At his death last week, Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Egyptian statesman, scholar and sixth Secretary-General of the United Nations, was 93. Yet, the whole world received the news of his death with shock. The 15-member UN Security Council observed a minute’s silence in his honour at the start of its session on Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
Tributes came from far and near. Egypt’s President Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared that Egypt and the world have lost a fine political figure who gave a lot throughout his long international political and scholarly career. The Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, recalled and described Boutros-Ghali’s 1992 seminal work in the UN entitled “The Agenda for Peace” as a lasting legacy. The UN Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, eulogised him as a memorable leader whose invaluable services contributed immensely to world peace.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali was the grandson of an Egyptian foreign minister who became prime minister in 1908, but whose tenure was cut short by an assassin in 1910. It was no surprise that he spent much of his life in public service. He was educated in the University of Cairo where he majored in International Law, Political Science and Economics in 1946.
He received his Ph.D. in International Law from the University of Paris in 1949 before he proceeded to Columbia University, New York, where he was a Fulbright Scholar between 1954-55. Between 1949 and 1979, he was a professor at Cairo University.
He was for 30 years a member of the Arab Socialist Union. In 1974, he was elevated to its central committee and served till 1977. He served as Egypt’s minister of state for foreign affairs from 1977 till 1991 when he was elevated to the position of Deputy Foreign Minister.
Boutros-Ghali was one of the architects of the audacious decision of Egypt’s President Anwar el-Sadat to go to Jerusalem and speak directly with Israelis. It was a diplomatic game changer that altered Arab-Israeli relations after 30 years of unrelenting belligerence.
The sequel to that historic visit was the crucial negotiation between Arabs and Israel for a Middle East Peace settlement with the then US President, Jimmy Carter, acting as moderator and facilitator. Boutros-Ghali was in the thick of those negotiations which became the watershed Camp David Accords, culminating in the most important peace treaty in the Middle East and which has prevented major wars for the last 36 years. The peace treaty signed between Egypt and Israel not only ensured Israeli return of the Sinai to Egypt but raised a spectre of Arab peace with Israel. It also led to an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.
His later emergence in 1991 as the Secretary-General of the United Nations was partly due to a recognition of his skills and experience. As the first Arab African to hold the position, his appointment was celebrated by the Group of 77 as a victory and recognition for Third World contributions to the UN system.
Boutros-Ghali’s tenure was considered quite fruitful. He managed the transition from the Cold War to a less threatening world. He was protective of the independence of the UN and was considered even-handed in Arab-Israeli disputes. He widened the role of UN peace-keeping for international peace.
On leaving the UN, he was named the Secretary-General of the Organisation de la Francophonie, a group of 80 French-speaking countries, a position he held from 1997 to 2002.
In 2004, President Hosni Mubarak appointed him president of Egypt’s human rights council, a body created by the pressure of the US on Arab nations to implement democratic reforms.
Boutros-Ghali, the Coptic Christian from Cairo, scholar of world renown, will for long be remembered for his enduring work in creating a Middle East peace framework and for his imperishable legacies in the United Nations. We cannot agree more with Ban Ki-Moon who noted that “his commitment to the UN was unmistakable, .. the mark he left on the organisation is indelible.”
Indeed, Boutros-Ghali’s remarkable devotion to the quest for world peace left indelible marks in the sands of time.
The greatest tribute that can be paid to his memory is for all leaders to work for peace in their countries and the world. We wish him a respectful farewell.