Javier Perez de Cuellar, UN chief for much of the 1980s, dead at 100

Javier Perez de Cuellar, the two-term United Nations secretary general who brokered a historic ceasefire between Iran and Iraq in 1988 and who came out of retirement later to help re-establish democracy in his Peruvian homeland, has died. He was 100.

Current UN secretary general Antonio Guterres hails him as a 'personal inspiration'

Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru, centre, is shown on Dec. 17, 1996, with Egyptian Boutros Boutros Ghali, left, the man who succeeded him as United Nations secretary general, as well as Kofi Annan of Ghana, right, who was preparing to take on the role. (Reuters)

Javier Perez de Cuellar, the two-term United Nations secretary general who brokered a historic ceasefire between Iran and Iraq in 1988 and who in later life came out of retirement to help re-establish democracy in his Peruvian homeland, has died. He was 100.

His son, Francisco Perez de Cuellar, said his father died Wednesday at home of natural causes. Current UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the Peruvian diplomat a "personal inspiration."

"Mr. Perez de Cuellar'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 late Wednesday.

Perez de Cuellar's death ends a long diplomatic career that brought him full-circle from his first posting as secretary at the Peruvian Embassy in Paris in 1944 to his later job as Peru's ambassador to France.

When he began his tenure as UN secretary general on Jan. 1, 1982, he was a little-known Peruvian who was a compromise candidate at a time when the United Nations was held in low esteem.

Sought to bolster peacekeeping role

Serving as UN undersecretary general for special political affairs, he emerged as the dark horse candidate in December 1981 after a six-week election deadlock between UN chief Kurt Waldheim and Tanzanian Foreign Minister Salim Ahmed Salim.

Once elected, he quickly made his mark.

Disturbed by the United Nations' dwindling effectiveness, he sought to revitalize the world body's faulty peacekeeping machinery.

Perez de Cuellar, right, is seen with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Dec. 7, 1988, at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Earlier in his career, he had served as the first Peruvian ambassador to the Soviet Union. (Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images)

His first step was to "shake the house" with a highly critical report in which he warned: "We are perilously near to a new international anarchy."

With the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and with conflicts raging in Afghanistan and Cambodia and between Iran and Iraq, he complained to the General Assembly that UN resolutions "are increasingly defied or ignored by those that feel themselves strong enough to do so."

"The problem with the United Nations is that either it's not used or misused by member countries," he said in an interview at the end of his first year as UN secretary general.

During his decade as UN chief, Perez de Cuellar would earn a reputation more for diligent, quiet diplomacy than charisma.

"He has an amiable look about him that people mistake for through and through softness," said an aide, who described him as tough and courageous.

Backed for a 2nd term

Faced early in his first term with a threatened U.S. cutoff of funds in the event of Israel's ouster, he worked behind the scenes to stop Arab efforts to deprive the Jewish state of its General Assembly seat. There was muted criticism from the Arab camp that he had given the Americans the right of way in the Middle East.

In dealing with human rights issues, he chose the path of "discreet diplomacy." He refrained from publicly rebuking Poland for refusing to allow his special representative into the country to investigate allegations of human rights violations during the Warsaw regime's 1982 crackdown on the Solidarity trade union movement.

In July 1986, Perez de Cuellar underwent a quadruple coronary bypass operation, putting in question his availability for a second term. From the outset, Perez de Cuellar had insisted that he would be a one-term secretary general.

Upset with what he viewed as member states' reluctance to pitch in to help the world body out of a financial crisis, he told the New York Times in September 1986, "I don't see any reason why I should preside over the collapse of the organization."

But he did come back for a second term after a groundswell of support for his candidacy, including a conversation with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who — in the words of the UN chief's spokesperson — expressed "his personal support for the secretary general."

"Just about all the Western countries have told him they'd like to see him stay on," a Western diplomatic source said at the time. "There is no visible alternative."

Perez de Cuellar is shown in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Jan. 16, 2007, at an event commemorating the 15th anniversary of the peace accord he helped broker in his waning days as UN secretary general. (Marlon Gomez/AFP via Getty Images)

Perez de Cuellar spent much of his second term working behind the scenes on the hostage issue, resulting in the release of Westerners held in Lebanon, including the last and longest-held American hostage, journalist Terry Anderson, who was freed Dec. 4, 1991.

All told, Perez de Cuellar's diplomacy helped bring an end to fighting in Cambodia and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

Shortly after midnight on Jan. 1, 1992, he walked out of UN headquarters to his waiting limousine, no longer the secretary general, but having attained his final goal after hours of tough negotiations: a peace pact between the Salvadoran government and leftist rebels.

"Mr. Perez de Cuellar played a crucial role in a number of diplomatic successes — 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," said Guterres.

Return to domestic role

Javier Perez de Cuellar was born in Lima on Jan. 19, 1920. His father, a "modest businessman," was an accomplished amateur pianist, according to the former secretary general. The family traced its roots to the Spanish town of Cuellar, north of Segovia.

He received a law degree from Lima's Catholic University in 1943 and joined the Peruvian diplomatic service a year later. He would go on to postings in France, Britain, Bolivia and Brazil before returning to Lima in 1961, where he served in a number of high-level ministry posts.

Perez de Cuellar, right, is seen with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien at the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City while serving in the Peruvian administration. (Reuters)

He was ambassador to Switzerland and then became Peru's first ambassador to the Soviet Union while concurrently accredited to Poland. Other assignments included the post of secretary general of the Peruvian Foreign Ministry and chief delegate to the United Nations.

After leaving the UN, Perez de Cuellar made an unsuccessful bid for Peru's presidency in 1995 against the authoritarian leader Alberto Fujimori, whose 10-year autocratic regime crumbled in November 2000 amid corruption scandals.

At the age of 80, Perez de Cuellar emerged from retirement in Paris and returned to Peru to take on the mantle of foreign minister and cabinet chief for provisional President Valentin Paniagua.

Perez de Cuellar married the former Marcela Temple. He had a son, Francisco, and a daughter, Cristina, by a previous marriage.

His funeral will be held Friday.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.