GENEVA — Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the fifth United Nations secretary-general from 1982 to 1991 who arranged a cease-fire between Iraq and Iran and helped democracy take root in his native Peru, died on Wednesday at age 100.
The first and only Latin American to become U.N. chief, Pérez de Cuéllar was born in Lima, Peru, on January 19, 1920, nine days after the U.N.’s predecessor, the League of Nations, was created in Geneva as the first global organization dedicated to world peace. His son, Francisco Pérez de Cuéllar, told Radio Programas del Perú that his father died at home of natural causes.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who is the ninth and current chief of the world body, described Pérez de Cuéllar — a lawyer and professor with a long diplomatic career — as a “personal inspiration” and a man who embodied U.N. history. Guterres said he was profoundly saddened at the passing of Pérez de Cuéllar, who he called “a remarkable and compassionate global leader who left our world a far better place.”
“He was an accomplished statesman, a committed diplomat and a personal inspiration who left a profound impact on the United Nations and our world. Mr. Pérez de Cuéllar’s life spanned not only a century but also the entire history of the United Nations, dating back to his participation in the first meeting of the General Assembly in 1946,” Guterres said in a statement.
Pérez de Cuéllar’s tenure as U.N. chief coincided with two distinct eras in international affairs: first, some of the Cold War’s iciest years; then, after the Cold War ended, a time when the world body began playing the peacekeeping role its founders envisioned, according to Guterres.
“Mr. Pérez de Cuéllar played a crucial role in a number of diplomatic successes,” he said, “including the independence of Namibia, an end to the Iran-Iraq War, the release of American hostages held in Lebanon, the peace accord in Cambodia and, in his very last days in office, a historic peace agreement in El Salvador.”
I am profoundly saddened at the passing of my predecessor, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar.
He was a remarkable & compassionate global leader who left our world a far better place.
I extend my deepest condolences to his family, the Peruvian people & all those whose lives he touched. pic.twitter.com/o5UpLwliHQ
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) March 5, 2020
Veteran diplomat and ‘man of peace’
Pérez de Cuéllar came from a well-educated Spanish family that traced its name to the town of Cuéllar in Spain’s north-central Segovia province. After completing his university studies, including a law degree from Lima’s Catholic University in 1943, he joined the Peruvian diplomatic service in 1944.
There he rose through the ranks from a posting in Paris, where he met and married his first wife, the late Yvette Roberts, to stints in Britain, Bolivia and Brazil. He returned to Lima in 1961, serving in several high-ranking ministry posts.
He became Peru’s ambassador to Switzerland, then its first ambassador to the former Soviet Union and, at the same time, envoy to Poland. He also was ambassador to Venezuela, and became secretary-general of Peru’s foreign ministry and chief envoy to the United Nations. Along with their son, Francisco, who was born in Paris, Pérez de Cuéllar and his wife had a daughter, Águeda Cristina, born in London. He was later remarried to the former Marcela Temple.
By the time he became U.N. secretary-general, Pérez de Cuéllar had gained four decades of diplomatic experience, but was little known outside Peru. He also had served as U.N. undersecretary-general for special political affairs, trying to lower tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was largely chosen for the top U.N. job as a dark horse candidate because of an election stalemate between U.N. chief Kurt Waldheim and Tanzanian Foreign Minister Salim Ahmed Salim.
Starting as secretary-general on January 1, 1982, Pérez de Cuéllar focused on improving the U.N.’s peacekeeping capacities, which he warned were “perilously near to a new international anarchy.” He also was frustrated by nations ignoring U.N. resolutions and fighting in the Middle East. The world body’s reputation suffered from being ineffective, and some observers credited Pérez de Cuéllar with helping to improve its standing through thoughtful diplomacy rather than charisma.
Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations from 1981 to 1985, famously wrote in a 1983 opinion article in The New York Times that U.N. Security Council action “more closely resembles a mugging than either a political debate or an effort at problem-solving.” By the time she left the post, Kirkpatrick said she respected the United Nations as a shaper of international opinion, and lamented that the United States was increasingly ignored and isolated.
Pérez de Cuéllar went to serve two five-year terms as U.N. chief, helping to secure the release of the last and longest held American hostage, Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson, who was freed on December 4, 1991. He also played a key rol in bringing an end to fighting in Cambodia and to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, along with securing withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
Pérez de Cuéllar later unsuccessfully campaigned to become Peru’s president in 1995, losing against Alberto Fujimori, whose autocratic regime came to an end in 2000 with him fleeing for Japan amid a scandal over corruption and human rights violations. Pérez de Cuéllar later became Peru’s foreign minister and cabinet chief to an interim president, Valentin Paniagua, then served as ambassador to France, where Pérez de Cuéllar kept living after his retirement in 2004.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called Pérez de Cuéllar a “man of peace” who had devoted his life to serving not just Peru but also the entire international community.
“As the head of the United Nations during the Cold War, he guided the organization with determination and courage in order to foster international peace and security,” Le Drian said in a statement. “The international community, and especially Peru, the country in which he was born and which he honored, has lost a statesman and a man of commitment and dialogue.”