With an unprecedented half a dozen peace initiatives in progress at once, U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar says he's beginning to feel like a chess master playing 140 simultaneous matches.
"I don't know how many I'll win," the 68-year-old Peruvian said with a wry smile during an interview in his office atop the U.N. headquarters tower. "I've only got two years, two months and 12 days left."
Perez de Cuellar's reference was to the end of his second five-year term, and he has said he will not serve another term. But it has only been in the last two years that vitality has returned to the United Nations as the thaw in the Cold War has opened the way to settlement of regional disputes ranging from Asia to Central America.
As a result, the reserved, almost invisible chief of a financially troubled organization that had seemed to have lost relevance to the real world suddenly emerged as a valuable player in global politics.
The United Nations' financial troubles remain and Perez de Cuellar hasn't changed his manner, but his diplomatic skills and the United Nations' long experience in the special arts of peacekeeping have earned the organization both the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988 and new respect.
At least one success now seems all but certain: the independence of Namibia. Serious efforts to persuade South Africa to free the former German colony that it had administered since World War I began during the tenure of Perez de Cuellar's Austrian predecessor, Kurt Waldheim but foundered in a proxy war between the superpowers in neighboring Angola.
It was not until last year that the United States and South Africa got down to meaningful negotiations with Angola and Cuba, whose troops were fighting against rebels backed by both Washington and Pretoria, as well as against direct incursions by South African troops. The talks yielded a cease-fire and the withdrawal of the Cubans from Angola.
"We are pleased with the way we are moving ahead," Perez de Cuellar said of the Cuban departure and the South African pledge to support free elections in Namibia on Nov. 6.
The secretary general recently won Security Council approval to add a force of 500 to the 1,000 civilian police unit already on duty in the territory. With this group monitoring the local police force originally organized and still controlled by the South African administration, he said, "we can guarantee the elections will be free."
A record number of countries, 102, have contributed either to the police force or to a 4,500-man military unit, the entire group known as the U.N. Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG).
Once the election takes place, the secretary general said his next concern will be the formation of a constituent assembly.
Of his other peace problems, the secretary general forecast possible early solutions to conflicts in Afghanistan and Central America. He estimated that it would take longer to find solutions to disputes in the Western Sahara and the conflict between Iran and Iraq. But a political settlement in Cambodia, where a Communist government that lost its military backing from Hanoi this summer is fighting against three rebel groups, is not likely "in my time," he said.
On finances, he said the United Nations is under additional strain as peacekeeping forces proliferate.