This month, on February 16th, Boutros Boutros-Ghali died. He was the United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) from 1992 to 1996, right after the end of Cold War, a singular time for
international relations. As the international system was confronting a period of transition from Cold War to an unknown world order marked by turbulence (ROSENAU, 1990), the United Nations General Assembly nominated the first African UNSG in its history. This move signalized that the world was no longer limit by two major powers and its areas of influence; it would encompass all its totality. This was the spirit of the time, although no substantial reform was made in the decision-making structures such as the Security Council to balance the old powers. In this sense, the question about the role of the Secretary General is inevitable.
Due to the organogram of the institution and the decision making process, the role of UNSG in practice is less determinant than anyone would though of the leading chief of the central international organization of States. Nevertheless, the symbolic weight it holds is significant. The values incorporated by the UNSG are rapid spread among the international community, the persona who assume the title gains instantaneous attention from media and people across the world. All this attention is usually drain to some issue on the agenda, normally a controversy one. In this matter, Boutros Boutros-Ghali symbolized the world forgotten – or even though inexistent, by some – until then in world affairs. His nomination marked the idea that international community should be extend to those “lost” places of the earth.
Boutros-Ghali´s term was marked by the summits of the 1990s, a well-thought-out sequence of conferences with social content (ALVES, 2001). In the context of the end of Cold War, there was space for some hope, and this feeling was present in the referred events. There was such an active mood in the international arena that the heads of States were willing to often travel to distant places to debate about environment and sustainability (Rio 92), human rights (Vienna, 1993), population and development (Cairo, 1994), woman´s right (Beijing, 1995), social development (Copenhagen, 1995) and human settlements (Istanbul, 1996). After such a marathon of summits, the leaders were exhausted and the social themes were finally sentence as international matters.
In the process to include new themes in the agenda other than those traditionally covenant by States, it became also necessary to embrace adequate actors. In this sense, UNSG Boutros-Ghali had an important role in claiming that the United Nations in particular, and the international system, in general, should welcome negotiators others than the regular diplomats in international conferences. Such position may not been well understand at the time, as it had some resistance from nation States to incorporate NGOs, youth advocacy networks, mayors and other leaderships into national preparation processes and official delegations. This underlying conflict may have got in the way of Ghali´s second term.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali was the first of many things in United Nations, the first Secretary General from Africa and the first not to be re-elected. From 1992 to 1996, the world faced so many significant events for international relations history that its consequences are still been studied and not entirely understand. Three of those occasions that we can underline are starvation crisis in Somalia, Bosnia conflict and Ruanda genocide. While the world affairs elite were discussing social themes such as human rights, they were also closing their eyes to systematic and brutal violation of human live in those places – with the acquiesce of the media. The impact of these tragedies, amid conflicts with the Clinton administration, made impossible a second term for Boutros-Ghali.
A quick watch at Boutros Boutros-Ghali period as United Nations Secretary General is an overlook at international history. That is how we should analyse any UNSG term and its role for international relations. A UNSG may not be able to change the world – as one could guess – but it can certainly reflect the spirit of its time and introduce, even as only in a symbolic way, the defiance questions that the international community – and Humanity as whole – no longer can escape.
The role of Boutros-Ghali as UNSG was more than just symbolic, it represented changes in the international community and its main organization, exemplifying that we should always pay attention to a nomination and the role of a United Nations Secretary General, even though it has lost most of its leading part and relevance in twenty-first century dynamics.
Therefore, with Ban Ki-moon´s end of term approaching, the debate surrounding the post has gained the news and some speculation is being make. Thus, if the UNSG position has a significant role in setting the agenda of its time, than it is more than the stage to name a woman for the highest post in United Nations. A woman´s nomination would be just in pace with the recent call for gender equality echoing around the world and claimed by the organization´s campaign “He for She”.
ALVES, José Augusto L. Relações Internacionais e Temas Sociais – a década das conferências. Brasília: IBRI, 2001.
ROSENAU, James. Turbulence in World Politics: a theory of change and continuity. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Ana Carolina Evangelista Mauad é doutoranda do Programa de Pós-Graduação do Instituto de Relações Internacionais da Universidade de Brasília (email@example.com)