The United Nations Security Council had reached a deadlock in 1981 before it finally settled on Javier Perez de Cuellar as the fifth Secretary General of the United Nations. He died on March 4, 2020 at the age of 100 years. He was then one of the nine candidates under consideration. After the Council had gone through 16 hectic ballots in six weeks, it narrowed the field to three men – the incumbent, Kurt Waldheim of Austria, Salim Ahmed Salim, Tanzania’s Foreign Minister, and Perez de Cuellar.
Waldheim was strongly backed by the Soviet Union with tepid support from the United States and other Western nations. Salim was China’s favourite with support from the so-called ‘radical’ developing nations. But the Council became deadlocked when China finally cast a veto on Waldheim, and the United States vetoed Salim.
With both men ruled out, Perez de Cuellar emerged as compromise. No member showed any enthusiasm for him. Indeed, one member described him as “everyone’s last choice.” Another called him “the least objectionable.” The paradox was that in his final year, some members could not envisage a United Nations without him as Secretary-General. The Security Council unofficially requested him to reconsider his decision not to run for an unprecedented third term, urging him to do two extra years while his successor was being searched for. He refused. The search for his successor eventually yielded the Egyptian diplomat, Boutros Boutros Ghali, who was denied a second term on the insistence of the United States.
In his two terms from 1982-91, Perez de Cuellar ended the 10-year war between Iraq and Iran. He got the Soviet Union to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, which added to the legend of Afghanistan being the graveyard of empires – an assertion which the British and, recently, even the Americans, after 19 years of war, would hardly dispute. Perez de Cuellar resolved niggling conflicts in Cambodia, El Salvador and Nicaragua. He organised a soft landing for Namibia’s independence from South Africa. Under his stewardship, UN peace keepers won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1988 for their exemplary work and service in Mozambique and Angola.
But Perez de Cuellar could not persuade Saddam Hussein of Iraq to withdraw his forces from Kuwait, an intransigence that led to the Persian Gulf War in 1990. He mediated between the British and the Argentines to end the war on the Falkland Islands. He tried also to bring peace to the conflict in the Western Sahara and a ceasefire between the Polisario Front and the Kingdom of Morocco. He also tried to make peace among the Croatian forces seeking independence and the then Yugoslav Peoples Army as well as the local Serb forces as the Balkan cauldron boiled over. Perez de Cuellar also got involved in the Cyprus crisis brokering peace between Turks and Greeks.
Perez de Cuellar was born in Lima, Peru, on January 16, 1920. The son of a prosperous businessman whose ancestors had emigrated from Spain in the 16th Century. His father died when he was four. He learned French from a governess and earned a Law degree from the Catholic University of Lima in 1943. He joined Peru’s diplomatic service in 1944 and was soon posted to France. In Paris, he married Yvette Roberts and they had a son, Francisco, and a daughter, Aguedo Cristina, both of whom survive him. The marriage ended in divorce. In 1975, he married Marcela Temple Seminaro, who died in 2013.
In June 1986, Perez de Cuellar presided over the international arbitration to settle an issue between New Zealand and France over the Rainbow Warrior incident in which French secret agents blew up a Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, sinking it and killing a photographer. The Rainbow Warrior was protesting French nuclear-testing at the Mururoa Atoll in the Tuatu Archipelago of French Polynesia. It later transpired that the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior had received the approval at the highest level of the French government. Indeed, The Times and Le Monde claimed that President Mitterand had approved the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. The incident forced the resignation of French Defence Minister Charles Hernu, while the head of the French Secret Service, Admiral Pierre Lacoste, was dismissed. France paid $6.5 million to New Zealand and apologised for the action of its agents. And when France broke the terms of the settlement Perez de Cuellar awarded $2 million to New Zealand. The French also paid Greenpeace for its ship and other damages.
At the end of his tenure in 1991, he received a shower of accolades and honours. President George H.W. Bush gave him America’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, hailing him for presiding over a “rebirth” of the UN “where co-operation in reaching common goals is replacing rhetoric and division.” In a tribute last week, the current UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, called Mr. Perez de Cuellar “an accomplished statesman, committed diplomat and a personal inspiration who left a profound impact on the UN and the world.”