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Memoirs of UN Secretaries-General: Post-factum political incorrectness

Published on 04 July 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

There is no specific module on Secretaries-General when we speak about the institutional dimensions of the United Nations in Diplo’s course on multilateral diplomacy. Nevertheless, discussions about them are unavoidable. Keeping with the rigour and objectivity of the academic perspective, reference to Article 97 of the UN Charter is the first thing to start a conversation:

He shall be the chief administrative officer of the Organization. [1]

This is rather diminutive if we take into account the symbolism attached to this function in the world public opinion! Therefore it is a must to accompany references to the Secretaries-General with beautiful quotations. Quotations from Secretaries-General are usually and necessarily weighty and meaningful, but we know that in most of cases, the official statements of the ‘chief administrative officer’ were written by other administrative officers, lower in rank.

One thing is clear. In addition to the need to meet ‘the highest standards of efficiency, competence, and integrity,’ the Secretaries-General should be politically correct in all their words and deeds during their terms in office. The trouble is that there is no UN resolution defining ‘political correctness’. This is a prerogative left – in equal tranches – to the sovereign Member States. But the ways of life being as they are, namely inscrutable, it is up to the permanent members of the Security Council to judge the political correctness of the Secretaries-General. And, admittedly, they are more zealous and equal than others in doing their homework about definitions. One more reason for the Secretaries-General to exercise the right to speak with elementary caution.

Consequently, if one really wants to hear nasty things from Secretaries-Generals, one should wait until they end their terms in office and write long-waited memoirs.

Yet, the perspicacious participants in Diplo’s course on multilateral diplomacy keep asking me why Boutros Boutros-Ghali was not elected for a second term like three of his predecessors. I myself tried to be politically correct in the course I delivered and avoid being too specific.

But in this space, we are at the heart of the freedom of expression online – a blog article – where no restrictions apply. Nevertheless, do not expect me to express my own personal opinions! The maximum I can do is to invite you to have a look at the memoires of Boutros Boutros-Ghali. [2] We might find out whether or not Boutros-Ghali was politically correct as he should have been.

History cannot dissociate the years of Boutros-Ghali (1992-1996) from the genocide in Rwanda (1994) and from the lack of prompt and adequate reactions by the United Nations Security Council. Boutros-Ghali tells us some long stories about his requests for mounting a robust UN peace-keeping operation in Rwanda. One confession refers to a meeting with the US President on 27 May 1994.

When I began to talk about Rwanda, Clinton said that if other countries were willing to provide troops for Rwanda, the United States would be willing to fly them there, but he quickly changed the subject to two “special issues” that he said he was most interested in. One was the creation of an inspector general for the United Nations, which he said Congress was making a condition for U.S. payments. (….) The second item (….) was his desire that I appoint Dr. William Foege, an epidemiologist attached to the Carter Center in Atlanta, as executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) (p. 137).

He made the same attempts with other members of the Security Council. The reactions are not all in the verbatim records.

In private talks with ambassadors I was repeatedly told that my effort was hopeless; no government had any intention of stepping in to stop the Rwandan holocaust (p.140).

Private, maybe, but only up to a point! Because on 1 August 1994, in an interview with Time magazine, the Secretary-General crossed the boundaries of political correctness and said:

Why don’t they make as much fuss about Rwanda, where between a quarter- and a half-million people have been murdered, as they do about one dissident in China?

Oops! Boutros Boutros-Ghali does not say that this question prevented him from getting a second mandate. But he tells us that the question was the subject of a conversation between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and US President Bill Clinton:

The U.S. efforts to deny a UN secretary-general from Egypt a second term presented a political problem for Mubarak. The issue involved Egypt’s national honor.  All other secretaries-general had been given two terms. Why not Boutros-Ghali? “We must find a compromise,” Mubarak said to Clinton. Clinton was silent. Then he said to Mubarak, “Boutros-Ghali is a good secretary-general but too independent” (p. 290).

Or, in other words (at this juncture one cannot miss to see how beautifully diplomats express the meaning of some apparently incomprehensible actions):

A revealing comment was provided by Albright’s deputy, Edward “Skip” Gnehm in answer to a direct question by my chief of staff: “Tell me, truthfully, Skip, what does the U.S. have against Boutros-Ghali?” Gnehm hesitated for many seconds and then replied, “He would not do what we wanted him to do as quickly as we wanted him to do it” (p. 291).

Now, if you still underestimate the magic of diplomatic language, see below the tribute paid by Boutros-Ghali to Madeleine Albright, in her capacity as the Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations.

She had accomplished her diplomatic mission with skill. She had carried out her campaign with determination, letting pass no opportunity to demolish my authority and tarnish my image, all the while showing a serene face, wearing a friendly smile, and repeating expressions of friendship and admiration (p. 334).

You might have reason to believe that Boutros-Ghali was politically incorrect not only after completion of his mandate, which is most desirable especially when one wants to sell books of memoirs, but also during it.

[1] I hope that female readers of this blog article will not notice that the Charter does not leave much room for the ‘she’ alternative. If any of you, male readers, noticed by chance this embarrassing detail, please be discreet and keep it to yourselves. I am not prepared with an academic answer to possible vehement questions on this matter. 

[2] Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Unvanquished. A U.S. – U.N. Saga, Random House New York, 1999.

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