15.06.2016 | All Africa

In the Footsteps of Dag Hammarskjöld

Homage to Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1922-2016)

By Henning Melber

On 16 February 2016 the Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali died aged 93. He was so far the only Secretary-General of the United Nations, who served in office one term only (1992-1996). But this should not be mistaken as a failure. Being popular (or at least respected and/or accepted) by the ‘Big Five’ (i.e. the Permanent Members of the Security Council, who through their veto power play a decisive role in the appointment of a Secretary-General) as a pre-condition for being (re-)elected, renders any autonomy in the office a risk.

Boutros-Ghali’s successor Kofi Annan, remains in his personal memories “Interventions” rather critical of his predecessor and points mainly to his weaknesses and failures. But he also characterizes him as having “a fierce intelligence and a global perspective, an academic mind-set and a visceral distaste for the post-Cold War dominance of the United States” (p. 137). – Ingredients, which made him very popular among the Member States of the South, but a liability for hegemonic policy at a time, when after the collapse of the Communist bloc “the end of history” was understood as the ultimate victory of Western capitalism.

Enters Hammarskjöld: the former Swedish civil servant during his time in office as the United Nation’s second Secretary-General (1953-1961) was soon considered as more General than Secretary. He was adamant that the autonomy of his office and the Secretariat is a necessary requirement to serve the spirit and meaning of the Charter. He jealously guarded the independence of the international civil service. His efforts to find a solution for the crisis in the Congo in 1960/61 were vehemently criticized by both, the Soviet bloc as well as the Western countries. But the new Member States from the decolonizing world identified to a large extent with his interpretation of the mandate. For Hammarskjöld, the UN was there to serve especially the countries without global leverage instead of being an instrument of the big powers. For him, interventions by the global body had to be strictly under the supervision and command of the Secretary-General’s office.

When asked by the Soviet Union to resign, Hammarskjöld in October 1960 stated in the General Assembly: “It is not the Soviet Union or indeed any other Big Powers who need the United Nations for their protection; it is all the others. … I shall remain in my post during the term of my Office as a servant of the Organization in the interest of all those other nations, as long as they wish me to do so.” And on 15 September 1961, two days before the fatal crash of the plane in which he and 15 others lost their lives, he cabled to Ralph Bunche: “It is better for the UN to lose the support of the US because it is faithful to law and principles than to survive as an agent whose activities are geared to political purposes never avowed or laid down by the major organs of the UN.”

As different as Hammarskjöld and Boutros-Ghali might have been in their background, their socialization, their character and personality, as much alike was their approach as regards the independence of their office. Boutros-Ghali, who qualified the passivity of his office over the genocide in Rwanda as “my worst failure”, had strictly opposed the military intervention in Bosnia outside of a United Nations operation. He had insisted without success on a United Nations control over the international peacekeeping force. It is a sad irony, that another unilateral operation by US American forces not under United Nations command marked the beginning of a subsequent rigorous campaign to prevent Boutros-Ghali from another term in office: when a raid in October 1993 in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu ended in disaster, the Clinton administration was eager to put the blame on the United Nations, deliberately but wrongly so creating the impression this was the failure of the United Nations. Bordering to blackmailing and outright obstruction, the US-American Permanent Representative Madeleine Albright almost single-handedly managed ultimately to replace Boutros-Ghali by Kofi Annan.

Stanley Meister, in an analysis of October 1996 on “Getting Rid of Boutros-Ghali” characterized him as “probably the most fiercely independent Secretary-General since Dag Hammarskjöld”, who became a useful scapegoat for covering up the failures of US American foreign policies.

The one-term Secretary-General’s greatest legacy in office might have been the report ‘An Agenda for Peace. Preventative diplomacy, peacemaking and peace-keeping’ of 1993. As the document states under article 14: “The Security Council has been assigned by all Member States the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security under the Charter. In its broadest sense this responsibility must be shared by the General Assembly and by all the functional elements of the world Organization. Each has a special and indispensable role to play in an integrated approach to human security. The Secretary-General's contribution rests on the pattern of trust and cooperation established between him and the deliberative organs of the United Nations.” Boutros-Ghali was too independent to be able to facilitate such interaction in line with the expectations of the Western superpower of the time. He failed their interests – as Hammarskjöld did in the Congo. Hammarskjöld did not survive his mediation efforts while already in his second term. Otherwise, maybe, he might have been the first Secretary-General in office for one term only.  

Maybe the fairest and most sensible obituary published in the internationally renowned print media had already been written some time before the death of Boutros-Ghali. The Washington Post re-published an article by its long-time diplomatic affairs writer John M. Goshko (1933-2014). It gives credit to his role as Secretary-General in the times of a unipolar world system, which prevented the Secretary-General’s office to act independently from the interests of the influential Member States purely in loyalty with the principles of the Charter. But maybe, in retrospective, he was so far the Secretary-General after Hammarskjöld following closest in his predecessor’s footsteps.


Henning Melber is Director emeritus and Senior Advisor of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Uppsala/Sweden, Extraordinary Professor at the Department of Political Sciences/University of Pretoria and the Centre for Africa Studies/University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies/Centre for Advanced Study at the University of London and Policy Advisor to the Global Policy Forum.