UNITED NATIONS — A surprising conflict is festering at the United Nations with Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and the powerful Security Council caught in a tense testing of wills.
Some members of the council, who accuse the secretary general of lecturing them like a schoolmaster in a recent confrontation over policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina, believe that the problem is a critical one that could weaken the United Nations. But Boutros-Ghali insists on much the opposite.
"I think it (the confrontation) was a very small incident," he said in an interview with The Times, "and it will have no impact on the United Nations. In fact, I hope it is looked on as a healthy incident that helps us reinforce our cooperation. Personally, I have no hard feelings."
But Venezuelan Ambassador Diego Arria, in a separate interview, said some recent procedural tangles at the Security Council were a result of the problem. While describing Boutros-Ghali as a brilliant scholar and distinguished diplomat, the ambassador said that tension had been exacerbated by the secretary general's aloofness and failure "to touch elbows" with Arria and the 14 other Security Council members.
The issue has been confused by the obvious glee of many journalists and bureaucrats over the secretary general's difficulties. In his seven months in office, Boutros-Ghali has neglected to forge close ties with either the corps of news correspondents who cover the United Nations or the vast bureaucracy of the U.N. Secretariat. Both seem to be enjoying and encouraging a rage of anti-Boutros-Ghali gossip cascading through the corridors.
The troubles erupted in mid-July when Lord Carrington, the former British foreign secretary, mediated a cease-fire agreement among the belligerents in Bosnia-Herzegovina that included a pledge to place their aircraft, artillery and other heavy weapons in the hands of U.N. peacekeeping troops.
At the urging of British Ambassador David Hannay, the Security Council swiftly endorsed the agreement through a unanimously approved statement read in public by its president for July, Ambassador Jose Luis Jesus of Cape Verde. Members of the council looked on this as a routine, non-controversial act. Arria and some other ambassadors, in fact, assumed that the British ambassador had already shown a draft of the statement to Boutros-Ghali for his approval.
But Hannay had not. Boutros-Ghali, who had not attended the meeting, did not find out about the Security Council statement until later in the day. The news angered him.
The secretary general, a 69-year-old former deputy foreign minister of Egypt and a longtime professor, has made his views clear on Yugoslavia for several months.
He looks on the remnants of the Yugoslav federation and its bloodied ex-republics as a quagmire much like Lebanon in its most ferocious days. He does not like the idea that Europe is trying to palm off its problem on his shoulders. He insists that the United Nations, although it can monitor cease-fire lines in Croatia, lacks both the resources and the personnel to impose any kind of military solution in Bosnia. He worries that the focus on Yugoslavia is diverting the United Nations from other urgent problems, such as the killing and starvation in Somalia. He fears that the United Nations will be drawn into the quagmire against its will, suffer humiliation and lose the prestige and credibility gained since the end of the Cold War.
Boutros-Ghali quickly wrote a bristling letter to Ambassador Jesus, with copies to the other members of the council. It read almost like a U.S. President's veto message to Congress. The secretary general chided the council for failing to consult him, saying its members had let politics get in the way of reality.
"I am, of course, at the service of the Security Council," he wrote. "At the same time, however, I would hope that my views would be ascertained in areas which are clearly within my competence. Otherwise, an unfortunate gap may arise between political desiderata and the technical realities on the ground."
Boutros-Ghali clearly intended to make sure that the Security Council never again ignored his office even if his lecturing left hurt feelings. There was little doubt that he hoped to be a far more independent and aggressive secretary general than his predecessor, Javier Perez de Cuellar.
"My role is to defend the institution," Boutros-Ghali said in the interview. "I believed that what they did was harmful to the house (as he likes to call the United Nations). If I want to be popular, I can say yes to everybody.
"If I want to be popular," he went on, recalling his attempts to trim down the size of the U.N. bureaucracy, "I can appoint 50 more people to the staff and not fire anybody."
But feelings were further bruised a few days later when he discussed the letter with the Security Council in a closed session. "I told them I didn't want to provoke the Security Council," Boutros-Ghali recalled. "I want to cooperate. But if you want me to cooperate, you must cooperate with me. It takes two to tango."
Some ambassadors say that his manner and rhetoric were even more aggressive in person than in his letter. And they say they resented his insinuation that they had ignored Somalia, where black Muslims are dying at a far higher rate than white Muslims are dying in Bosnia.
At the meeting and in a public report issued later, the secretary general officially recommended that the Security Council refuse to take part in the collecting of heavy weapons. The issue became moot, however, since the belligerents failed to heed the cease-fire, making it impossible for anyone to collect their weapons.