Peruvian foreign service officer and world states man, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (born 1920), reached the pinnacle of a long diplomatic career with his installation in January 1982 as secretary general of the United Nations. The fifth man to hold that post, he was the first Latin American and the second non-European to lead the world body. Pérez de Cuéllar served two terms as secretary general until 1992.
Aman of aristocratic lineage, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar was born in Lima, Peru, on January 19, 1920. His businessman father died when Pérez de Cuéllar was four years old. He received his primary and secondary education in private schools and enrolled in the law program at Lima's Catholic University. To support his studies the young man became a clerk in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1944, after obtaining his law degree, he entered Peru's highly-regarded diplomatic corps, later quipping that it allowed him to discover the world "at someone else's expense."
Initially posted as first secretary in Peru's Paris embassy, Pérez de Cuéllar became a member of his country's delegation to the first session of the United Nation's General Assembly in 1946. Later he served as first secretary to Peru's diplomatic missions in Great Britain, Bolivia, and Brazil. In 1961 he returned home to fill a series of administrative posts within the foreign ministry and to teach at the Diplomatic Academy of Peru. He also authored two texts on international law and diplomacy. Following a two-year assignment as ambassador to Switzerland, Pérez de Cuéllar was named secretary general of the Ministry of Foreign Relations. When Peru established formal ties with the Soviet Union in 1969, the veteran diplomat became Lima's first ambassador to Moscow. Two years later Pérez de Cuéllar led Peru's permanent delegation to the United Nations, a post he retained until 1975. He served as president of the U.N. Security Council in 1974.
A consummate diplomat, Pérez de Cuéllar was noted for his quiet, self-effacing personality, his Old-World charm and gentility, and his skill in working effectively with discordant factions. The tall, distinguished-looking man seemed to have been born in a conservative, pin-striped suit—the uniform of his profession. He spoke English and French in addition to his native Spanish. The twice-married grandfather wrote poetry and was a devotee of Hispanic literature, especially the classics.
Appreciating the Peruvian's talents, U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim dispatched him to Cyprus in 1975 to defuse the explosive dispute between the Greek and Turkish elements. Although he did not resolve the deeply-rooted problems on that troubled island, Pérez de Cuéllar persuaded the two sides to begin negotiations. Again in 1981 Waldheim called him away from the Peruvian embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, to serve as the Secretary General's personal representative in calming a crisis between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In October of that year, Lima named him ambassador to Brazil. In a patently political effort to embarrass the president, however, the Peruvian Congress blocked the confirmation of Pérez de Cuéllar and several other ambassadorial nominees. Peru's most distinguished and visible diplomat resigned from the foreign service in protest. His vindication came quickly.
In the closing weeks of 1981, as Waldheim's term drew to a close, politicking began for the election of a new secretary general for the United Nations. The procedure involved nomination by the 15-member Security Council, each of whose five permanent representatives (the U.S., Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China) had an absolute veto. Formal election of the nominee by the General Assembly had, in the past, been automatic. Austrian Kurt Waldheim, standing for a third term, had the unenthusiastic support of the Western powers and the Soviet Union. The Chinese, however, insisted that a new leader be chosen from the less-developed countries of the Third World and endorsed the popular Tanzanian foreign minister, Salim Ahmed Salim.
Waldheim and Salim ultimately withdrew from the deadlocked contest, and nine new candidates entered the fray. Among this group Javier Pérez de Cuéllar alone proved acceptable to the superpowers. The Western nations had no serious objections to him. He had won the respect of the Soviets during his ambassadorship in Moscow. Pérez de Cuéllar benefited from Peru's 20-year "independent" foreign policy and its more recent leadership role among the less-developed nations. The secret balloting produced ten positive and one negative vote for the Peruvian diplomat; the Soviet Union and three other members of the Security Council abstained. On December 15, the General Assembly approved the new secretary general by acclamation, and Javier Pérez de Cuéllar was ceremoniously installed for a five-year term on the first day of 1982.
Some observers doubted that the gentle Peruvian had the hard "cutting edge" they believed necessary for leadership of the world organization. Others, however, deemed him the right man for that critical moment. The long-time rivalry between East and West, the more recent tensions between North and South (the developed and less-developed countries), and myriad regional conflicts threatened the survival of the U.N. Its inability to bring peace to the Middle East, Central America, and other troubled regions suggested that the organization had failed to achieve its primary objective. As many new Third World nations swelled the body to 160 members, the increasingly radical complexion of the United Nations soured the U.S. and its Western allies. The failure to agree upon a declaration of past accomplishments and future objectives during the October 1985 40th anniversary celebration seemed indicative of the body's factional paralysis.
Pragmatic and independent as secretary general, Pérez de Cuéllar carefully protected his necessary role as "honest broker." He had not campaigned for his post and declared his intention not to seek reelection. Pérez de Cuéllar admitted that the U.N. had serious defects and labored with limited success to reform and revitalize the organization. He placed special emphasis on enhancing the independence, efficiency, and morale of U.N. employees and on depoliticizing its subsidiary agencies to regain broad support for their work. He asserted that the U.N. was "the most authentic expression of the international community in all its diversity" and asked member states to ponder what advantages might be gained from its destruction.
With the perspective of a Third World man, Pérez de Cuéllar frequently pointed to the organization's successes in promoting economic development, health, and education. Reflecting his Western cultural heritage, the Secretary General urged member states to strengthen the rule of law in an increasingly anarchic world and to "restore civility to international life." And as the elected representative of five billion people, he often spoke as an international every-man, voicing concern about world hunger and disease, abuses of human rights, the "scourge of war, " and the ultimate "threat of nuclear catastrophe."
Toward the end of his first term, the five permanent members of the Security Council asked Pérez de Cuéllar to accept a second five-year appointment. His acceptance indicated good recovery from a quadruple heart-bypass operation in mid-1986.
Pérez de Cuéllar's tenure as secretary-general was marked by significant change—primarily the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The U.N. evolved from an international organization stymied by bipolarity into an institution sought for peacekeeping assistance around the globe. Although he was powerless in resolving conflicts in the Falkland Islands, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf, Pérez de Cuéllar was praised for his role as a mediator and "honest broker" in global diplomacy. He was succeeded on January 2, 1992 by Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
Pérez de Cuéllar was decorated by 25 countries. In October 1987 he was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for the promotion of Ibero-American co-operation. In January 1989 he received the Olof Palme Prize for International Understanding and Common Security by the Olof Palme Memorial Fund. In February 1989 he was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding. In addition to his awards, Pérez de Cuéllar has received honorary doctorate degrees from several universities around the world.
Further Reading on Javier Pérez de Cuéllar
A book-length biography of Pérez de Cuéllar has yet to appear. However, a column devoted to the Secretary General's activities and statements (entitled "The 38th Floor") is published in each issue of the UN Chronicle. Works treating the United Nations during the Pérez de Cuéllar era include Toby T. Gati, editor, The US, the UN, and the Management of Global Change (1983); Peter R. Baehr, The United Nations: Reality and Ideal (1984); and Raymond Carroll, The Future of the UN (1985), a book written for young adults.