Perez de Cuellar of U.N. retires today Top official has reigned well for two terms.

December 31, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

UNITED NATIONS -- An aide waits, coatless, in the subfreezing morning air to greet the sleek black Mercedes. The boss emerges, bundled and silver-haired, stalks into a waiting elevator and zooms to the top of the world.

There, 38 floors up, overlooking New York's steaming gray landscape, is Javier Perez de Cuellar -- secretary-general of the United Nations, world citizen, diplomat extraordinaire.

The phone jangles with word from his mediator in the Salvadoran peace talks, under way eight floors below. A group of Israeli diplomats files in for an update on prisoner-release efforts. Half a world away, Cyrus R. Vance, in the role of U.N. emissary, awaits his recommendations for a cease-fire in Yugoslavia.

He reviews a summary on the Western Sahara for the Security Council's "Big Five," then starts to sift through a pile of technical reports on Cambodia.

At this vortex of disaster and hope sits a 71-year-old man, scrupulously formal, exasperatingly tactful, pampered and escorted by a doting staff, the epitome of bland neutrality. Though born in Peru, Perez de Cuellar is a human Switzerland.

For 10 years, this man has toiled over the planet's most intractable problems, preached peace but sanctioned a war, helped create nations and watched others dissolve, and now, after two terms, prepares for life in retirement, which begins today. Butros Ghali of Egypt takes over.

He is plainly gratified. His tenure has coincided with a remarkable rise in the efficacy and prestige of the world forum. At no point, perhaps, since its creation after World War II has the United Nations -- long seen as choking on its own paper and piety -- become so excitingly, mercifully relevant.

Just a decade ago, the United Nations faced an uncertain future. It teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, an afterthought of the world's mighty nations.

The U.N. staff was demoralized.

Today, a popular Perez de Cuellar bids farewell to an organization that is on a roll. The United Nations is taking risks and registering breakthroughs like never before, daring to police, investigate, mediate -- even invade -- in the name of principle and international law.

In the past three years alone, the United Nations has midwifed a cease-fire between Iran and Iraq, a truce between Morocco and Western Sahara rebels, the birth of the state of Namibia, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf War against Iraq, the creation of a coalition government in Cambodia and the release of Western hostages in Lebanon.

Virendra Dayal, the secretary-general's chief of staff, notes that his boss has visited his native Peru only twice in 10 years.

"When a person becomes secretary-general, you put your feelings about your country in escrow and take on a global view."

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