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UN secretary-general Javier Perez de Cuellar

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (1920–2020), former secretary-general of the United Nations

by Linnea Crowther

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar served as secretary-general of the United Nations for two terms, from 1982 to 1991. During that time, he mediated disputes such as the Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina as well as conflicts in Central America. The end of his term saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, the independence of Namibia in Africa, and a cease-fire in Western Sahara.

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Died: March 4, 2020 (Who else died on March 4?)


Details of death: Died in Lima, Peru at the age of 100.

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Early life: Born Jan. 19, 1920, in Lima, Pérez de Cuéllar studied law at Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1940 and entered the diplomatic service in 1944.  He was stationed at the Peruvian embassy in Paris, France. His association with the United Nations began in 1946 when he was a member of Peru’s delegation at the first session of the General Assembly.

Pérez de Cuéllar was also part of diplomatic missions in Great Britain, Bolivia, Brazil, Switzerland, and the Soviet Union when Peru normalized relations with them in 1969. He was fluent in French and English as well as his native Spanish.

United Nations tenure: Pérez de Cuéllar became a part of Peru’s permanent delegation to the U.N. in 1971 and served as president of the U.N. Security Council in 1974. At the request of Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, he was sent to Cyprus to mediate between ethnic Greek and Turkish factions on the island nation in 1975. It was during this time that he married his second wife, Marcela Temple Seminario (1933–2013). He also mediated a dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1981.

It was in part due to these high-profile diplomatic missions that he was elected U.N. secretary-general, the fifth to hold that position. Pérez de Cuéllar was the first and, to date, only secretary-general from the Americas. He was held in high regard by both Western powers and Soviet bloc countries and was the first secretary-general to come from a developing nation.

During his tenure, the United Nations expanded its role in peacekeeping missions, and he was an advocate for the billions of people who found themselves in the middle of the Cold War between the two superpowers.

He was succeeded as secretary-general by the Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1992. Boutros-Ghali died Feb. 16, 2016.

Notable quote: “My role is to dilute this polarization, which goes against the principles of the U.N.” —from a 1982 interview with The New York Times

What people said about him: “He was an accomplished statesman, a committed diplomat and a personal inspiration who left a profound impact on the United Nations and our world.” —U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

“Saddened to hear of the passing of statesman, diplomat, and former UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. Deeply committed to peace and ending hunger, he will be missed by the UN and wider diplomatic community. Condolences to his family, friends, and all Peruvians.” —Mitch Fifeld, Australian Ambassador to the U.N.

Full obituary: The New York Times

Related lives:

  • Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1922–2016), sixth secretary-general of the United Nations
  • Kofi Annan (1938–2018), first black sectary-general of the United Nations
  • Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), former first lady who held many roles at the U.N.

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