Boutros-Ghali: Make diplomacy, not war

By Khaled Diab

The world is paying the price for Boutros Boutros-Ghali's foiled attempts to reform the into an effective force to resolve conflicts.

Photo: UN

Tuesday 1 March 2016

As Egyptian diplomacy shifts from the art of the possible to the farce of the improbable, bids farewell to perhaps its most capable and accomplished international diplomat.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, 93, whose long life included an illustrious academic career, long service in the Egyptian government, as well as a stint as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, died in his hometown, , on Tuesday 16 February.

Born into a prominent aristocratic family in 1922, Boutros-Ghali was the grandson of his namesake, Egypt's first Coptic prime minister, Boutros Ghali, who was assassinated for his perceived pro-British stance.

Raised in a cosmopolitan environment at a time when Egypt was a more diverse country, Boutros-Ghali possessed an easy multiculturalism. This was reflected in his mastery of French and English, as well as his decades-long marriage to Leia Nadler, who was born into a wealthy Alexandrian Jewish family.

After gaining qualifications from Cairo and Paris, Boutros-Ghali became an eminent professor of international law and international relations at Cairo University. He departed academia, though he was to return regularly, to enter politics in the 1970s.

Egypt's embattled president at the time, Anwar al-Sadat, took Boutros-Ghali on board to aid him in his controversial bid to forge peace with Israel. In Arab eyes, this is the darkest point in his long career.

Despite his public support for Sadat, Boutros-Ghali had many private misgivings about the : Israel's refusal to deal with the Palestinian question, Arab rejectionism, as well as Sadat's acquiescence to 's demands, his cavalier attitude towards the Arab world and the president's undermining of the Egyptian negotiating team.

“Sadat had concluded that Egypt could not undertake a major effort to gain the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people as long as Egyptian territory lay under Israeli control,” the frustrated diplomat wrote in his diary. “I was convinced that no treaty of peace could endure unless it included measures for Palestinian rights.”

One can only imagine how different the Israeli-Palestinian context would have been today had Israel sought a peace deal with the alongside Egypt, had the Arabs dropped their rejectionist posturing and joined Egypt to form a united front, and had Sadat courted the Arab world instead of berating it.

But the idea that Boutros-Ghali had sold out the Arab and African cause is an unfair one. He just pursued it in his own way, whether you agree with it or not, as his subsequent track record shows.

For example, Boutros-Ghali humbly never took public credit for one of his most significant achievements, both symbolically and politically, the secret talks he held to help negotiate the release of Nelson Mandela.

As the first African and Arab to become UN Secretary General, in 1991, the mild-mannered, self-effacing, but tough Egyptian sought to transform the international body at a time when the world was taking new form after the end of the Cold War.

Against the backdrop of the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, Boutros-Ghali quickly set to work, formulating an innovative Agenda for Peace which expanded the then focus on peacekeeping to embrace preventive diplomacy, and to  encompass post-conflict peacebuilding.

But for the law-professor-turned-diplomat, the new world order would not be made by peace alone. To complete a complementary trinity of sorts, Boutros-Ghali formulated an Agenda for Development and an Agenda for Democratisation, which was his parting gift as he was being pushed out of office.

Boutros-Ghali stands before a shed containing the remains of scores of dead killed during a massacre at Nyarubuye Church, in south-eastern Rwanda. Photo: UN
Boutros-Ghali stands before a shed containing the remains of scores of dead killed during a massacre at Nyarubuye Church, in south-eastern Rwanda.
Photo: UN

Barely two years after formulating his blueprint for preventing, making and keeping peace, the Rwandan genocide, in which up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were bludgeoned to death, occurred.

While an independent report found that Boutros-Ghali and his team had missed important signals that a genocide was imminent, the team document apportioned most of the blame on the permanent members of the UN's : their failure to provide peacekeepers with a mandate to use military force and their unwillingness to send troops once the mass killings began.

“We cannot solve every such outburst of civil strife or militant nationalism simply by sending in our forces,” the then American president said dismissively, despite desperate UN appeals.

Frustrated by Western stalling, Boutros-Ghali turned to African heads of state. “I begged them to send troops,” he disclosed at the time. “Unfortunately, let us say with great humility, I failed. It is a scandal.”

The Potočari genocide memorial near Srebrenica.
The Potočari genocide memorial near Srebrenica.

At around the same time, Bosnian Serbs massacred over 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks in Srebenicia despite the presence of UN peacekeepers. A later investigation partly blamed the UN's “philosophy of neutrality and nonviolence” for enabling the mass killings. However, as with Rwanda, most of the blame was placed at the feet of the Security Council and its unwillingness to commit enough troops and give them the mandate to use force.

This inertia caused by individual member states, especially those seated on the Security Council, was what Boutros-Ghali had presciently attempted to shore up with his Agenda for Peace. Although the document did not call for the rethinking of the Security Council, it did recommend the establishment of forces to prevent conflict and enforce the peace, a special peace fund and the right for the UN to levy taxes to finance operations.

But now that the United States had become the world's sole superpower, it was in no mood for such multilateral reforms. Although Boutros-Ghali's constant drive for reform and his relative prioritisation of Africa and developing countries endeared him to most member states, Washington was livid.

This said more about Pax Americana than it did about Boutros Ghali. As Le Monde Diplomatique pointed out at the time, this scion of a wealthy Egyptian family was no “dangerous subversive” but an “enlightened conservative”.

And the experience of being booted out of the UN was enlightening for Boutros-Ghali. “It would be some time before I fully realised that the United States sees little need for diplomacy; power is enough,” he wrote. “Diplomacy is perceived by an imperial power as a waste of time and prestige and a sign of weakness.”

Boutros-Ghali spent the rest of his years promoting, in his cautious, “enlightened conservative” kind of way, pluralism, multilateralism, and multiculturalism, which he viewed as “the essence of democracy”.

Among other things, he became secretary-general of la Francophonie, the French equivalent of the British Commonwealth, and served as director of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights.

With the Middle East ablaze and the international community unable to cope with the spreading flames, one thing is clear: the world needs to appoint another reformer to lead the UN and to empower him or her to reinvent it.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 17 February 2016.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, , Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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