(Rubens Ricupero, UNCTAD Sec. Gen., 1995-2004)

“I want you to know that I was not consulted about your indication”! Those were the first words which Mrs. Madeleine Albright, then the United States Ambassador at the United Nations in New York, addressed me when I paid her a courtesy call after Boutros-Ghali nominated me as the 5th UNCTAD’s Secretary General in September 1995.

That undiplomatic phrase conveyed American resentment in reaction to UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali’s decision not to allow UNCTAD slowly die from neglect and ideological hostility.

Since April 1994, UNCTAD had been left without a Secretary General. In 1995, the so-called independent Commission on Global Governance had issued its Our Global Neighborhood report recommending the elimination of “no longer needed and redundant institutions in the new political-economic context of changed realities” and the “irrelevance of North-South divisions”. UNCTAD figured prominently among the institutions to be scrapped.

It is useful to call to mind that 1994/1995 marked the peak of United States’ “unipolar moment”, halfway between the disintegration of the bipolar confrontation of the Cold War and the era inaugurated by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. China’s rise to power was far away in the future. No serious obstacle seemed to threaten the overwhelming dominance of the USA and Western worldview.

It was also the heyday of economic globalization. For years, international trade had been increasing by two, three percentage points above the rate of world economic output. GATT’s Uruguay Round had just been brought to a successful conclusion. A new institution, the World Trade Organization (WTO) had been born. Renato Ruggiero, its first Director General, predicted in a moment of triumphalism that WTO was to become the constituent assembly for economic globalization.

In that atmosphere of delusion, when UNCTAD’s Trade and Development Report warned about the dangers of premature financial liberalization ahead of the 1994 Mexican crisis, an editorial of the Wall Street Journal derided UNCTAD’ economists as contemporary Rip Van Winkles coming from the backwoods of a far-way past. Since 1990, UNCTAD’s had been practically the only voice cautioning that the incoming decade would be characterized by the frequency, intensity and destructive power of monetary and financial crises.

To make matters worse, such predictions were beginning to come true. After UNCTAD had foreseen the 1994 Mexican crisis, the huge French mass protests of November-December 1995 signaled that unbalanced globalization had set off a mass backlash movement against its socially regressive impacts. The UN and UNCTAD had been proved right in their warnings.

Of course, to be right against the mainstream was a sin not to be tolerated. It was feared that the G7 meeting to take place in Lyon by the middle of the following year would act in favor of accepting the Commission on Global Governance’s recommendations to cripple UN’s role in matters of economic analysis and development advice.

Between the French protests of late 1995 and the Lyon G7 Meeting six to seven months later, there was only a short window of opportunity to avoid such a negative outcome. It was then, in its 9th session (April to mid-May 1996), in Midrand, South Africa, that UNCTAD, under Boutros-Ghali’s leadership and the vigorous support of President Nelson Mandela, succeeded in reopening dialogue and cooperation between advanced and developing economies.

The result was immediately forthcoming. In Lyon, the G7 economic communique, paragraph 44 stated: “UNCTAD IX was a major milestone in the renewal of UNCTAD. In close partnership with the other member States, we succeeded in reforming UNCTAD’s intergovernmental machinery and in refocusing its work […]. We also welcome the WTO and the renewed UNCTAD initiative to enhance mutual cooperation with each other”.

As UNCTAD’s new Secretary General, I was fortunate to participate, under Boutros’ guidance, in that significant moment of multilateral diplomacy. Fighting against overwhelming odds, we were able to overcome deep-seated distrust and conflicting approaches to economic and social development.

The Midrand Conference was an impressive example of the ideas and goals that Boutros-Ghali had set forth in his Agenda for Development of May 1994 and before that, in the Agenda for Peace – Preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and peace-keeping (June 1992). Together, “these reports showed the Secretary General’s innovative thinking and they continued to influence reforms over the following decade”, in the Global Policy Forum words.

It is a pity that in spite of the innovative character of both agendas, or perhaps because in part of that disrupting tone, Boutros-Ghali was not given a second term nor the resources and support to put in place the ideas he promoted. The economic communiqué of the Lyon G7 meeting had been officially called Making a success of globalization for all (Lyon, 28 June 1996). The title, particularly the words “for all”, suggest that at that early stage, diplomats and politicians suddenly became aware that the mass protests of French organized workers had inaugurated a trend that would never cease to grow.

From then on, the backlash against globalization in developed countries would become a feature of G7 and G20 meetings. In due time, the protests would disrupt the ministerial meeting of WTO that should launch the new millennium negotiations in what came to be known as the “Seattle Battle”.

A sad conclusion about the futility or lack of sincerity of the more advanced countries is that, 20 years after the commitment to “make globalization a success for all”, the situation has become much more serious than in the mid-1990s. The unprecedented level of wealth and income concentration in the hands of less than ten individuals is the irrefutable evidence of the failure to provide a globalization that works for everybody.

That failure had an ironic epitaph. Nowadays, at the 2017 meetings of the G7 and the G20, the attacks on globalization’s effects on employment originate from the country that used to be its more intolerant promoter: the United States of America. There is a touch of poetic justice in the fact that a clever manipulator succeeded in conquering the US Presidency by shrewdly exploiting for his political goals the just grievances of millions of globalization losers.

Were he alive today, this poetic justice would not be lost for a man with the delightful sense of humor of Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The irony would certainly be tempered by his deeply felt moral duty of looking after “those marginalized because of ethnicity, gender, religion, age, health, poverty”, as he wrote in his memoirs Unvanquished, a US-Un Saga (1999). A quotation of the same book is a befitting end for this article: “the UN must continue to be the main voice for the weakest and least regarded peoples, to defend them from the detrimental effects of globalization”.