Magazine article UN Chronicle

A Key United Nations Moment and Its Lessons

Magazine article UN Chronicle

A Key United Nations Moment and Its Lessons

Article excerpt

The recollection of United Nations moments that tends to crowd out all others in my mind took place at midnight on the last day in office of then Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, 31 December 1991, at the initialing of the agreement to end the 12-year war in El Salvador--the first United Nations mediation of an internal conflict. I may be accused of blowing my own trumpet because of my own role in it, but so be it. Beyond the specifics of the El Salvador accords and how they were achieved, it was not just a moment of substance and transcendence, pregnant with hope and promise for the people of that beleaguered country and for the United Nations writ large; it was also the culmination of the astonishing series of peace achievements, unparalleled before or since, that marked the final three and a half years of the fifth Secretary-General's decade in office.

Perez de Cuellar had spent most of the decade prior to his appointment at the United Nations as an ambassador and as a senior Secretariat official. He had earned a reputation for cool, sound analysis, sage counsel and a clear sense of reality. When the seemingly endless deadlock between Kurt Waldheim and Salim Ahmed Salim to succeed the former was overcome, Perez de Cuellar was pressed to become a candidate, but he agreed only that the Security Council should be made aware that he was available. He would not campaign or request anyone's support. He did not travel to New York. Yet the Council quickly turned to him.

He came without illusions as to what he could achieve. He had a clear idea of the limitations and possibilities of the office--what might work and what wouldn't. The danger of nuclear annihilation had receded but all the other features of the cold war persisted: the arms race, the geopolitical and ideological competition for spheres of influence and the proxy wars that were often a part of it. At the United Nations, the collegiality among the five permanent members of the Security Council on which the collective security system was premised remained absent. The super-Powers' leaders, foreign ministers and representatives at the United Nations boasted impeccable cold warrior credentials.

Perez de Cuellar had a marked style all his own, of which he showed a sample in his race against the clock to defuse the clash between Argentina and the United Kingdom in the South Atlantic. He set about probing ongoing conflicts to see whether his skills and the particular advantages of the United Nations could be applied. Counter-intuitively for the leader of a marginalized United Nations, he was cautious about what he took on. Brian Urquhart's admonition, "don't jump into an empty pool," was a sort of leitmotif; he did not offer his good offices lightly. He operated best in the penumbra surrounding the floodlights rather than at the centre; the glare was a hindrance to his notion of effective diplomacy. Thus gingerly, even diffidently, he probed the Iran-Iraq war, the Afghanistan conflict in its Soviet phase, Western Sahara and Central America.

Where others were in the lead, as in Angola and Cambodia, he did not attempt to supplant, compete or otherwise interfere, let alone try to join their collective efforts. This did not prevent him from lending assistance, sometimes crucial, for their efforts. They were in charge and played the role they had undertaken; he played his. A firm believer in what he called the "unity and integrity" of good offices or mediation efforts--conducted by him or others, but not both, and certainly not jointly--he bided his time.

Perez de Cuellar's first term yielded little by way of tangible results, but enhanced confidence in his handling of the issues and generated a certain momentum. He had an unusual gift for timing and balance. He could be almost excruciatingly patient if that was required, and sensed when the timing was off and pressing matters might be counterproductive. He did not believe that persistence was a virtue per se: throwing fruit repeatedly at a wall does not lead to its ripening. …

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