The Nation s Business

Peter C. Newman

Can Yves Fortier be the next UN boss?

December 2 1996
The Nation s Business

Peter C. Newman

Can Yves Fortier be the next UN boss?

December 2 1996

Peter C. Newman

Can Yves Fortier be the next UN boss?

The Nation s Business

There’s an apocryphal story about a conclave of cardinals meeting in Rome to select a new pope. During a particularly tense moment, an elderly cardinal has a heart attack and dies. As he is being carried out, one cardinal conspiratorially whispers to another: “I wonder what his motive was?”

That may be only a slight exaggeration of the politically charged atmosphere that typically surrounds the Vatican’s succession. But it’s mild compared with the infighting that’s currently going on to choose a new secretary general of the United Nations. Quietly, and without his active participation, at least one Canadian may be in the running.

The five secretaries general who preceded the incumbent, Egypt’s 74-year-old Boutros Boutros-Ghali, have represented every continent except North America. Despite African claims to the position, some feeling has emerged at the United Nation’s New York City headquarters that it may be time for a Canadian to fill the organization’s top post. (Lester Pearson almost made it in the late 1950s, but he was vetoed by the Soviets. Brian Mulroney’s 1991 candidacy was supported by the United States,

Britain and France, but political problems kept him at home.)

The most obvious Canadian choice is Maurice Strong, 67, who has held many notable international appointments, including his current role as senior adviser to the president of the World Bank in Washington. A true citizen of the world, Strong knows just about every head of state on a first-name basis, is the recipient of 37 honorary degrees, and, but for one significant factor, would be eminently qualified for the job. Strong, cannot, as hard as he has tried, learn French, and Paris, with its veto, has made it very clear—as have the other members of La Francophonie—that they will not accept a secretary general who doesn’t speak what France still considers the official language of diplomacy.

That’s not an issue with Yves Fortier, 61, the fluently bilingual Montreal lawyer, who was Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1988 to 1992. He was appointed by his friend and former and current law partner, Brian Mulroney, although Fortier has been a lifelong Liberal and was even touted for the party’s leadership before Jean Chrétien took over. Currently, Chrétien’s entourage has quietly communicated its blessing of the Fortier candidacy, particularly since it would provide a global showcase for a French-speaking federalist. Fortier himself will not publicly confirm or deny his interest.

During his time at the United Nations, Fortier became vice-president of the General Assembly and, during his two stints as president of the Security Council, established a sterling reputation. What impressed UN observers most was his ability to handle interna-

He knows ‘the rhythm and vocabulary, and how to recognize the trigger words in other people’s rhetoric’

tional problems by whispering the right word to the right person at the right moment. “He quickly learned the rhythm and global vocabulary of this place, and how to recognize the trigger phrases in other people’s rhetoric,” says one current UN ambassador. (Nobody wants to be quoted by name when it comes to UN elections; the internal politics are too intense.) In 1991, before Mulroney’s name was mentioned, a delegation of UN ambassadors secretly called on Fortier, urging him to run for the top job, but the abortive Mulroney candidacy intervened.

A Rhodes Scholar and high-profile corporate director (Dupont Canada Inc., Northern Telecom Ltd., Southam Inc., The Royal Bank of Canada and TransCanada PipeLines Ltd.), Fortier won his diplomatic spurs as one of the country’s most sought-after arbitrators. A member of the London-based International panel of Distinguished Neutrals and the London Court of International Arbitration in the Hague, he is regularly called on to take the sting out of international disputes, and in the past has tackled everything from salmon fishing treaties to the delimitation of maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Maine. His most dramatic success was negotiating a difficult peace between Canada and France over fishing rights claimed by the islands of St-Pierre and Miquelon in 1989. In some ways, being UN secretary general means becoming the ultimate world arbitrator.

The UN selection process is complicated, lasting as long as six weeks in 1981 when 16 ballots were required before Peru’s Javier Perez de Cuellar finally got the job. The secretary general, who is paid $306,800 a year, heads the international body’s staff of 16,000, representing 150 countries. Candidates are nominated by the Security Council, its permanent members (the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and China) having veto power in the selection. The successful candidate must also win at least nine of the 15 council votes.

All but the first secretary general, Trygve Lie of Norway, have been elected for two five-year terms, but the United States last week vetoed the reappointment of Boutros Boutros-Ghali on the grounds that the veteran diplomat is incapable of imposing administrative order on the organization. “The United Nations needs more of a secretary than a general,” is a typical state department critique.

Even if he decides to go for it, Fortier may not get an immediate chance to occupy the world’s most prestigious diplomatic post. Because of the Boutros-Ghali veto, the United Nation’s African members insist they’re owed another appointment from their continent.

Still, there is no doubt that given the chance, Fortier would fill the post with distinction. For the moment he’s not saying much, and if he’s campaigning at all, it’s strictly over martinis at private clubs where discretion is demanded and given. “This,” Fortier told me last week, “is not a job you run for—or run away from.”