Lest We Forget: Boutros Boutros Ghali, United Nation's Sixth Secretary General

"In my view, Boutros Boutros Ghali was one of the leading international statesmen of the immediate post-Cold War period. It was an honour and privilege to have served with him in pursuit of the noble cause of maintenance of international peace and security."

Lest We Forget: Boutros Boutros Ghali, United Nation's Sixth Secretary General

Boutros Boutros Ghali assumed charge as the Sixth Secretary General of the United Nations in January 1992 soon after the end of the Cold War. The euphoria over what was then seen particularly in the Western world, as the victory of capitalism over communism and all that it represented, was soon tempered by the reality of the global situation; the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the break-up of unitary states under the pressures of ethnic, religious, economic, tribal and other divisions, as in the case of the former Yugoslavia.

The Yugoslav conflict that erupted in 1991 in what was Europe’s back-yard, was the first post-Cold War test for what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). Having mishandled it, the Europeans thrust the crisis on the United Nations to be dealt with by setting up a UN peacekeeping operation; Boutros Boutros Ghali’s first serious “peace and security” challenge in his new assignment

In accordance with normal practice, soon after the UN Security Council had taken a decision to set up a UN peacekeeping mission for the former Yugoslavia in February 1992, the UN Secretariat approached member countries for provision of personnel and equipment. As a regular contributor of personnel for such missions (since 1948), India was also approached.

However for political reasons (primarily the erstwhile “Tito” connections in the non-aligned movement) and despite requests at fairly senior levels in the UN, the Government of India stood by its position not to provide troops for the Yugoslav mission. (Needless to say, India provided sizeable contingents and personnel for the missions that were set up for Cambodia, Somalia and Rwanda).

Finally, one is given to understand, in an effort to secure India’s participation in the Mission, Boutros Boutros Ghali personally spoke to the then Prime Minister of India PV Narasimha Rao. And on being apprised of the reasons for not acceding to the request, Boutros Boutros Ghali expressed his understanding of the position taken by the Government of India. Even so he persisted, and secured the Prime Minister’s agreement to provide a senior Indian Army General to head the mission as the Force Commander.

In end February 1992, a panel of names (that included mine) was apparently drawn up and placed before the Prime Minister by the then Defence Minister, Sharad Powar. I was at that time the Director General Military Operations at the Army Headquarters in New Delhi and happened to be away in Ahmadnagar chairing a regimental conference as the Colonel of the Mechanised Infantry Regiment. On 25 February 1992, I was telephonically informed by my Deputy that I had been selected for the assignment, and was asked to return forthwith to New Delhi in preparation for move to the UN HQ in New York on 1st March 1992.

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That set the stage for my association with the United Nations and its then Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali. An association that I treasure, as much for the professional satisfaction that I derived from the experience of setting up and heading what, at that time, was the largest peacekeeping mission that the UN had embarked on, as for the great honour and privilege of working under the stewardship of a person of the stature and calibre as Boutros Boutros Ghali.

I had the privilege of meeting him three times in the one-year period from 3rd March 1992 to 2nd March 1993 that I served as the first Force Commander and Head of Mission of the United Nations Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR). Our first meeting was in New York in the first week of March 1992 soon after I reported for briefings and administrative formalities prior to heading out to the mission area.

A meeting during which he recalled the circumstances under which I, as an Indian Army General, had been nominated. And of course, to apprise me of the magnitude of the tasks ahead, the political minefield that I was entering, the expectations of the international community in the aftermath of the termination of the Cold War, and that I could always rely on him and his staff for total support in the conduct of the mission.

What impressed me most at that meeting with him was his composure and reassuring demeanour; at a time when he was no doubt under great pressure and strain. I recall coming away from that meeting with a determination that I would spare no efforts to support this great person in his endeavours.

This is not the occasion to record the mission activities. But one must state quite unequivocably that the support and understanding that I received from UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali and his staff, led very ably be the late Marrack Goulding, then Under Secretary General in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, together with the then Assistant Secretary General Kofi Annan, and my Indian colleague, Shashi Tharoor, in running the mission was quite outstanding. Made my difficult task so much easier.

I cannot recall a single instance in the one-year period when I did not receive the assistance and support of the hierarchy at UNHQ. A privilege very few heads of missions can claim, I am sure. That of course precludes the inadequacies my subordinate staff encountered due to bureaucratic UN procedures and deficiencies. Such unqualified support enabled me to negotiate the political minefield that I was cautioned about.

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Particularly in context of the fact that whereas the mission was deployed for overseeing the agreement following the conflict between Croatia and the Federal authorities in Belgrade, the developments in Bosnia-Herzegovina overtook us as we were deploying for the original mission.

In fact something that had never been understood (or possibly deliberately ignored) by many of the European countries, as also by some others, and by the Western media, is the fact that UNPROFOR never had a peacekeeping mandate for Bosnia-Herzegovina; at least, not till I left the mission area on 2nd March 1993 on relinquishing command. The saving grace in so far we in UNPROFOR were concerned, was the fact that this position was understood by the Secretary General and his staff at UN HQ.

My second meeting with Boutros Boutros Ghali was when he visited Sarajevo on New Year’s Day 1993. I accompanied him on his visit to the Egyptian contingent deployed there under extremely trying conditions. And for his meetings with the Bosnia-Herzegovia authorities who pilloried him for what they claimed was inaction on his part to initiate military action against the Bosnian Serbs.

However what I vividly recall from that visit in terms of this narrative is his statement that was much criticised about how Europe was so focussed on the Balkans whereas places like Somalia where there was so much more conflict and loss of life and misery, were relegated to inadequate attention; a developed region receiving all the focus of the media and the powerful countries, as against the plight of those in the “undeveloped” part of the world.

As the Force Commander and Head of Mission in the former Yugoslavia, and therefore privy to the machinations and manipulations of the leadership of the parties to the conflict, as also to the hypocrisy of the international community including some of its most powerful members, it was indeed heartening and refreshing to note the courage of conviction and moral strength displayed by Boutros Boutros Ghali in articulating the feelings of the developing and less developed world. A position that no doubt played a major part in his being denied a second term.

My third meeting with Boutros Boutros Ghali was in the first week of March 1993 on my way back after relinquishing command of the Mission on 2nd March 1993. A meeting under somewhat delicate circumstances as I had declined his offer of extension as the Head of UNPROFOR and decided to return to the rolls of the Indian Army.

A decision I took with some regret in the knowledge that I would not be around to assist him in dealing with what we could clearly anticipate, was increasing intrusion by NATO, the US Administration and some of the more powerful European countries, in the conduct of the UN mission. I tried to ease the ‘spill-over’ effect of my decision by publicly attributing it to personal family commitments.

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At our meeting however, in what was typical of his greatness, as an outstanding political personality and as a person, he thanked me profusely for the highly professional manner in which I had run the demanding mission so successfully, and wished me well in my future endeavours.

The warm letter of thanks he wrote me after my return is one of the most treasured possessions of my professional career. I understand he also wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narasimha Rao lauding my performance as the Head of UNPROFOR and thanking the Prime Minister for deputing me in that capacity.

I continued to follow with great interest the events in the former Yugoslavia and could only marvel at the efforts of the UN Secretary General in his efforts in managing the conduct of the UN mission there through the machinations of the Western world led by NATO.

It is another matter that more or less simultaneous crises in Cambodia (where India had a sizeable contribution), Somalia (where again India had a sizeable contribution, and which mission I visited as the Deputy Chief of the Indian Army in May 1994) and, in due course Rwanda (for which I oversaw the deputation of the Indian Army contingent, again as the Deputy Chief), together with other smaller ones, demanded his attention and, in due course, the setting up of large scale UN peacekeeping operations.

Something the UN Secretariat was just not organised or equipped for at that time (in the first half of the 1990s). It is indeed a tribute to Boutros Boutros Ghali’s vision, ability, dedication and composure, that, given the limitations of the organisation, he steered the UN through these commitments as effectively as he did.

A final point that merits mention in this tribute relates to the seminal documents put out by Boutros Boutros Ghali in the form of “An Agenda for Peace” in June 1992 at the request of the UN Security Council in January 1992, and the updated supplementary to it in January 1995.

These documents set out the dilemmas and challenges faced by the United Nations in the prosecution of peace operations, and made recommendations on all major aspects that the world body needed to address for effectively ensuring the maintenance of international peace and security under the radically changed circumstances in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War.

They covered among many other important aspects like: ensuring unqualified political support to missions in the field; preventive diplomacy; preventive deployment; provision of personnel and equipment to match mandates conferred; provision of units for enforcement action when required; post-conflict peace-building; cooperation with regional organisations and arrangements; safety of personnel; and so on.

Together with the recommendations made by the Brahimi Panel in 2000, these documents placed on record what needed to be done. It is indeed a sad irony that, rather than focussing on implementing what these documents had recommended, the international community represented by the United Nations, dithered and procrastinated.

And subsequently, in an effort to try and demonstrate to the world community at large that something was being done, resorted to commissioning more studies from time to time which produced reports that only reiterated in probably more impressive language, all the points made in ‘An Agenda for Peace – 1995”.

In my view, Boutros Boutros Ghali was one of the leading international statesmen of the immediate post-Cold War period. It was an honour and privilege to have served with him in pursuit of the noble cause of maintenance of international peace and security. May his soul Rest in Peace.

About the Author

Lt Gen. Satish Nambiar, PVSM, AVSM, VrC is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan and is a highly distinguished General of the Indian Army who served as the first Force Commander and Head of Mission of  United Nations Protection Force, during 1992-93. He is a renowned academic, associated with the world's top defence Think tanks, leading strategic journals, and was the former director of the United Service Institution of India.

(Views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India.)

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