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Perez De Cuéllar, UN Secretary General 1982 – 1991


On 4 March 2020, Perez de Cuellar died, aged 100 years. Appointed UN Secretary General in January 1982, one of the first major issues to confront him was the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. As a Peruvian, he was privately sympathetic to Argentina’s claim, but highly critical of their use of force; as UN Secretary General, however, he sought to be impartial (and Mrs Thatcher considered him to be a man of integrity).

Initially, Perez de Cuellar ceded the lead in trying to prevent further conflict to the US, particularly as the UN Security Council in its initial Resolution (UN SCR 502) made no call for the Secretary General to take action. Nor, following the failure of Haig’s shuttle diplomacy at the end of April, was he involved in the short-lived Peruvian initiative. But throughout May 1982, the Secretary General tried to broker some form of ceasefire, particularly after the landing of UK forces at San Carlos on 21 May. Mrs Thatcher made it clear that the time for talking had long gone. After the Argentine surrender on 14 June, the UK came under pressure internationally to make some magnanimous gesture in keeping talks about the future of the Falkland Islands alive. On 23 June, Mrs Thatcher saw Perez de Cuellar in New York and left him in no doubt that the UK Government was not prepared to enter into a further round of negotiations on the issue. The conflict had changed everything. Argentina’s use of force and their insistence that talks should include discussion of a transfer of sovereignty took no account of the wishes of the Falkland Islanders or the principle of self-determination, enshrined in the UN Charter.

An experienced diplomat with a real understanding of UN work and the constraints on its international peacekeeping role, Perez de Cuellar had been involved with the UN since its first General Assembly in London in 1946, working in the Peruvian Mission to the UN and later as its head (1971-75) before being persuaded to take up various senior posts within the UN organisation. He served as UN Secretary General from 1982 to 1991 and on his retirement was awarded an honorary GCMG by the UK amongst many other international awards.


UN SCR 502: On 2 April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The UK immediately circulated a draft Security Council Resolution, which after various changes was passed as SCR 502 with only Panama voting against and abstentions by China, (still Communist) Poland and, against the expectation of a veto, the Soviet Union. The Resolution demanded the immediate cessation of hostilities and withdrawal of all Argentine forces from the Falkland Islands, and called on the Governments of Argentina and the UK to seek a diplomatic solution to their differences and to respect fully the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. This was regarded as a real diplomatic success for the UK, given the anti-colonialist attitudes of most UN states but it was also helped by the general opposition to Argentina’s use of force. The US found itself in a difficult position trying to balance its instinctive support of a long-standing NATO ally against the desire to protect US influence in Latin America, which might be lost to the USSR if things went badly for the British forces. But from the outset, the US Government was determined to take the lead in brokering some form of agreement rather than allowing a role for the UN Secretary General. Perez de Cuellar was not unhappy with this (despite subsequent criticism of his apparent passivity).

US Initiative: US Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, launched his initiative on 6 April. Essentially, this proposed a mutual withdrawal of forces, an interim administration overseen by an international consortium, followed by negotiations leading to a definitive settlement. The Argentine position, bolstered by their belief that their position in the Islands was well entrenched, was that any negotiation should be on the understanding that there would be an eventual transfer of sovereignty to Argentina. To an extent, this insistence was based on previous contacts with UK Governments: in the late 1960s, for example, the Labour Government had come perilously close to handing over the Falklands and in 1980, Nicholas Ridley’s lease-back proposal was only thwarted by concerted Islander opposition (see Lord Carrington’s obituary)  – and there had been continued discussions in 1981 and February 1982. But the Argentine invasion had changed all that. Mrs Thatcher made it clear in a speech to Parliament on 14 April that Argentina’s military dictatorship should not be appeased: no negotiations would be possible until Argentine forces had been withdrawn; and in any subsequent negotiations, the wishes of the Falkland islanders should be paramount, as enshrined in the UN principle of self-determination. After a month of shuttle diplomacy, Haig gave up and President Reagan swung US support wholeheartedly behind the UK.

After Haig: With the collapse of the US initiative, there was a brief hiatus. Sir Anthony Parsons, the UK’s Representative in the UN suggested the possibility of another Security Council resolution which Mrs Thatcher rejected since it would tie UK hands militarily. Her objective was to restore British control over the Islands by military means as necessary and to secure a return to civilian administration.

South GeorgiaRecapture: When the UK took back South Georgia on 25 April, the UN Secretary General issued an appeal for both sides to comply with UN SCR 502 and refrain from action that would broaden the conflict. Parsons complained that this suggested that the UK had failed to comply with UN SCR 502 rather than the self-defence article 51 of the UN Charter, forcing a private apology from Perez de Cuellar.

Peruvian Initiative: President Belaunde launched his initiative, with US support, but without Perez de Cuellar’s involvement, on 2 May. This was a 7 point plan proposing an immediate ceasefire; mutual withdrawal of forces; involvement of third parties in the administration of the Islands; mutual acceptance that a sovereignty dispute existed; acknowledgement that the views and interests of the Islanders had to be taken into account in reaching a definitive settlement; oversight by a contact group of Brazil, Peru, Germany and the US; and a deadline of 30 April 1983 for agreement. This had some attraction for Argentina since it spoke only of the ‘views and interests’ of the Islanders rather than their wishes and gave the UK no direct role in the Islands’ administration. But the initiative was abandoned after the sinking of the Argentine battleship, the ARA Belgrano. Galtieri told Belaunde that ‘nothing was left to discuss; all that remained was to fight.’ Actually, Argentina wanted to delay, particularly after their successful revenge attack on HMS Sheffield. They thought that time was on their side; that the UK military advance would falter with the onset of of the austral winter; and that diplomatic support for the UK would wither away. They wanted the US out of the mediating role and looked to the UN Secretary General for progress.

UN Initiative: On 2 May, Perez de Cuellar told the UK Foreign Secretary, Francis Pym, that, with the breakdown of Haig’s shuttle diplomacy, he as UN Secretary General had a duty to fill the gap. Various EC members, including France and Germany, were urging him to take the initiative. Pym was anxious not to be seen to be undermining UN mediation efforts, particularly as international opinion seemed to be hardening against the UK. Perez de Cuellar circulated a draft proposal for a simultaneous withdrawal of forces and the insertion of an interim UN administration followed by negotiations on the Islands’ future. Much of May was taken up with discussion of the detail.

Argentina’s continued to insist that the outcome of any negotiations had to result in the transfer of sovereignty to Argentina. They opposed any British or Islander involvement in the administration of the Islands and wanted unrestricted access to the Islands for Argentine citizens, including the right to own property (and to hold shares in the Falkland Islands Company). They also wanted South Georgia to be included.

Perez de Cuellar was exasperated by the Argentine insistence of a transfer of sovereignty as a precondition to negotiations. He likened them to a gambler who refused to take part unless the opponent conceded in advance. Then on 11 May, Argentina dropped a bombshell by accepting that any negotiations should be ‘without prejudice to the rights, claims or positions of the parties and without prejudgement of the outcome.’ But Argentina insisted on the negotiations being completed by 31 December 1982 to avoid the possibility of the negotiations being dragged out ad infinitum.

Mrs Thatcher called a meeting of her War Cabinet at Chequers on Sunday 16 May with Sir Anthony Parsons, UK Permanent Representative to the UN, and Sir Nicholas Henderson, UK Ambassador in Washington, participating to discuss the UK response. The UK’s initial position had been to accept a role for the UN merely to oversee a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Argentine forces. But the paper that was developed and given to the Secretary General accepted the broader concept of a UN interim administration but with Islander participation in the government of the Islands through the continuation of the Legislative and Executive Councils – and the UK insisted on restrictions on the number of Argentine personnel on the Islands as well as the exclusion of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. The paper was drafted so that the UK could present itself as making a reasonable response, albeit setting a deadline of 19 May for Argentina’s reply.

Perez de Cuellar saw this as a significant advance and put it to the Argentine Government. But their reply hardened, which Perez de Cuellar saw as tantamount to a rejection. He spoke to General Galtieri, who had sounded drunk (and had to be prompted by Argentine officials in his replies). He then spoke to Mrs Thatcher, misinterpreting her response as suggesting that she would be prepared to consider a further attempt at bridging the gap. This was certainly not her intention, since plans for British forces to land at San Carlos had already been authorised. Perez de Cuellar circulated another draft which Henderson and Parson considered to be an improvement but both agreed that it was now too late. Perez de Cuellar tried in vain to get a response out of Buenos Aires but had to inform the Security Council on 21 May that his efforts at mediation had failed.

British Landings at San Carlos: The UK landing at San Carlos on 21 May 1982 transformed the context for diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. The UK was now focussed on the repossession of the Islands and the restoration of British administration. Past concessions no longer applied. There could be no ceasefire leaving any Argentine forces in place nor any contact group involving third parties nor a UN role in the administration of the Islands. The US, however, urged the UK to make concessions to allow the Argentine Junta to save face and continued to press for an interim administration supervised by a Contact Group comprising the US, Brazil, UK and Argentina (but not the UN) and subsequent negotiations: Haig even promised a battalion of US forces to supervise a ceasefire. Peru and Columbia put forward similar proposals but giving the UN Secretary General a supervisory role. The UK risked a rift with the US but had already developed a position that there would have to be a full resumption of democratic politics in the Islands and period of reconstruction and political stability before the Islanders could reasonably be asked whether or not they wished discussions with Argentina to be reopened.

UN SCR 505: On 26 May 1982, a resolution was put forward in the UN Security Council calling on both sides to comply with UN SCR 502 and to co-operate with the UN Secretary General in achieving a ceasefire and, if necessary, the despatch of UN observers to monitor its implementation. The Secretary General was invited to report to the Council within seven days. Perez de Cuellar was unhappy with this, commenting that it was not realistic to think in terms of a ceasefire at that time – and he felt blocked by the UK in its refusal then to accept a mutual withdrawal of forces. On 2 June, he told the Security Council that it had not been possible to achieve agreement on a ceasefire on mutually acceptable terms.

Subsequently, Panama and Spain presented another draft resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and authorising the Secretary General to use any means necessary to ensure compliance and to report within 72 hours. It was put to the vote on 4 June. The UK and the US both used their veto to block it (although, to general astonishment, Mrs Kirkpatrick, USA Ambassador to the UN, spoke afterwards to say that if it had been possible to change the US vote, she would have abstained – she had received her revised instructions too late). Tony Parsons, on the other hand, took private pleasure from not having to utilise the UK veto for over two months since the start of the conflict.

Perez de Cuellar still tried vainly to broker a ceasefire. On 7 June, he called for a truce with military commanders on the ground meeting in the presence of a UN representative to agree a ceasefire by 11 June. The UK said that the time for such initiatives had long passed (and even the Argentines rejected it). But as late as 10 June the Secretary General was trying to persuade Pope John Paul II who was visiting Argentina (as a counter-balance to his earlier, long-planned visit to the UK in May 1982) to persuade Galtieri to accept a ceasefire.

Argentine Surrender: The Argentines surrendered on 14 June 1982, ordering their forces in the Falkland Islands to lay down their arms. General Moore reported that “The Falkland Islands are once more under the Government desired by their inhabitants. God save the Queen.” The 11 Argentine personnel, mainly meteorologists, on S. Thule, where Argentina had established a base in 1976 (without significant UK protest), surrendered on 20 June 1982.

Although Galtieri was deposed on 18 June, there was still some confusion as to whether Argentina had accepted the cessation of all hostilities. Whilst British nationals were still held captive, the UK sought to persuade friendly countries to maintain sanctions against Argentina. But the majority of Argentine prisoners of war were repatriated before the end of June and all by 14 July 1982. The three British journalists held in Argentina were released on 29 June and the sole British POW in Argentine hands – Flt. Lt. Glover who was shot down over Port Howard on 21 May – was released in early July. That allowed the UK Government to issue a statement that hostilities had effectively ceased but an arms embargo remained in force and it was not until September 1982 that the UK and Argentina agreed to lift the financial restrictions levied against each other as a result of the conflict.

International opinion after the war was that discussions over the future of the Islands should resume. People could not understand the UK’s reluctance to talk, when there were promising signs of a return to democratic government in Argentina. The UK found this disingenuous. All possible options from condominium to leaseback had been explored but found to be unacceptable to the wishes of the Falkland Islanders, which should be paramount. Argentina’s use of force and refusal to take anything but Islander interests, rather than wishes, into account was a form of dictatorship that the Islanders could not accept. Tony Parsons made it clear that, against a background of war, it was totally out of the question to envisage further diplomatic negotiations with Argentina. Mrs Thatcher made this very clear to the UN Secretary General when she visited New York on 23 June 1982.

Soon UN Security Council attention would turn to other matters – and Argentina’s was limited to pursuing their claim through the UN General Assembly and its Decolonisation Committee.

Career Background

Javier Felipe Ricardo Perez de Cuellar de la Guerra (to give him his full name) was born in Lima, Peru in January 1920 to a wealthy family of Spanish descent. After reading law at University, Javier entered the Peruvian foreign service in 1940. Fluent in French, his first posting was to Paris in 1944. Subsequently he held diplomatic posts in Bolivia and Brazil and back in Lima before being appointed Ambassador to Switzerland in 1964 and then to the Soviet Union, Poland and Venezuela.

He had strong connections with the UN from early on in his career. He was a member of the Peruvian delegation to the first session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) held in the Methodist Central Hall, London in 1946. He then served as a member of Peru’s delegation to the UN during the 25th to 30th sessions of the UNGA before being appointed Peru’s Permanent Representative in 1971 until 1975. During this period, when Peru was elected to the UN Security Council (UNSC), he held its rotational Presidency twice. In 1975, Kurt Waldheim persuaded him to take up appointment as UN Special Representative in Cyprus to 1977 and then as one of two UN Undersecretaries for Special Political Affairs.

In 1981, Perez de Cuellar was put forward for the post of Ambassador to Brazil but was rejected by the Peruvian Senate. He then struck lucky when Kurt Waldheim failed to secure a third term as UN Secretary General; despite various rounds of voting Waldheim and his opponent were asked to step aside to allow others to take part. Perez de Cuellar avoided a veto and was therefore appointed – the first (and so far only) Latin American to hold the post.  Within weeks of his appointment, Israel launched an incursion into Lebanon; the UN Disarmament Conference in New York collapsed; and then Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands.

During his tenure, Perez de Cuellar saw the start of ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ under Gorbachev, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the Soviet Union. In Africa, he saw the assassination of Anwar Sadat in Egypt, famine in the Horn of Africa, civil war in Ethiopia and the eventual independence of Eritrea, the end of apartheid in South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela, and the end to civil war in Angola and independence for Namibia. In the Middle East, he helped to secure the release of US hostages in Lebanon and had to face Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq war and Iraq’s subsequent invasion of Kuwait. Elsewhere, the Russians finally withdrew from Afghanistan; he oversaw a peace accord in Cambodia; helped to promote political stability in Nicaragua; and in his last days in office secured a peace agreement in El Salvador. It was not an easy time; he turned down a two year extension in office and was succeeded by Boutros Boutros-Ghali from Egypt.

In 1995, he was persuaded to stand for the Presidency of Peru against the incumbent Alberto Fujimori but secured only 22% of the vote. Subsequently, Fujimori resigned over corruption charges for which he was eventually imprisoned. Perez de Cuellar served for several months as interim Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. In 2001, he was appointed Ambassador in Paris before retiring in 2004 to live in Malaysia. He died on 4 March 2020, aged 100 years.

Decorated by many countries, Perez de Cuellar received an honorary GCMG (Knight Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George) from the UK in 1992.

SourcesObituaries in the Guardian (5 March 2020) and Daily Telegraph (6 March 2020)

The Official History of the Falklands Campaign Vol II by Sir Lawrence Freedman, Routledge 2005

The Downing Street Years by Margaret Thatcher, Harper Collins 1993

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography: Volume 1 by Charles Moore, Allen Lane 2013

Photographs: World Political Review

Gold Mercury International

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