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World Perspective | UNITED NATIONS

An Embattled Boutros-Ghali Faces a Job Security Council

November 16, 1996|CRAIG TURNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNITED NATIONS — In five years as U.N. secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali has struggled with war and "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans, famine and genocide in Africa and falling budgets at the United Nations. Now he is facing what could be his last big battle: the fight to keep his job.

The Clinton administration is showing no signs of backing away from its pledge to block a second five-year term for the 74-year-old Egyptian diplomat, whose mandate expires Dec. 31. As one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the United States may veto any candidate for secretary-general.

The Security Council is expected to begin closed-door voting on the secretary-general next week, but there is no guarantee that when it is finished the United Nations will get the kind of leader the Americans ostensibly seek: an able administrator willing to focus on cost-cutting and internal reform.

In his unyielding campaign to stay on the job--waged behind the scenes at the United Nations, in world capitals and even in phone calls to members of Congress--Boutros-Ghali's biggest asset may be resentment of the Clinton administration's treatment of the world body.

That resentment recently surfaced explicitly when, for the first time in the organization's 51-year history, the United States was denied a seat on a key 16-member U.N. financial committee. Afterward, American diplomats attributed the election loss to retaliation for the U.S. failure to stay abreast of its financial obligations to the United Nations.

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While the United States is the organization's largest single contributor (dues are based mainly on national wealth), it is also its biggest deadbeat. The U.S. is more than $1 billion behind in its payments to the U.N., thanks to congressional cutbacks. This, however, has not stopped the Americans from consistently lecturing Boutros-Ghali on the need to cut U.N. costs.

The United States has not said whom it favors as Boutros-Ghali's successor; many other members of the Security Council have made it clear that they are ready to torpedo any candidate seen as the American choice.

Selection of a secretary-general--Boutros-Ghali is the sixth man to hold the post--always has been an ad hoc affair. The U.N. charter says little about the process except that the Security Council nominates a candidate and the General Assembly of all 185 nations ratifies the choice. In practice, the Security Council has rotated the job among candidates from different continents and has never denied a second term to an incumbent.

Council members put forward candidates and are permitted to vote for as many as they wish on each ballot. The winner, often emerging after multiple ballots, is the candidate with the largest majority and no vetoes by any of the five permanent members--the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China.

"It tends to come up at the last minute and is totally politicized," summarized Ronald I. Spiers, a veteran U.S. diplomat who served as an undersecretary-general from 1989 to 1992.

Boutros-Ghali already has been renominated by his native Egypt. Even if the United States vetoes him on the first ballot, there is no guarantee that he will not be renominated, forcing repeated vetoes. Some of Boutros-Ghali's backers believe that his best chance lies in bogging down the Security Council in a long-term deadlock, giving him victory by default.

If Boutros-Ghali is pushed aside, attention will turn first to other African candidates, most U.N. officials agree, because of sentiment that it is still "Africa's turn."

But "this is all speculation," one European diplomat said. "No one knows what is going to happen."

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