A Key United Nations Moment and its Lessons

©UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

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 Pérez de Cuéllar, 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 t he 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.

Pérez de Cuéllar 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, Pérez de Cuéllar 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.

Pérez de Cuéllar 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 whet her 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.

Pérez de Cuéllar’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. He was hard to fluster and had an outsized tolerance for frustration. You wouldn’t see him flailing about or losing his temper.

Just as he didn’t seek to become Secretary-General, he shunned a second term. In a major lecture at Oxford University titled “The Role of the Secretary-General” in May of 1986, the fifth and last year of the term for which he had been appointed, he said that impartiality was “the heart and soul of the office of Secretary-General,” and suggested that in order to ensure it, the healthy convention that no person should ever be a candidate for the position should be re-established. “It is a post that should come unsought to a qualified person. However impeccable a person’s integrity may be, he cannot in fact retain the necessary independence if he proclaims his candidacy and conducts a kind of election campaign…”.

In October 1986, undaunted by his unequivocal declaration of independence, the permanent members of the Security Council went to see him at his residence, together, in what was perhaps their first joint demarche since the onset of the cold war, and asked him to accept a second term.

Pérez de Cuéllar acceded, but, using the first press conference of his second term, he quickly staged a public appeal to the Permanent Five (P5) to lead the Security Council to come to a new meeting of the minds regarding how to solve the Iran-Iraq conflict, which required setting a new framework that would repair its grievous mishandling of the conflict at the outset. Sure enough, his appeal spurred the P5 into action. With his advice, they led the Council to drawing up a new blueprint which down the road led to the end of the bloodshed.

Before that the United Nations brokered a carefully negotiated plan for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan—a negotiation for which Pérez de Cuéllar himself had laid the foundations as his predecessor’s personal envoy. Not long thereafter an agreement on the withdrawal of all foreign military personnel from Angola was brokered by the Western Contact Group, thus removing the main obstacle—de facto if not de jure—for the long postponed self-determination of Namibia. He claimed a role for the United Nations in Western Sahara, arranging for a ceasefire so that a referendum on self-determination, still pending today, could be organized. When the Contador Group terminated its efforts in Central America, he received a mandate from the Security Council to pursue them. The United Nations played an important role in ending the Contra War and monitoring early elections in Nicaragua, something which it had never done in a Member State. Negotiations to end the conflict in El Salvador began early in 1990, and a few months later in Guatemala.

There was nothing inevitable about the El Salvador peace accords. They involved deep reforms, including to the constitution, as well as a fundamental overhaul of the armed forces and the creation of a new National Civil Police that effectively removed them from the maintenance of internal public order. Political space was opened up and a solid framework to ensure respect for human rights was put in place.

That the flurry of peacemaking successes should have been crowned with agreement to end the 12-year war in El Salvador provided a metaphor of sorts: with it the United Nations moved seamlessly from its focus on maintaining international peace and security to its current preponderant task, solving internal conflict.

Some say the United Nations accomplished these things because the cold war had come to an end—the United Nations simply settled details and mopped up—as if one event had occurred first, then the other. The array of phenomena that together formed the cold war didn’t end abruptly after a conclusive Waterloo-like battle. They gradually unwound in a series of actions and decisions, by major Powers, by the United Nations and by others, over a period of years. They were intertwined in a mutually reinforcing dynamic from which it is difficult to disentangle authorship, ownership or to decide which of the developments came first. There are many who helped it unwind. Future historians unravelling the chain of events to understand how it came about will find, I have no doubt, significant evidence of the genome of the United Nations and something of Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s DNA in it.

The main lesson to be drawn from the emblematic moment that I identified at the outset is that the Security Council has to go seriously about selecting a person to recommend to the General Assembly for appointment by the Assembly. In the spirit of the times, something of a clamour for transparency and participation is rising. That is understandable, but it reflects a misunderstanding of the nature and texture of the position and the role of the Security Council. The Secretary-General must play a crucial role as a partner of the Council if the system is to work; they should work hand in glove, and their overriding joint role is the one that appears first in Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations which states the purposes of the Organization: the maintenance of international peace and security. We will not get the right person to work with the Council if it is handled almost as an election. I doubt that either Pérez de Cuéllar or Dag Hammarskjöld—the other non-candidate for Secretary-General who famously learned that he had been chosen only after the Council had decided to recommend him to the General Assembly—would have held the office if that had been a requirement. It’s not about transparency: it’s about due diligence.

In the Charter, the United Nations membership at large has accepted the Security Council’s primary role in choosing the Secretary-General; it is warranted to expect that the Council will do more than give the nod to the person of least resistance among those seeking the position. A corollary to Pérez de Cuéllar’s 1986 Oxford plea might have been that wanting the position should be a disqualification. All we need to know from the Security Council is that it is taking its role seriously. Setting up a search, drawing up a short list and grilling those on it would be good, without going about it publicly.

The key is to change the vector—the direction—of the process. The Charter makes clear that the Secretary-General is appointed as opposed to, say, the members of the Economic and Social Council, who are elected. The Secretary-General can only be a worthy partner of the Security Council in the maintenance of peace and security, if Article 100 is respected. The Council may sometimes not like it, but it needs a Secretary-General who tells it what he thinks independently. Such as when Pérez de Cuéllar prodded the Council into rectifying its stance on the Iran-Iraq war, or when (sorry to reinsert myself), in response to what was in essence a demand that he remove his representative in the El Salvador negotiations, he pointed to the problems elsewhere, told them what it was, and persuaded them that he was right and they were wrong. That kind of independence can only be ensured if the position “comes unsought to a qualified person”.