In 1978, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a professor of international law at Cairo University, was called to the office of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. While he had some limited experience with political life in Egypt, Boutros-Ghali lived and worked in the world of the academy, far removed from the compromises and conflicts of the “real world.”
Much to Boutros-Ghali’s surprise, Sadat asked him to join the government, although the president did not reveal the role he wanted the professor to fill. The mystified Boutros-Ghali did what any good academic would do—he wrote up a detailed plan to turn some of his theoretical ideas about foreign policy into reality.
His ideas, however, soon confronted the hard reality of politics as he discovered the reason for his appointment: Boutros-Ghali was to help Sadat make peace with Israel—up until then the mortal enemy of Egypt—by writing a speech for Sadat to deliver before the Israeli Knesset and accompanying him on his trip to Jerusalem. For an Arab intellectual, such ideas were far outside the boundaries of Boutros-Ghali’s normal comfort zone, although he began working immediately on how to turn Sadat’s ideas into reality.
That trip and subsequent diplomatic efforts led in part by Boutros-Ghali resulted in the first peace treaty between an Arab state and Israel. Its consequences have been mixed; it stabilized the Middle East in many ways, although it remains a cold peace. While its architect, Anwar Sadat, was lauded by many, he was assassinated in 1981 for his role in bringing the two countries together. Ideals don’t always sit easily in the world of politics.
Shocked by the murder of Sadat, Boutros-Ghali wished at that point to return to his academic life. But called upon by the new Egyptian president, he served for the next 10 years in various foreign policy roles for Egypt. In 1991, at a meeting of the Organization of African Unity, fellow African diplomats suggested that he put his name forward for the soon-to-be-vacant position as secretary-general of the United Nations. Boutros-Ghali, who had written the first book in Arabic on the United Nations in 1954, enthusiastically campaigned for the position. He was elected, and on January 1, 1992, he became secretary-general, serving through 1996.
Boutros-Ghali became the sixth man to hold the post of U.N. secretary-general since 1946. Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general, called it “the most impossible job on earth.” The role has evolved and expanded through the years, particularly in the 1950s when Dag Hammarskjold elected to take steps to preserve peace without a clear mandate from the U.N. General Assembly. Kofi Annan, whose term ended December 31, once reported, “I am expected to be the world’s chief diplomat and at the same time run a large and complex organization, as it were, in my spare time.”
Boutros-Ghali’s tenure as secretary-general reveals all too clearly what happens when idealism confronts reality. As the first scholar appointed to head the United Nations and as the first post-Cold War secretary-general, Boutros-Ghali—and many others—believed his tenure would be a time when the organization’s goals of peace, justice and human rights could become a reality. With the right ideas and the vision to put those ideas into place, the United Nations could become the institution its founders had hoped it could be.
The story of his time in office, however, was far removed from his—and the United Nations’—ideals. It was a period of ethnic cleansing, genocide and the failure of economic sanctions in Iraq. While economic prosperity emerged for some, too many others did not see the benefits of increasing wealth. The promise of cooperation among the great powers failed to materialize, as the United States, Europe, Russia and China continued to pursue their own interests to the detriment of the international community.
In none of these situations did the United Nations look like an effective institution devoted to the creation of a just and peaceful world order. Instead it appeared, at least to some Americans, as if the promise of the United Nations had collapsed in a miasma of bureaucratic inertia and rhetorical posturing.
This perception contributed to the Clinton administration’s decision to block Boutros-Ghali’s reappointment as secretary-general in 1996. Traditionally, secretaries-general serve two five-year terms in office. After Boutros-Ghali tussled with the Americans over everything from using force in the Balkans to reorganizing the bureaucracy of the United Nations, the United States refused to support his nomination for a second term.
In the midst of these developments, however, Boutros-Ghali persisted in his efforts to turn his ideals into reality, something the United Nations as an institution struggles to do every day.
Values and Politics at the United Nations
These days, Boutros-Ghali moves carefully about his Paris office. While his physical movements may be slow, his mental agility is clearly on display. The reading material on a table reveals a mind engaged in current affairs but able to step back from those events in a reflective way: volumes of the American Journal of International Law, French newspapers and a journal from an organization devoted to the works of Louis Massignon, the French Catholic scholar of Islam. Massignon taught Boutros-Ghali Islamic law at the University of Paris, and, according to Boutros-Ghali, served as something of a mentor to him in intercultural dialogue.
Today, Boutros-Ghali spends half the year in Cairo and half in Paris. His Parisian office reflects his fame but also something more intriguing. The walls include pictures of meetings with dignitaries, standard fare for former diplomats, but are dominated by three large paintings of icons from the Eastern Orthodox tradition—not so standard fare.
His tenure in that “most impossible job on earth" was marked by controversy from start to finish. Trying to direct the largest and most inclusive international organization in the world is difficult enough. Add to that the perception among many that the United Nations is the forerunner of a world government and that the secretary-general is a kind of secular pope and you begin to see the difficulties of the job. Invested with the hopes and aspirations of oppressed peoples around the world, yet constrained by an institutional structure that gives ultimate power to sovereign states, the United Nations raises expectations it rarely can meet.
Those expectations are often focused on the person of the secretary-general, whose “moral authority" is only as strong as the missions he can accomplish. That moral authority also rests upon the values the United Nations seeks to embody: peace, justice and respect for human rights.
For many secretaries-general, those U.N. values soon become their own. Boutros-Ghali, like others, came to office with a sound foundation in those values. Evidence for this is not in any particular written work of his—which includes works in English, French and Arabic and which span an incredibly wide range of topics. Nor can they be easily distilled from his wide range of life experiences—from international lawyer to Egyptian foreign minister to the world’s chief diplomat.
But the values are there, and they are deeply rooted. Justice, peace, tolerance—indeed, he embodies in some ways the values of the U.N. system. Yet when we talked on a beautiful spring morning in Paris, he revealed how often he was forced to make difficult choices between his values and his need to keep the U.N. system on track in the face of intransigence of the great powers and surging ethnic violence.
A poignant example of this was the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Tensions between the Tutsis and the Hutus, the two largest ethnic groups in Rwanda, had been simmering for years. Tutsis, anointed by European colonial administrators as the political leaders of the country, were in the minority. Various political formulas had been attempted to bring the two groups together, but extremists on both sides exacerbated the tension for their own political purposes.
An agreement facilitated by the United Nations created a tentative peace in 1993, which included a small peacekeeping force. In January 1994, the leader of that force sent a telegram to U.N. headquarters forcefully stating his fears of an impending genocide. That cable was buried in the U.N. bureaucracy, never reaching the Security Council. As a result, some have argued that it was not the great powers alone that bear responsibility for the tragic events that followed, but the United Nations itself.
When the plane carrying the Rwandan president, a moderate Hutu, was shot down in April 1994, extremists in the Hutu majority undertook a large-scale extermination program, killing both Tutsis and moderate Hutus. While the U.N. bureaucracy may have failed to heed the warnings of its peacekeepers, the U.S. government refused even to call it a genocide and failed to engage itself in the unfolding trauma, as did most other powerful states (France eventually sent a small peacekeeping force to assist in protecting refugees).
The question of who is responsible for a genocide that killed more than 800,000 people in a matter of 100 days continues to be debated. Boutros-Ghali’s successor, Kofi Annan, commissioned a report soon after coming to office that placed the blame on a wide array of actors, including the U.N. system and the office that Annan himself headed, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
Some commentators have included Boutros-Ghali in that responsibility, noting that he was on vacation when the genocide broke out and did not seem terribly concerned in the first days. Boutros-Ghali said he does bear some responsibility but he felt most guilty about not being able to convince the great powers, particularly the United States, to act quickly.
Boutros-Ghali believes that without the United States the United Nations will not function, and it is the secretary-general’s job to ensure that relations between the two go smoothly. When the most powerful country on earth instructs its diplomats to avoid using the word “genocide" when hundreds of thousands of people are being killed, the secretary-general may understandably be frustrated.
Throughout those difficult times, Boutros-Ghali continued to believe in peace over conflict, tolerance over violence and justice over injustice. While he sought to enact all these principles, it was his attempts to bring peace through reconciliation that stand out most—efforts that are sorely needed in a world torn by moralistic posturing and religiously generated violence.
Religion and the United Nations
Dealing with the horrors of Rwanda might lead one to believe that God no longer cares about the human condition. When neighbors hack each other to death while officials in New York and Washington debate the meaning of genocide, religion seems of little use.
Despite the potential for despair, the United Nations grew out of and continues to be an institution with a religious dimension. Its Universal Declaration on Human Rights resulted in part from efforts by Jacques Maritain, the French Catholic intellectual, to bring together a truly ecumenical group of leaders who mined their traditions for evidence of respect for human rights. The U.N. building in New York includes a chapel, and a recent study of U.N. bureaucrats revealed a surprisingly high level of religious observance.
As for secretaries-general, however, the evidence seems at first to be less clear. Professor Kent Kille of the College of Wooster in Ohio, the director of a project on the ethics and religion of the secretaries-general, found little on the subject when he first began to investigate it. Other than Dag Hammarskjold, whose untimely death and posthumous publication of his spiritual reflections, Markings, generated some interesting studies of him, most secretaries-general are often assumed to be purely secular diplomats and political operatives.
They aren’t. The authors in the study found that almost every secretary-general was shaped in some way by his religious background. For those who were not particularly religious in their daily life, their experiences in being raised in a particular religious tradition seem to have impacted their tenure in some way.
Boutros-Ghali is no exception. What makes his case interesting, however, is his particular religious tradition. From Egypt, a country where religious ideology has rocked the foundations of the political system throughout the 20th century, Boutros-Ghali is not of the Islamic majority. Instead, he is a Copt—an Orthodox Christian tradition unique to Egypt.
Copts in Egypt make up anywhere between 5 to 15 percent of the population (their numbers are a matter of some controversy). They have been subjected to various forms of discrimination by the Egyptian government, including limits on their ability to build or repair churches and exclusion from important political positions.
Of even more concern is the informal discrimination they face, often in the form of riots that result from agitation by Islamic extremists. The riots are usually quelled rather quickly by the government, but their frequent recurrence creates a climate of fear among many Copts.
The origins of the Coptic Church as a separate entity can be traced to a theological debate of the mid 5th century—one that, like today’s conflicts, combined politics and religious belief and spilled over into violence. Very roughly, the debate centered on whether Jesus was fully divine, fully human or some combination thereof. After the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., which declared that Jesus has a divine nature and a human nature that exist inseparably in one person, the Alexandrian church—one of the most important episcopal sees of the early church—so disagreed with the outcome that church members eventually killed the bishop who was sent to enforce the new doctrine.
Boutros-Ghali said such theological subtleties matter little to him, and although he comes from an important family in the Coptic Church, his spiritual life was not something he discussed publicly. When pressed on the role of faith in his public life, however, he told me, “I was not a man who said ‘let us pray’ and hoped God will help me make a decision; but certainly my Christian background was a very important element in the way I thought about reconciliation.”
How could reconciliation play a role in the world of the secretary-general? One of the important developments that took place during his tenure at the United Nations was the creation of the two international criminal tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Both tribunals were established to prosecute those guilty of war crimes, drawing on international legal precedent combined with the domestic legal norms of these regions.
These courts helped create the momentum for the International Criminal Court (ICC), which came into existence a few years after he left office. The ICC is a major innovation in the international system. Rather than assuming that each state will prosecute those who violate human rights, these institutions are a truly global attempt to ensure that human rights are protected.
Boutros-Ghali was proud of playing a role in the creation of this new legal architecture. At the same time, he emphasized, “the pursuit of justice sometimes creates new conflicts.” It can also challenge the Christian’s mission of reconciliation. “Forgiveness is often more important than justice,” the former secretary-general told me.
This was not a platitude but a conclusion that shaped many of his efforts. Rather than the creation of the criminal courts, he seemed more proud of his efforts to support truth and reconciliation commissions in El Salvador and South Africa.
Of course, the pursuit of reconciliation is not always possible. In Somalia, where the United Nations and the United States sought to deliver humanitarian aid in the midst of conflicting warlords, Boutros-Ghali faced a dilemma. In 1991, the combination of famine and civil war created a Hobbesian nightmare for those living in this already impoverished African country. When news reports reached the United States, then-President George H.W. Bush authorized a humanitarian mission to ensure the delivery of food aid among warring factions.
When one of the warlords, Mohammed Farah Aideed, led a force that killed U.N. peacekeepers, Boutros-Ghali authorized his pursuit and arrest. Boutros-Ghali felt that unless Aideed was made to pay for attacking U.N. peacekeepers, it would be open season on these soldiers not only in Somalia but around the world. During this period, Boutros-Ghali had also been working on his “An Agenda for Peace,” a radical document for the United Nations, one that moved peacekeeping from simple monitoring of a cease fire to the actual disarmament of militias in conflict zones. It was published in 1993 as an official U.N. document, giving it an important status in international law.
Some argued that the consequences of such a change in the international organization’s approach to peacekeeping would lead to the United Nations taking sides and putting itself in the midst of conflicts. The fruits of that shift came a short time later. American troops took Boutros-Ghali’s warrant for the arrest of Aideed further than he expected when they attempted to storm a meeting of the militia in downtown Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. That October 1993 attack led to the deaths of 18 American soldiers, sensationalized in the film Black Hawk Down. Many blamed the United States, but some argued that Boutros-Ghali, by authorizing the arrest of Aideed and changing the culture of U.N. peacekeeping, had contributed to the debacle.
The mission collapsed, leading Somalia back into a political anarchy from which it continues to suffer. Whether reconciliation with warlords can happen is an open question. What Somalia demonstrates, though, is that the pursuit of justice can undermine the chance for peace—and that balancing the two is sometimes not possible.
Being and Protecting the Minority
I have a picture of my son, who was born in Egypt, after his baptism in Cairo. We are posed with expatriate and Egyptian friends in front of a monument in the church courtyard that reads “Out of Egypt, I called my son.” My Christian Egyptian friends were sometimes uncomfortable with the story of Moses leading the people from Egypt—for the story is one of liberation from slavery and oppression, with the Egyptians as the oppressors. Locating that story in the context of current Middle East politics—where Arabs see Israel as the oppressor and where sacred land has become the thing that does not liberate but enslaves—makes it difficult for some Egyptian Christians to see their part in the overall Christian story.
Their inability to fit into the Christian story results in part from their presence in an Islamic society in which nationalism and religion can fuse into an explosive combination. Such organizations as Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon proclaim a universal Islamic message but aggressively pursue the national aims of their communities—often at the expense of civilians in Israel and elsewhere.
Native Middle Eastern Christians sometimes have difficulties locating themselves in this volatile context. The recent conflict between Lebanon and Israel has seen Lebanese Christians suspicious of Hezbollah but wary of Israeli designs on their home. As a result, their patriotism is questioned and they can feel a sense of exclusion from all sides.
Boutros-Ghali’s family history exhibits some of these tensions. His grandfather and namesake served as the prime minister of Egypt from 1908 until his assassination in 1910. While some claim the slaying was the result of the prime minister’s decision to give up the Sudan in negotiations with the British, Boutros-Ghali believes his grandfather was killed because he was a Christian leader in a largely Muslim society.
Whether or not his interpretation of those events is accurate, Boutros-Ghali’s perception indicates a mind shaped by the experience of being a minority. When societies oppress minorities, he has said, they become less civilized.
Copts in Egypt walk a fine line between celebrating their unique Christian heritage and participating in the life of the Egyptian nation. In Boutros-Ghali’s youth, the British occupied Egypt both formally and later informally. Copts faced a dilemma during this period: While they welcomed the presence of a powerful Christian ally, especially one that presented itself as protecting minorities, they were loath to associate too closely with a foreign occupier.
Coptic Christians continue to struggle with these issues. The Coptic diaspora in the United States is often vociferous in its condemnations of discrimination in Egypt. Sometimes such activism helps Copts but at other times it hurts them, such as when they are seen as a “fifth column” that is seeking to weaken Egypt.
As secretary-general, Boutros-Ghali did not deal with the problems of the Copts in Egypt, for he had other problems with minority populations around the world. Perhaps the most complicated set of issues were those that arose from the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. When Yugoslavia came under strain in the late 1980s without its charismatic leader, Tito, to hold it together, a variety of former communist bureaucrats took advantage of the situation. Building upon the ethnic tensions that had long existed in the region, they used them to generate further conflicts. Slobodan Milosevic, an ethnic Serb, was most adroit at these manipulations, whipping Orthodox Christian Serbs into a frenzy against the largely Muslim Bosnians. The predominately Catholic Croat community engaged in similar actions.
When these problems in Yugoslavia first started to appear, a European Union conference was organized in London to discuss options. Over the course of the meetings, Boutros-Ghali warned against giving each ethnic group its own state. Recalling his experience as a member of a minority in Egypt, he cautioned that fragmenting the state of Yugoslavia would create chaos in the region.
As an alternative, he suggested, “One approach to the solution of this crisis should include a special appeal to the leaders of all religious denominations. In them is enshrined the moral and spiritual responsibility to defend and uphold the dignity and life of each human life regardless of creed.”
Delegates did not adopt his advice on this occasion, which might well have contributed to a more peaceful dissolution of Yugoslavia. The resulting chaos and bloodshed not only led to loss of life and ruin of infrastructure, it fundamentally weakened the United Nations. The sight of U.N. peacekeepers watching Serb forces slaughter Bosnian men, women and children in Srebrenica in 1995—partly a result of leadership decisions in the U.N. Secretariat—convinced many that the United Nations was not up to the task of protecting minorities.
Transcending Land to Find Peace
Religion is tied to sacred places, and the Middle East is rich with them. Home to three religious traditions, this region has seen some of the most spiritually significant events but also some of the most horrific. Sacred places can be sources of spiritual solace but also violent competition.
Boutros-Ghali understands how sacred places can bring peace. After he left office, in a somewhat despondent mood, he traveled to Cairo to celebrate Coptic Christmas. The service was held at a church that is intimately tied to his family, the Boutrossiya. After the service, he went to the tombs of his grandfather and other family members, where he reflected on their legacies and his own attempts to bring peace to the world. The solace he found in that visit helped him transition from a life at the pinnacle of world diplomacy to something slightly less stressful, although he continues to play an active role in numerous international organizations.
He also understands how sacred places can bring about conflict. In his trip to Jerusalem with President Sadat in the late 1970s, Boutros-Ghali confronted the issue of sacred spaces. Meeting with Moshe Dayan, the Israeli foreign minister, Boutros-Ghali learned of Dayan’s interest in archaeology, an interest that helped Dayan and others justify their claims to the land. Determining who was on the land first and for whom it is most sacred has become part of the political conflict in the region.
Boutros-Ghali eventually came to respect Dayan and later worked with him and others in Israel, Egypt and at Camp David with President Jimmy Carter to thrash out a peace agreement between the two countries. In the course of those negotiations, it became clear to Boutros-Ghali that the ultimate goal of Sadat was to regain the Sinai Peninsula, which had been taken from the Egyptians in the 1967 war.
Some Israelis have long counted on a formula of “land for peace" in their diplomacy. After wars, they trade territory for recognition, a tactic that succeeded with Egypt but has yet to succeed with Syria.
Trading land for peace does not always work. The Sinai Peninsula—where Moses had led the Israelites from Egypt—was important for Sadat, who wanted to build on Mount Sinai a chapel for Jews, Christians and Muslims to worship together. When Muslim extremists assassinated Sadat in 1981, that dream died with him. While peace may have been achieved between Egypt and Israel, violence was the result for some.
In his inaugural address to the United Nations in late 1991, Boutros-Ghali spoke of his pride in coming from Egypt—a country that “has been a crossroads for many cultures and has been the crucible of civilizations and religions.” Although celebrating his own heritage, he also drew upon a figure from the Islamic political tradition—the 10th century philosopher al-Farabi. While his origins are unclear, al-Farabi worked and taught in Baghdad for more than 30 years.
Boutros-Ghali quoted from al-Farabi’s work on the virtuous city and its citizens, a reflection on the political philosophy of Aristotle, cautioning that he realized that creating a “utopian” world might be beyond his grasp. The fact that a Christian secretary-general from an Islamic country quoted an Islamic philosopher’s reflections on an ancient Greek thinker tells us something.
Pride in our heritage, background and sacred stories gives us a foundation—but only if we can transcend those foundations and engage in the kind of dialogue that such medieval philosophers as al-Farabi undertook with Christian and Jewish thinkers of his day can we construct a world of peace. Boutros-Ghali may not have achieved the virtuous world hoped for by the ancients, but his work for peace and reconciliation gives us hope for the future.
The United Nations continues as an institution to work toward goals of peace and reconciliation. What may seem to Americans as a forum for anti-American leaders to rail against U.S. policy will remain a place devoted to dialogue rather than violence. International conflict will certainly not disappear, but the efforts of those working in the United Nations, from diplomats to the secretary-general, suggest that people of goodwill continue to work for peace and justice. Let’s hope that the new secretary-general will look to the lessons of his predecessors for inspiration.
Anthony Lang Jr. is a senior lecturer in the School of International Relations at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. His research and teaching focus on ethics and international affairs, U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East.