The Secretary-General - Developments under javier pÉrez de cuÉllar, 1982–1991

Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar presided over the United Nations during one of the most remarkable decades in the political history of the world. During his tenure, the stalemate imposed on the United Nations by the rivalries of the Cold War came to an end. The political map of Europe, which had remained stable for more than 40 years since the end of WWII, was completely redrawn when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. East and West Germany were united and the Berlin Wall was reduced to rubble. Historic achievements in bilateral arms control and disarmament negotiations lowered the level of confrontation between the West and the East for the first time since the dawn of the nuclear era. A new atmosphere of consensus enabled the Security Council to begin providing the kind of leadership envisioned for it by the founders of the organization, as enshrined in the UN Charter. Long-standing political problems in Namibia, Cambodia, and Latin America were resolved with success by United Nations peacekeeping missions, and the evolution of the organization's activities in helping organize and monitor free and fair elections in new democracies began. The winds of change were also blowing strongly in South Africa, where the apartheid system was beginning to crumble after more than 30 years of condemnation by the United Nations.

The story of Pérez de Cuéllar's 10-year term as secretary-general straddles this historic evolution of the world scene at the fin de si é cle . Upon leaving office in December 1991, in his report on the work of the United Nations, he set forth his own feelings about his experience as secretary-general:

"Peace has won victories on several fronts…. New vistasare opening for States to work together in a manner they did not do before. The earlier posture of aloofness and reserve towards the Organization has been replaced by more ardent participation in its endeavors. An era of law and justice may not be around the corner but the United Nations has defined the direction…. Today there are far more solid grounds forhope than there are reasons for frustration and fear. The hope arises both from the enduring relevance of the philosophy of the Charter and from the vastly strengthened credentials of the Organization. My credo is anchored in that philosophy and it will remain so. With its return from the doldrums, and with its role no longer peripheral, the United Nations has come nearer to the vision of its Charter. Everyone who contributed to the process is entitled to a measure of exultation and I, for my part, to a feeling of fulfillment. I profoundly appreciate the confidence placed in me through this testing phase of international affairs. I close on that note of faith and gratitude."

The situation had been very different when Pérez de Cuéllar first took office, in 1982. In his first report to the General Assembly, in September 1982, on the work of the organization, Pérez de Cuéllar commented on the inability of the UN to play an effective and decisive role in its capacity to keep the peace and serve as a forum for negotiations. The Falkland Islands crisis and the invasion of Lebanon by Israel, both major events of 1982, were clear examples of the failure of the international community, and its organization, to use the mechanisms of diplomacy to prevent international conflict. Countries seemed unwilling or reluctant to use the United Nations' peacekeeping mechanisms to help them resolve their difficulties without resorting to violence. Time after time, he said, "we have seen the Organization set aside or rebuffed, for this reason or for that, in situations in which it should and could have played an important and constructive role." He saw this trend as dangerous for the world community and for the future and criticized the tendency of governments to resort to confrontation, violence, and even war in pursuit of what were perceived as vital interests.

Another clear indication of the organization's lack of stature was the crippling budgetary problems caused by some member states' continuing practice of withholding part or all of their assessed contributions, placing the work of the entire organization in a constant state of uncertainty. Clearly, at the beginning of his term, the United Nations stood in need of a rebirth.

The Middle East

The Iran-Iraq War. In regard to the prolonged war between Iran and Iraq, which had started in 1980 and taken an enormous toll in human lives, Pérez de Cuéllar considered it to be his overriding responsibility under the Charter not only to seek an end to the conflict but also, until that goal was achieved, to try, under international humanitarian rules, to mitigate its effects in such areas as attacks on civilian population centers, use of chemical weapons, treatment of prisoners of war, and safety of navigation and civil aviation. On four occasions between 1984 and 1986, he dispatched specialists to investigate charges of the use of chemical weapons, initially against Iranian forces but later injuring Iranian civilians and Iraqi forces as well. In 1984 and 1985, two UN teams investigated allegations of violations of promises by the two countries to cease deliberate attacks on purely civilian population centers, and in January 1985, the secretary-general dispatched a fact-finding mission to Iran and Iraq to investigate the treatment of prisoners of war and civilian detainees. He himself visited Tehran and Baghdad in April 1985 to discuss proposals he had drawn up to initiate movement toward a comprehensive settlement of the war, and he continued to search for new approaches to this goal.

In July 1987, the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution (598/1987) asking the secretary-general to send UN observers to verify and supervise a cease-fire between Iran and Iraq and withdrawal to internationally recognized boundaries. Pérez de Cuéllar was also asked by the Council to explore the question of entrusting to an impartial body the task of inquiring into responsibility for the conflict. Subsequent discussions with the two governments in their capitals reaffirmed his conviction that his good offices could be used to facilitate the restoration of peace and stability in the region. On 20 August 1988, the fighting stopped and UN military observers took up the challenge of monitoring compliance with the cease-fire. The secretary-general and his representative continued a "good offices" mission to build confidence and lay the basis for a lasting peace in the region.

The Gulf War. In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait with 100,000 troops and took complete control of the small, under-defended country within 48-hours. In the four months following the invasion the Security Council responded with historic speed and unanimity. It passed 12 resolutions condemning the invasion, invoking Chapter VII of the Charter to impose economic sanctions on Iraq, and addressing aid to refugees and Iraq's taking of hostages. Pérez de Cuéllar remarked in his 1990 annual report that the council "has established that such actions, which are in direct contravention of the principles of the Charter and international law, cannot be committed with impunity." On 29 November 1990, after three weeks of debate, the Security Council passed Resolution 678 "authorizing Member States cooperating with the Government of Kuwait, unless Iraq on or before January 15, 1991, fully implements … the foregoing resolutions, to use all necessary means to implement Security Council Resolution 660 and all subsequent relevant resolutions to restore international peace and security in the area."

With the phrase "all necessary means," a new chapter in the history of the UN began. A 680,000-strong multi-national military force, led by 410,000 United States troops, was authorized by this resolution to impose the Security Council's will upon Iraq and restore the national sovereignty of Kuwait. On 16 January 1991, the allies began a six-week aerial bombardment of Iraq and Kuwait in preparation for a land attack on Kuwait. On 25 February, the ground attack began. Twelve days later the allied forces had decisively defeated Iraq's army of occupation, decimating it and pushing surviving units back into Iraq. Iraqi casualties were estimated in the hundreds of thousands. The United States lost 309 lives, some in pre-combat incidents. On 6 April, Iraq's parliament officially accepted the terms of Resolution 687, which it characterized as "unjust."

Resolution 687 had established a 200-kilometer-long demilitarized zone along the Iraq-Kuwait border, extending 10 kilometers into Iraq and five kilometers into Kuwait, to be patrolled by the UN Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission (UNIKOM). The secretary-general reported that UNIKOM's 1,400 troops from 36 countries had been fully deployed on 9 May 1991.

In his 1991 report on the work of the organization, Pérez de Cuéllar pointed out that the experience of the Gulf action, moving as it did into areas undefined by the charter, suggested the need for "collective reflection on questions relating to the future use of the powers vested in the Security Council under Chapter VII. In order to preclude controversy, these questions should include the mechanisms required for the Council to satisfy itself that the rule of proportionality in the employment of armed force is observed and the rules of humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts are complied with." He also warned that the use of Chapter VII measure should not be "overextended," since the imposition of mandatory economic sanctions necessarily created hardships for third-party nations (nations not party to the conflict, but who have important economic partnerships with the sanctioned state).

The Arab-Israeli Conflict. In mid-1982, Israeli forces moved into Lebanese territory, bypassing the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). In August of that year, at the request of Lebanon and with the authorization of the Security Council, Pérez de Cuéllar deployed military observers to monitor the violence in and around Beirut. He also put forward proposals for expanding the role of UNIFIL—deploying the force, with elements of the Lebanese army and internal security forces, in areas vacated by Israeli forces as they withdrew from Lebanon, and working out arrangements to ensure that southern Lebanon became a zone of peace under the sovereignty and authority of the Lebanese government. These proposals were not accepted by Israel.

Pérez de Cuéllar also attempted to pursue the long-standing goal of convening a peace conference on the Middle East, holding numerous consultations with the parties involved. In December 1987, the diplomatic stalemate was shaken by a massive Palestinian uprising, the intifadah, in the Israeli-occupied territories that forced the Palestine National Council (the PLO's parliament in exile) to formally recognize Israel. However, the Israeli government declined to reciprocate. Yasser Arafat, the head of the PLO, was asked to address an emergency session of the Security Council, which had to be held in Geneva, since it was feared the United States would deny him an entry-visa. At that session, the United States vetoed the dispatch of a UN mission to the occupied territories to monitor the treatment of Palestinians by Israeli security forces.

In 1990 and 1991, the United States took the lead in trying to reconvene a peace conference. In October 1991, US Secretary of State James Baker made history by convening in Madrid the first-ever direct negotiations between all parties to the conflict. A key group interested in the talks were the former Palestinians, who since 1967 had been residing in territories under the control of Israels and were represented by the PLO. Since the Israelis had insisted on their exclusion from the Madrid talks, little progress was made. In December 1991, the General Assembly repealed its Resolution 3379 (1975) which had equated Zionism with racism. This was only the second time in the history of the UN that the General Assembly had voted to rescind a resolution.


The secretary-general and his personal representative, Diego Cordovez, acting as mediator, were continuously involved, until early 1988, in discussions and consultations aimed at negotiating a settlement of the situation in Afghanistan that had been brought about by Soviet military intervention in that country in late 1979 and had affected neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan, to which many Afghan refugees had fled. The negotiations revolved around four points: agreement on noninterference and nonintervention; the voluntary return of refugees; international guarantees on the settlement, to be given by the US and the USSR; and the withdrawal of foreign troops.

The General Assembly supported these efforts and appealed to all states and national and international organizations to extend humanitarian relief assistance to alleviate the hardships of the Afghan refugees, in coordination with the UN high commissioner for refugees.

The negotiation efforts met with success in early April 1988, when agreement was reached on a treaty under which the USSR would withdraw its 115,000 troops from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan would cease all interference in each other's internal affairs, Afghan refugees would be given a safe return to their country, and Afghanistan would become a neutral and nonaligned state guaranteed by the USSR and the US. A small UN military observer team (UNGOMAP) was to be sent to Afghanistan to monitor compliance with the treaty, which was signed in Geneva on 14 April by Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USSR, and the US. The USSR withdrew its troops in February 1989, however fighting continued, and rebel forces continued to receive aid from the United States and Pakistan. The USSR, for its part, continued to prop up the Marxist government in Kabul. UNGOMAP's mandate ran out in March 1990 and the secretary-general replaced it with a smaller high-level Office of the Secretary-General in Afghanistan and Pakistan, funded out of the UN's regular budget. This office's purpose was to advise the secretary-general on the military and political situation in order to assist him in finding a settlement.

Central America

In Central America, Pérez de Cuéllar and the secretary-general of the Organization of American States extended, in November 1985, a joint offer of services to the five Central American countries concerned—Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua—as well as to those of the Contadora Group, bringing to their attention the resources that the two organizations could provide, separately and together, to facilitate resolution of the region's problems and complement the Contadora process. The two leaders visited the area in January 1986 in an effort to reactivate the negotiating process. Pérez de Cuéllar welcomed the proposal of President Oscar Arias Sánchez of Costa Rica for a peace plan, put forward in February 1987 and agreed to that August in Guatemala City by the five Central American countries. He agreed to serve as a member of the International Committee for Verification and Follow-up created by the Guatemala agreement and offered to extend any additional assistance that would be appropriate under the UN Charter.

As a result of this initiative, the countries concerned joined in a framework agreement, Esquipulas II, which gave the UN a mandate to verify the commitments made by the parties to each other. In 1989, the secretary-general established the UN Observer Mission (ONUVEN) to supervise the electoral process in Nicaragua. It was the first time the UN had been directly involved in electoral supervision. The UN Observer Group in Central America (ONUCA) was charged with overseeing the demobilization of the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua. In December 1989, the secretary-general brought together the five Central American presidents in order to resume a dialogue between the government of El Salvador and the FMLN guerrillas. By July 1990, the San José Human Rights Accord was concluded, in which the government of El Salvador agreed to have its compliance monitored by a UN mission (UN Observer Mission in El Salvador—ONUSAL). After 20 months of negotiations, on his very last day in office, Pérez de Cuéllar witnessed the signing of a cease-fire agreement in the 12-year civil war in El Salvador, on 31 December 1991.

The success of the United Nations in monitoring the elections in Nicaragua encouraged Haiti to request the organization to monitor its elections in December 1990. The General Assembly granted the request, and created the UN Observer Group for Verification of Elections in Haiti, known by its French acronym, ONUVEH. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president in elections declared by the United Nations to be free and fair. However, in September 1991, President Aristide was overthrown by a military coup, creating an intransigent problem for Pérez de Cuéllar's successor.


Hostilities between Cambodia (at that time Kampuchea) and Vietnam had broken out in 1978. The United Nations became deeply involved in a humanitarian mission to assist refugees in the conflict along the border of Thailand and Cambodia. In January 1989, the revitalized Security Council began to take a more active role in the 11-year-old civil war. The secretary-general's special representative, Under Secretary Rafeeuddin Ahmed, played an essential role in the negotiating the framework for a settlement leading to a specific blueprint for the restoration of peace. In August 1989 the Paris Conference on Cambodia was convened, but was suspended within a month. Meetings in New York and Paris in 1990 finally secured the agreement of all the parties to the framework agreement developed by the Security Council. The agreement was signed on 23 October 1991, and two more UN missions were created: the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), and the UN Advance Mission in Cambodia (UNAMIC). The scale and cost of the mandate for these missions was unprecedented. It included repatriation of refugees from the Thai border camps, cantonment of all military forces and demobilization of 70% of these troops, registration of voters, supervision of elections for a Constituent Assembly, and supervision of the process of drafting and ratifying a new constitution.


The change in the players on the world stage led to the resolution of this long-standing issue, nearly twenty-five years after the General Assembly first denounced South Africa's attempted annexation of South West Africa (now Namibia), and a dozen years after the Security Council laid out the settlement plan for its independence. The Security Council's resolution 435 of 1978 had called for a cease-fire in Namibia, the abolition of apartheid laws, the withdrawal of South Africa from Namibia, the election of a constituent assembly, and the establishment of the United Nations Transitional Assistance Group (UNTAG) to oversee free and fair elections. However, the presence of Cuban troops in Namibia in support of the liberation movement, the South West Africa Peoples' Organization (SWAPO), created another stalemate between East and West. In 1988, the change in the political climate between the two superpowers produced an agreement that led to the withdrawal of the Cuban troops and the implementation of UNTAG. The transition began in April 1989 and 97% of the registered voters participated in elections in November. On 21 March 1990, Namibia became an independent state, with SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma as its president. UNTAG withdrew from Nambia in March 1990. As Pérez de Cuéllar reported in 1990, "UNTAG turned out to be something far more than its somewhat pedestrian name implied. It established the workability of democratic procedures even in a terrain which at first looked most unpromising. It also proved the executive ability of the United Nations in successfully managing a complex operation which brought together 8,000 men and women from more than 100 nations …."


The dramatic events that led to the dismantling of the apartheid system and the birth of a new South African nation are chronicled in the chapter on International Peace and Security. However, it was during Pérez de Cuéllar's tenure as secretary-general that the General Assembly held its 16th Special Session (12–14 December 1989) devoted to the question of apartheid. On 11 February 1990, South African President F. W. de Klerk released Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment. In response to the assembly's Resolution S-16/1, the secretary-general sent a high-level mission to South Africa in June 1990 to investigate the progress that had been made toward dismantling apartheid . By the end of his tenure, the process of change that would bear fruit in 1994, was firmly established.

Other Major Developments

Besides the problems of international peace and security listed above, the secretary-general's reports to the General Assembly made it clear he observed a growing appreciation in the international community of the need for cooperative action on a number of problems that transcend country borders and defy the ability of states to solve them independently. The recognition of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, its link to the plague of drug abuse and drug trafficking, and the concomitant links to international terrorism and organized crime all urgently required the attention of the world organization.

It was in the final years of Pérez de Cuéllar's tenure that the stage was set for what he called a new evolution in global society, in which humankind would make international covenants, not only between individuals and nations, but also between human-kind and the environment: the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer came into force in 1989; the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal was adopted in March 1989; the Second World Climate Conference was held in late 1990; and in February 1991, the first negotiations by the International Negotiating Committee on a framework convention on climate change began. Those negotiations would lead to the historic UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and dubbed the "Earth Summit." It was during the final years of the 1980s that an entirely new concept for the UN's work was developed: sustainable development.

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