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Boutros Boutros-Ghali: The world is his oyster
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 01 - 2006

Former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has his hands full with human rights concerns these days. Currently the chairperson of the International Panel on Democracy and Development at UNESCO (1997-), Boutros-Ghali was president of the Institute for Mediterranean Political Studies, Club de Monaco, (2002). He has authored more than 100 publications in Arabic, English and French dealing with strategic regional and international affairs, law and democracy, and political science. His legal, academic and diplomatic backgrounds enabled him to contribute meaningfully at international forums. He had long been closely associated with the ruling clique in Egypt. His political career took off during the days of former president Anwar El-Sadat. He was a member of the Central Committee of the Arab Socialist Union (1974-77). He accompanied Sadat to Israel in November 1977 and again for the signing of the Camp David accords in 1978. He was also instrumental in facilitating the official normalisation of Egyptian-Israeli relations in 1979. He became Egyptian minister of state for foreign affairs (1991); vice-president of Socialist International (1990-91); member of the International Law Commission (1997-2000); president of the Society for International Development (1997-2000) and secretary-general of the International Organisation of the Francophonie (1998-2002).
Interview by Gamal Nkrumah
"I can't say I am optimistic, cautiously optimistic perhaps. Hopeful, yes," Boutros Boutros-Ghali says with a weary shaking of the head.
From his office overlooking the Nile, the former United Nations secretary-general offers an appropriately expansive insight into how he views his place in his country's history.
Two sips into my glass of mint tea and I am beginning to worry that this may not work. The idea was to find out what someone who was the top world diplomat could offer readers of Al-Ahram Weekly.
By the time of his departure from the UN, there were plenty of critics urging Boutros-Ghali to give up international diplomacy. Unperturbed, he went on to become secretary- general of the International Organisation of the Francophonie (1998-2002). Today, he heads Egypt's National Council for Human Rights (NCHR).
Leaving New York had prompted a bittersweet look back. Boutros-Ghali might no longer be the UN secretary-general, but the world is still his oyster.
He insists that the Arab world, "in spite of everything", should be able to face 2006 with some confidence. He muses about the democratic transformations taking place in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. There is little risk that Arab politicians will once again fall to the lure of populism. "The days of dictatorship are over."
Defenders of the status quo are few. There is a strong surge of popular anticipation for change.
"We have come a long way. Millions of Egyptians and Iraqis have cast their votes at the ballot box. The Palestinians will follow suit."
There is still much to be done and many difficulties ahead, but the possibilities of overcoming them have at least been improved. Boutros-Ghali is acutely aware that the Arab world is in danger of losing, yet again, the opportunity to liberalise politically. He expounds at length his views on the shortcomings of both Arab and Western democracy and development.
"Transparency at every level of government services is also a precondition for the proper working of democracy and for an effective fight against corruption."
Boutros-Ghali doesn't model his take on democracy after any particular political system per se. At root the fault lies with a development model that simplistically equates progress with modernisation. "If you speak about democracy at the local level, you must also speak about democracy on the global level."
Boutros-Ghali firmly believes that no serious discussion about democracy is meaningful without a debate about globalisation, a theme he regards as "the most important issue of our time".
He argues that local and domestic matters are already being debated at international forums because of globalisation. He believes that we live in the global village and that the local has become of international concern. "While the broad principles of democracy are universal, the fact remains that their application varies considerably."
Again Boutros-Ghali stresses the nascent nature of democracy in Egypt and the Arab world. "We are at the beginning of the road, at the very beginning. We still have a long way to go."
I cannot disagree.
"We are at the very beginning of the process." Amid the drama of the American invasion of Iraq, the war on terror and the fast changing political map of the Middle East, it is easy to forget that the Arab world includes countries and communities that are among the most polarised societies in the world today. There are some dangerous signs. In some countries the prospects of political chaos are palpable.
There are no easy solutions and Arab leaders should not pretend otherwise.
The rise of political Islam in the Arab world is viewed by many as a fragment of an altogether more disturbing picture. A first draft of the contemporary history of the region may well view the fight between the United States and the militant Islamists of the Arab world as an adjunct to the power struggle between secularism and Islam. A more reflective judgement may see it as a calculated attempt to integrate more fully the Arab world into the global economy and ensure that Arab political establishments are more reliable political partners of the Western powers.
Either way, democracy and human rights have forced their way up the geopolitical agenda of the Arab world. Arabs are yearning for change. The media condemns more vociferously political repression in the region. Independent and opposition papers, satellite television channels and websites are mushrooming. It is clear that Arab autocracies are on their way out.
"An excessive concentration of power is an impediment to democracy," he says.
This is hardly the first time religious preferences have infected politics. Boutros-Ghali refuses to be dragged into a discussion about the results the Muslim Brotherhood achieved at the recent parliamentary elections. "It is all in the report," he says by way of dismissal. He was referring to the annual NCHR report.
The Middle East is agog with dangerous flashpoints. But the all important question now is how to translate the new relatively democratic dispensation imposed by the sheer might of Pax Americana into major policy changes for the Arab world.
Boutros-Ghali is not impervious to Egyptian class nuance. His grandfather was the first and last Coptic Christian prime minister of Egypt. He was assassinated in 1910, but the family weathered the storm. It has remained one of Egypt's most notable Coptic political families.
"Cultural pluralism is as important as political and multi- party pluralism. Religious, linguistic and cultural pluralism are vitally important hallmarks of a true democracy. We are against cultural hegemony of any sort. Diversity is a mark of a healthy democracy."
This is why, he explains, Egypt's NCHR examines the precise nature of the relationship between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt. "Multi-culturalism is the essence of democracy," he states categorically.
The presidential and parliamentary elections in Egypt were far from perfect but they are a step in the right direction. The aim is to secure more openness and democracy. "We have not reached that objective; indeed we are very far from reaching that goal."
Boutros-Ghali argues that the Egyptian authorities should endeavour to promote, protect and secure these rights and freedoms. "The Egyptian legal system attaches special importance to human rights principles in Egypt. But more needs to be done."
However, there are many who say that such official pronouncements and documents are worthless. In practice, as human rights abuse is rife. The brutality of the system makes a mockery of principles enshrined in the Egyptian constitution, a constitution which some say is not worth the paper it's written on.
"What we should do is bring decision-making closer to those who are affected by decisions," Boutros-Ghali explains.
This may sound like a tall order, present illuminating the past. But, what of the future? Though Boutros-Ghali is first and foremost a social scientist, he is no detached observer. His riposte was terse: "I will continue to work for the advancement of freedoms in Egypt and the Arab world until I drop dead."
Rereading passages from the report, the pages are suffused with insightful messages. He defends the NCHR record. "The council is only two years old."
He stresses the importance of the committee for complaints. "The NCHR decided to create a committee for complaints, bearing in mind that there are projects currently being reviewed in cooperation with the UNDP. Such projects have been approved by the EU for the establishment of a specialised Grievances Bureau that is both well-equipped and well- staffed, enabling better handling of the complaints addressed to the NCHR."
He harks back to a familiar theme: the pivotal importance of education and the manner in which the nurturing of a democratic culture through education energises democracy. "Education itself -- which can and should play an important role in the apprenticeship of tolerance and respect for other people -- sometimes encourages identitarian closure, or even extremist behaviour," he complains. "It is therefore vital to ensure that education does not encourage rejection of other people or identitarian closure, but that on the contrary it encourages knowledge and respect for other cultures, other religions and other ways of being and living."
He is a great believer in multi-culturalism.
"The solution could be decentralisation, but it is no panacea and may, under some circumstances, have a negative impact on democratic development. Decentralisation can, for example, encourage local feudalities and ethnocracies.
"In addition to the protection of individual rights, the recognition of collective rights is an element that can reinforce democracy. The guarantee of economic and social rights envisaged by the United Nations Summit in Copenhagen in 1995 is an important element for democratic development, insofar as a social approach to development at a global level is capable of reducing the inequalities that result from globalisation."
"I'm not too fond of children's books myself," he chuckles.
Such quips aside, Boutros-Ghali's answer to the question as to whether he was ever governed by fear of public slamming: "of course" he wasn't. He says that such challenges allow him to reflect with great precision on rights issues. "But children's rights are a vital part of our work at the NCHR."
He tells me about the NCHR's annual report. It is a massive, massively ambitious volume that deals with various aspects of human rights in Egypt today. Nor does the volume duck the complexities of the subject. He believes that the Arab world must move beyond the end of the beginning of the democratisation process.
Perceptions change quickly in nascent democracies. The Arab voters want change. Multi-party democracy should prompt a new focus on basic human rights, freedom of expression and free thinking.
Egypt, he reminded me, participated in preparing and drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued in 1948. "The document has become the fulcrum from which international effort sprang to establish an international legal system to protect human rights, which has become one of the main features of the current international order."
Boutros-Ghali is an acute observer. He is a lucky man to be so finely attuned to the world around him. And, we in Egypt are lucky that he knows how to prop up the country's image in the international arena so well. But the world, and his "beloved Africa", are in a sorry state. Poverty and underdevelopment threaten to derail the democratic inroads gained over the past decade. The report also evokes a sense of the importance of the current stage of democratic transformation in the country. Interviewing Boutros-Ghali is both saddening and uplifting.
I close by posing a question I am uncomfortable about. How does he see the future of Africa and the Arab world?
He sees a continuum of ongoing processes in different parts of the Arab and African worlds. Perhaps among the most important are the ongoing conflicts in the African continent -- in Darfur and in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast. The genocide taking place in Darfur is particularly worrying. The gross violations of human rights and atrocities committed against defenceless civilians are cause for grave concern. What is especially galling is that the world doesn't pay enough attention to these wars.
"One positive development is the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. And the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. But the underlying tension between the Lebanese political establishment and the Syrian regime are both palpable and worrying."
He acknowledges that the US still has a central mediating role in Sudan, Iraq, Palestine and Israel. And, US military prowess will strengthen Washington's hand as a mediator in the near future.
Democratisation and respect for human rights are bound to feature more prominently in Arab politics. But, success is not guaranteed.
photo: Barbara Melega


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