- Thomson Reuters
One of the most controversial figures in UN history has died at 93.
Boutros-Boutros Ghali, a decorated Egyptian diplomat who served as the UN’s Secretary General between 1992 and 1996, oversaw the world body during period in which it had an inconsistent record in responding to global emergencies.
Ghali played a central role in one of the major diplomatic breakthroughs of the 20th century, leading the diplomatic team that accompanied Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on his groundbreaking 1977 visit to Jerusalem.
He participated in the secret negotiations that culminated in the 1978 Camp David accords, which led to the first-ever normalization of relations between Israel and an Arab country.
But Ghali has a contentious legacy as Secretary General, leading the world body during through the chaos and uncertainty of the immediate post-Cold War years – but also during a few of the most defining crises in the UN’s history.
The UN was ineffective in handling the disintegration of Somalia, mounting a peacekeeping mission that had mixed success in delivering humanitarian aid but failed to stabilize the anarchic country. The UN’s mission in the country ended in 1995, although Somalia would go without a recognized government for another 18 years.
In 1994, an estimated 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda when the collapsing Hutu-majority government organized mass killings of the country’s ethnic Tutsi citizens. While Ghali referred to the violence as a genocide, the world body actually decreased the number of peacekeepers in the country as the violence escalated.
Perhaps the most consequential element of Ghali’s record was the UN’s reaction to the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The Serbian campaign to establish a “republic” inside Bosnian territory after Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1992 involved the expulsion of much of the new “republic’s ” Bosnian Muslim population, as well as a devastating 3-year siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia’s multi-ethnic capital.
The UN’s role in the conflict, led by Ghali, is still a matter of intense controversy.
The world body made a number of unsavory trade-offs throughout the war, pushing a negotiated solution on Bosnia’s internationally recognized government while trying to maintain the appearance that it was alleviating the conflict’s horrors. Most notably, UN peacekeepers failed to protect a UN-established safe zone in Srbrenica, in eastern Bosnia, in July of 1995. Peacekeepers offered little resistance when Serb militants overran the town, killing over 8,000 people in the space of 3 days.
Hundreds of Bosnians gathered on the streets of their besieged capital to jeer Ghali during a now-notorious December 31st 1992 visit to Sarajevo. According to an LA Times account, Ghali attempted to convince officials from Bosnia’s embattled government to negotiate an end to the conflict with the Serbian militants firing artillery at their capital. But Ghali’s solution only seemed to highlight how out of touch the UN had gotten with the conflict’s realities:
As sporadic shelling could be heard in the distance, [Bosnian vice president] Ganic told Boutros-Ghali: “The biggest complaint we have is that the measures you have taken have not been very effective. Almost everything in our city has been destroyed. Almost 1 1/2 million people have left our country.”
The secretary general, as he would do throughout the day, repeated his message: “We have to negotiate, and we have to talk. We will solve your problem.”
Ganic then proposed that he and Boutros-Ghali walk around Sarajevo for a short while. He did not deny the danger but told the secretary general, “Now we are all more philosophical about life and death.” …
But when Ganic and Boutros-Ghali stepped out of the government building, they found a strident, whistling crowd of perhaps 200 Bosnians across the road. They shook their fists at him and shouted oaths at him.
Several carried signs in English. One, addressed to Maj. Gen. Philippe Morillon of France, the commander of the U.N. troops in Sarajevo itself, proclaimed: “My generation is dying of starvation and sickness. Please help them.” A second, cynical placard cried out, “Helpers, go home.” Another sign said simply and bitterly, “May God protect you the way you protected us.”
When Ghali’s term as Secretary General ended in 1996, the US opposed his reelection bid, partly because of Ghali’s opposition to potential airstrikes against Serb targets and insistence on a UN-led effort to end the country’s war. The US threatened to use its veto power to prevent Ghali from serving out a second term as Secretary General, and the Ghanaian UN undersecretary general Koffi Annan emerged as a compromise choice.
Although Ghali was the first person from the African continent to serve as the UN’s leader and would go on to be a respected voice in international affairs, he is the only UN Secretary General in history not to serve out two five-year terms.