31 January 2006

Lifting the veil from the Security Council

Javier Perez de Cuellar told Chinmaya R. Gharekhan of India in 1991 that the U.N. Secretary-General's job had lost its charm now that the Cold War had ended and the Big Five would look to push their agendas through the Security Council.

Gharekhan sat at the Council for five years, first as India's ambassador and then as the special representative of Dr Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Throughout this period he kept a diary and has produced an engrossing account of the UNSC's functioning through the Iraq, Haiti, Rwanda and Bosnia crises. But it is his account of the Vatican-like election process for the Secretary-General that is the most revealing.

31 January 2006
The Hindu

Lifting the veil from the U.N. Security Council
An able chronicle of the U.N.'s exertions, from Iraq and Bosnia to Rwanda and Haiti


The Horseshoe Table — An Inside View of the U.N. Security Council
Chinmaya R. Gharekhan
Pearson Longman, Delhi: 2006. Rs. 550.

If there is one arm of the United Nations that has seen its work escalate almost exponentially since the end of the Cold War, it is the U.N. Security Council (UNSC).

Freed from the deadlock of competing superpower vetoes, the UNSC — as the world body's principal instrument for the maintenance of peace and security — has started playing an increasingly active role as peacekeeper, `peacemaker' and even enforcer. Prior to 1990, the UNSC had passed a total of 646 resolutions, at an average of around 15 a year since the U.N.'s founding in 1945. That year, it passed 33, including the famous resolution calling on Iraq to vacate its aggression against Kuwait (UNSCR 660), and in 1991 — the year Chinmaya R. Gharekhan first sat around the Council's horseshoe-shaped table as India's ambassador — the number was 41. By the time Gharekhan left the U.N. at the end of 1996, the UNSC had passed another 366 resolutions. With the passage of a resolution this January on the situation in Cote d'Ivoire, the score today has reached 1652, making that a total of 1,006 resolutions passed since 1990.

Shrinkage in stature

But if the UNSC has seen a huge increase in the volume and scope of its work, the office of the Secretary General (SG) has perforce had to shrink in clout and stature, if not size. Javier Perez de Cuellar, who served as SG from 1981 to 1991, had more than an inkling of what was in store for his successors. The post had become unattractive and would become more so in the future, he told Gharekhan when the latter, in his capacity as the rotating head of the UNSC came to consult him on a matter. "I met him... to discuss the situation in northern Iraq but he chose to give vent to his frustration with the impending `new world order' and the place of the Secretary General in it," Gharekhan writes in his very readable insider's account of the Security Council's role in the first half of the 1990s. "He was particularly concerned about the dominance of the Five. `Why should I have 10 eyes all the time looking over my shoulder to see what I am doing?... It is amazing that in spite of all that is going on, so many people are still interested in becoming Secretary General! They must be very brave people'," Gharekhan quotes the Peruvian telling him.

Perez de Cuellar was right. His successor, Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, flirted with bravery and came to grief. In his five years as SG, he alternated between defiance of the United States and its pushy ambassador, Madeleine Albright, and vain attempts at accommodation, only to pay the price. Alone among U.N. Secretary Generals, he was denied a second term, while his bete noire, Albright, who stooped as low as to try and convince Mrs. Boutros-Ghali to make her husband see `reason', went on to bigger and better things in the second Clinton administration.


Gharekhan's book — which draws liberally on the author's inside view, first as India's ambassador and then as Boutros-Ghali's special representative to the Security Council — provides an account of the improbably brave Egyptian's ouster as part of a narrative of the U.N.'s successes and failures from Iraq and West Asia to Bosnia, Rwanda and Haiti. It is an honest description of what happened, free of the victim's urge to clear his own name which mars Boutros-Ghali's own memoirs, Unvanquished: A U.N.-U.S. Saga (Random House, 1999).

Gharekhan's account of the UNSC's deliberations and consultations on the first Gulf War and its aftermath, as well as the evolving tragedies in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, provide many insights and details that specialists and laypersons familiar with the broad outlines will find enormously useful. But it is in the description of the 1991 and 1996 elections for SG — the first led to Boutros-Ghali's victory, the second to his ouster thanks to being vetoed by the U.S. — that this book breaks entirely fresh and fascinating ground. Peeling away the layers of mystique surrounding a process that has tended to be as opaque as the election of a Pope, Gharekhan provides a detailed and dare I say gripping account of the Tammany Hall-like games nations play to ensure that a candidate favourable to them in some way gets chosen for the top U.N. job. With the current incumbent, Kofi Annan, due to demit office at the end of 2006, prospective candidates and their backers would do well to read this book.

Relevance of the U.N.

If there is one omission in an otherwise comprehensive narrative, it is the Qana episode which, in my opinion, played a decisive role in ensuring Boutros-Ghali was denied a second term.

Qana was the tragic village in southern Lebabon where more than a 100 civilians who had taken refuge in a U.N. compound were killed by Israeli shells on 18 April 1996 during the notorious `Grapes of Wrath' operation launched by Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak. Boutros-Ghali set up an inquiry under the charge of a Dutch army officer, Major-General Franklin van Kappen. The inquiry report, finalised in the first week of May, suggested that Israel had deliberately targeted the U.N. compound and the civilians who had taken shelter there. Warren Christopher, who was the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, tried his best to get the SG to withhold the report or delete the offensive reference to Israel. Boutros-Ghali refused.

In his memoirs, Boutros-Ghali recounts his subsequent visit to Qana and how he wept upon meeting the villagers there. By contrast, Gharekhan's book is written with restraint, precision and even calm detachment. Individual bravery has its place in international diplomacy but he is a firm believer in the relevance of the U.N. to the contemporary world "despite the blow to its image and credibility" by Rwanda, Somalia and the Iraq-related events of 2003. His insider's account is bound to be considered a vital ingredient to the debate on reforming the world body.

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