington would not support another term for the irrepressible UN chief. The Times is also said to have telephoned the secretary-general in Germany for comment. Within an hour and much to the amazement of the few journalists who happened to be at the UN headquarters that afternoon, UN spokesman Ahmed Fawzi called a hasty press conference to announce Bout-ros-Ghali’s decision to run for another term.

The curious sequence of events would not surprise those who have followed Boutros-Ghali’s career. Over the past five years, and for the first time in decades, the US has time and again found itself opposed, criticised and at loggerheads with the head of an org-anisation it created largely to protect its own geo-strategic interests. Boutros-Ghali challenged superpower equations, spoke out in favour of the Third World and took up issues concerning the underprivileged.

Since June, the US Permanent Representative to the UN, Madeleine Albright, has repeatedly parroted her government’s intention of vetoing Boutros-Ghali. Interestingly, such opposition to a UN chief who does not toe a superpower’s line is not new. Brian Urquhart, a former adviser to five secretary-generals and one of the UN’s most respected professionals, recalled many such instances of superpower highhandedness in an interview with The New Yorker.

 "We’ve been through all this before with the (former) Soviet Union," he said. "The Soviets violently objected to the election of Tragvye Lie, because Lie supported the American action in Korea, and then they violently objected to Dag Hammarskjold."

 "The US is simply not interested in a strong UN," a high-ranking European diplomat told Outlook. "What it wants—as always in the history of the body—is an organisation that functions as an executive arm for US foreign policy. And that is the bottomline. So, what it looks for in a secretary-general is in keeping with this ambition. It is not interested in an able diplomat with political opinions; all it would like is an efficient administrator. The right to make political decisions must, of course, according to Washington, rest with itself."  The US has repeatedly stated that it would not support Boutros-Ghali because he failed to bring about reforms in the organisation. But the timing of the decision was anything but coincidental: it was election year in the US. And an anti-internationalist, unilateralist, even isolationist element was a surefire and convenient winner for the Clinton administration, given the Dole rhetoric it was pitched against.

There is also the well-known personal animosity that the hawkish Albright nurtures against Boutros-Ghali. She has lost no opportunity to harshly criticise the latter. When she ran down UN operations in Croatia as a "bad mistake" on the part of the secretary-general, he merely dismissed her remarks as ‘vulgar’. As Urquhart said of the overall US attitude: "Very xenophobic, extremely touchy and, I think, very ignorant." 

And he may have hit the nail on the head. The US’ hasty and premature announcement and its dogged insistence to stick by its decision to veto Boutros-Ghali initially had an effect. It prompted the world community to recognise it for what it was—a poll ploy—and subsequently hold off the first round of voting on the issue till after the November 5 US polls. But the US is now in trouble. When formal voting took place on November 19, the US found itself completely isolated. Fourteen states voted in favour . 

"Washington has overplayed its cards and quite obviously overestimated its own strength this time," said the European diplomat. "By adopting such an uncompromisingly rigid stand, it simply has not left itself any room to negotiate anymore, no matter whom the Africans propose." After the tenures of three European secretary-generals, one South American and one Asian (U. Thant) for two terms, it’s universally acknowledged that it is Africa’s turn to continue to provide a head for the world body for the coming term. Even the US has harped repeatedly that an African it must be.

But China and France—two of the other four permanent members of the Security Council with veto powers—have pounced upon Washington’s clumsy handling of the re-election issue. First, they have repeatedly said that they support Boutros-Ghali for a second term, largely to cross swords with the US. And then in recent weeks, the French ambassador to the Security Council is said to have declared that France would exercise its veto against any candidate backed by the US. This attitude is largely shared even by the less influential Third World states, which form the bulk of the 185-member organisation, angered as they are by Washington’s arrogant stand over Boutros-Ghali.

Tempers against the US have reached such a head that Washington will not dare exercise its veto against any other candidate the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) might eventually propose, for the job. The OAU, by and large and for the moment, sticks by Boutros-Ghali. But for how long? "All I can say is, we intend to anger the US for as long as it is possible," an African representative in the Security Council told Outlook.

On the other hand, few countries are ready to accept any candidate recommended by the US itself. If nothing else, that person will fail the true test: the vote in the only truly democratic body within the UN, the General Assembly, in which he/she will also have to stand trial.

ANDif the OAU conjures a truly sophisticated sleight of hand and produces one more individualistic than Boutros-Ghali or, alternately, another who is an armchair pipe-smoker, Washington will have little or no choice but to accept.

This is perhaps the reason why Kofi Annan, the current UN under-secretary-general for peacekeeping and one of three candidates who are considered the hot contenders for the post (the other two being Sallim Salim, current OAU secretary-general who was vetoed 16 times by the US because of his socialist leanings in 1981, and Ivory Coast Foreign Minister Amara Essey), may not make it. In a not-too-surprising reversal 15 years on, the US has all along reluctantly indicated it would go along with Sallim Salim’s candidature.

Meanwhile, African states like the Ivory Coast and Nigeria, quick to recognise their saviour in a permanent member with veto power, France, have been lobbying in Paris for support for their own candidates. But the OAU is yet to find unity within its own ranks. Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda and the Western Saharan nexus are known to oppose a second term for Boutros-Ghali. But larger influential powers—ranging from South Africa to Nigeria and Egypt—are unequivocally in support of Boutros-Ghali.

Amongst UN employees themselves, it seems clear that Boutros-Ghali, who turned 74 in November and proposed a toast to his second term at a glittering press dinner amidst resounding applause, will cease to be their chief this December 31. The entire conflict is reflective of the macrocosmic realities the UN, and indeed the international community, is faced with and has to address: superpower status in a world where it can only be justified in economic, but definitely not in geo-strategic, terms.

This is a revealing saga of a solitary superpower pitched against a spokesman for the Third World in a body where economic superiority may still rest in the hands of a few, but numerical superiority remains in those of the Third World. It reflects and reiterates the urgent need for reforms in the organisation as a whole. While the Security Council is responsible for matters of peace and security and is therewith the most powerful body, the more superior one remains the General Assembly. There always has been, and will continue to be, a conflict between the two bodies, and that has become more sharply polarised in recent times.

So it comes as a coincidence that the president of the General Assembly, Malaysian national Razali Ismail, last week wrote a letter to his Indonesian counterpart in the Security Council, urging that the Council resolve the re-election issue conclusively, suggesting December 17 as a realistic date by which to do so.

It is completely in keeping with the UN Charter that the General Assembly can voluntarily choose to take up the issue of the election of a secretary-general, should the Security Council fail to find consensus in proposing a name. Even though this is a scenario that is largely dismissed by those who know Boutros-Ghali and insist he would step down rather than cause such sharply polarised conflicts within the UN, there are rumblings within the body.

To anyone who has followed the career of Ismail, yet another distinguished diplomat whose country approved the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty recently but who made no bones of what he really thought of the treaty in terms of discrimination against less affluent states, the letter speaks volumes. It was the first time in the history of the UN that such a letter was written and it was not a friendly gesture that motivated it. The message may have well been: do something about it; if not, I will.

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