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A UN of Ideas

Program 9720
May 20, 1997


Giandomenico Picco, former Assistant Secretary-General, United Nations; Chairman and CEO, GDP Associates, Inc.

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON, Producer: This is Common Ground, a program on world affairs
and the people who shape events.

GIANDOMENICO PICCO, former Assistant Secretary-General, United Nations; Chairman and CEO, GDP Associates, Inc:
We offered a product to end the Iran-Iraq war, which worked. We offered a product to end the
civil war in El Salvador, which worked. We offered a product for the release of the Western
hostages from Beirut, which worked. Evidently the products which were suggested in the early
’90s, either there were no products, or in any case they did not work.

DAVIDSON: A former high-level UN employee analyzes the world body’s current problems
on this half hour of Common Ground. Common Ground is produced by the Stanley Foundation, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.

Giandomenico Picco is not really a household name, but you’re sure to recognize some of the
world’s crises he’s been involved in. During his 20 years with the United Nations, Picco rose
to the rank of Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs. He was known as one of
former Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar’s right hand men. Picco left the UN shortly
after Boutros-Boutros Ghali took over the helm in the early 1990s. Picco’s list of accomplishments
include his instrumental role in bringing the Iran-Iraq and Afghan wars to a close, and
bringing home all the Western hostages in Lebanon. While Picco is a strong supporter of the
United Nations he’s also an outspoken critic, and we begin our conversation talking about
what’s changed at the UN since he left five years ago.

PICCO: I think a few noticeable things have happened. Number one, the relationship
which existed between the institution of the Secretary-General and the Security Council, which
means the major member states, has changed to the point that we have had in the years previous
to then, previous to that time, namely in the late ’80s, a very cooperative and complementary
relationship, which was epitomized perhaps more than anything else, by the work done together
by the Security Council and the Secretary-General to end the war between Iran and Iraq. That
was an incredible moment because both the procedure which was used, namely putting together
the five permanent members, started because of that war and around the subject of that war.
Now we take for granted the meeting of the five permanent members among themselves. At that
time that had never happened. We speak about the late 1986 beginning of 1987 when this begins.
And then the way in which the two institutions played really a complementary role to each
other like in a perfect ballet. This, and the confidence which existed was such that few
people realized that when Resolution 598 was adopted in July 1987, and it was an important
resolution for the end of the war, the Secretary-General was in fact, a few months later, in
such a position that he would defacto rewrite the resolution by writing, and I’m saying
writing in a 15-page informal document, his own interpretation of the resolution to make it,
as it were, more workable and more up-to-date as the months were passing. Now there is no
history in the United Nations either before or after where the Security Council will, I don’t
say accept, but even imagine, that a Secretary-General could in fact rewrite an interpretation
of the resolution to suit his negotiating approach. I think that was the peak of the
cooperation which was nowhere to be found when, in the first five years of the ’90s we had a
series of, to say the least, misunderstandings between the roles of the Secretary-General and
the Security Council in Somalia and in Bosnia.

DAVIDSON: And these successes in the late 1980s were at a time when the Cold War still
existed and yet that did not seem to hamper the efforts of the Secretary-General’s office and
the Security Council. That seems remarkable.

PICCO: No, I disagree with you. The Cold War for all practical purposes ended in 1986.
For operative purposes the Cold War in the UN did not end in 1991. This is another fallacy,
which I think has to be dispelled. The Cold War began to melt down after Gorbachev took over
in 1985. By the end of 1986, beginning of 1987, the Soviet Union had changed its use, if you
like, of the United Nations and had made the United Nations a tool of their new foreign policy
in a constructive way. Number one. Number two, the Cold War was already over for another
reason. The very war I mentioned to you just a minute ago—the Iran-Iraq war, was in a way
historically a war which belonged to a world after the Cold War, even if it happened still
during. The 1980s from the point of view of the work we were doing at the time were very
fascinating. And we realized that and we took full advantage of that. We had the last conflict
of the Cold War era, which was Afghanistan, a war by proxy of the two superpowers, and we had
the first conflict of the post-Cold War era, which was the Iran-Iraq conflict, because both
superpowers were in fact on the same side. Both superpowers were pro-Iraqi. Both superpowers
supported Iraq. So the Cold War for anybody who analyzes at the operative level of foreign
policy within the UN system, in fact within the international system, began to melt down in
1986. And that is why we did what we did. So to say that the Cold War ended in 1991, in
reality a good analyst, a good observer, would know that that happened much earlier.

DAVIDSON: What happened with the Persian Gulf War, when Iraq invaded Kuwait? Why, after
the string of successes with Afghanistan, with Iran-Iraq, what broke down there with the UN?

PICCO: Nothing broke down.

DAVIDSON: Nothing.

PICCO: The war against Iraq was an appropriate UN war. It was a war legitimized by the
Security Council and it was a war that politically, anybody who knew, as I happened to know a
little bit about Saddam Hussein, having worked with him personally during the ’80s at the time
of the previous conflict, I believe that that war was a necessary war. And I think nothing
broke down. Actually that was very much another way of using the instrumentality of the United
Nations. The United Nations does not exclude the use of force to deter a violation of
international law.

DAVIDSON: Did the multinational force go far enough in that war in your opinion?

PICCO: Yes. The multinational force went as far as the agreement achieved by the
members of the coalition allow it to do.

DAVIDSON: Was the problem in the 1990s at the United Nations a problem with the
Secretary-General’s office or what were the different factors?

PICCO: Well, I suppose there are different factors that we can rationalize now, but
the basic factor which comes up at the moment when you take the decisions is very simple. You
solve problems because you have a product, namely an idea. Without ideas the instrument by
itself does not work. So to think that the United Nations works simply because they exist as
an instrument is another fallacy. The United Nations as such is not a workable instrument
until and unless individuals take their own decisions and move the instruments with ideas. We
offered a product to end the Iran-Iraq war, which worked. We offered a product to end the
civil war in El Salvador, which worked. We offered a product for the release of the Western
hostages from Beirut, which worked. Evidently the products which were suggested in the early
1990s, either there were no products, or in any case they did not work. So it’s very simple.
It’s very simple. It’s a matter of ideas.

DAVIDSON: So there are individuals; that is essential? And that is what is lacking

PICCO: There are only. You see institutions, like history, do not kill individuals, do
not rape women, do not solve problems. Individuals do. I’ve never seen history doing any harm
to anybody. I’ve never seen any institution killing any baby. But I’ve seen individuals doing
that because of their decisions. And this is true in war and in peace.

DAVIDSON: And yet the United Nations is often characterized as only being as strong as
the will of the member states. But that doesn’t seem to coincide with what you’re saying.

PICCO: No, that is another fallacy. Another fallacy which will become a self-fulfilling
prophecy and it will make of the UN another League of Nations, doomed to be destroyed if that
is the case. The United Nations is as strong as the ideas which are put within the
instrumentalities that are available. And those ideas do not have to be put in by a consensus
of 184 nations. When the ideas are good, the consensus will follow. Because nobody around the
world is stupid. Everybody understands what is good and what is bad. And the introduction of
ideas is the task of individuals. Institutions do not think, individuals do.

DAVIDSON: What were the products offered to end, if you could summarize, the Iran-Iraq
war, the Soviet-Afghan war?

PICCO: I will answer you a little bit in general terms because some of the real
products I will not reveal at this stage of my life. In a negotiation techniques are of no
significance. There are few things which are indispensable in negotiation. The first thing is
credibility, credibility of the people involved in the negotiations. If you are not credible
to the parties you can as well forget any kind of techniques of negotiation. And it was
important to be credible. And you are not credible because you are impartial, which I believe
is another fallacy to be disregarded. If you look at the history of successful negotiations
you will see that the mediators who did that were all very partial. And they succeeded
because they were partial. But they were credible.

DAVIDSON: Because they saw a truth or a justice?

PICCO: Because they were credible they could deliver what they said.


PICCO: And when you are credible then you have respect. If you have respect you can
carry out what you think is right. Impartial negotiators have never been successful because
most of the time impartiality is seen as a lack of ideas. And apart from credibility, the
other thing is in fact ideas. It’s not, this myth of impartiality has been in fact for long
used by the Europeans as a good cover for their, I will say, cultural tendency to appeasement.
But it has no meaning. Not in practical terms. Because, the very, if you know a little bit
about physics, you know that if you are on one side of the table and you have a bottle in the
middle of the table, looking at the other side of the table you think that the bottle is
closer to the opposite side. And the other person on, opposite to you, will see the same
thing. So the bottle, even if it is in the middle of the table geographically, it will always
look closer to the other side. That’s why to pursue impartiality not only is impossible, but
is irrelevant. Because the parties involved don’t want impartiality. They, by and large, want
to win. Or they want to say, “I have something to show for.” And that has nothing to do with
impartiality. It is interesting to notice that people who speak about impartiality have never
actually done real life and death negotiations.

DAVIDSON: We’ll pause for a short break, and when we return we’ll talk to Giandomenico
Picco about his most life-threatening mission, the one undertook to release the hostages in

PICCO: I was taken by the kidnappers nine times and disappeared with them and this was,
there was no guarantee that I would come back.

DAVIDSON: You’re listening to Common Ground, a program on world affairs
sponsored by the Stanley Foundation. My guest today is Giandomenico Picco, former Assistant
Secretary-General at the United Nations under Javier Perez de Cuellar. The Stanley Foundation
is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that works to promote thought and dialogue about
the world. Tapes and transcripts of Common Ground programs are available. At the end
of the broadcast I’ll give you information on how to order.

DAVIDSON: The 1980s were truly an extraordinary period. While most of us saw the fall
of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Soviet Union and the near compete demise of communism,
there was one group of people cut off from all communication with the world. These were the
131 hostages of various nationalities taken during the 17-year civil war in Lebanon by Shiite
Muslim radicals. The longest held was Terry Anderson, correspondent in Beirut for the
Associated Press. Anderson does not hesitate when I ask what finally got him released from
his seven-year imprisonment.

ANDERSON: A man named Giandomenico Picco, a wonderful Italian man.

DAVIDSON: So there were no promises made in that…?

ANDERSON: Gianni says no. He made no promises whatsoever and no payoff whatsoever.
The real question at the end was, once they had agreed that it had to end, they weren’t
getting anything, it wasn’t working, how do you construct a scenario that will allow them to
get out of it? They could quite easily have shot us in the head and dumped us in a ditch and
said, “Okay, we’re done.” They chose not to do that for a number of reasons. Not least all
the publicity. And not least Gianni Picco. But he had to construct a method and the timing so
that this whole process could work itself out over the space of, I guess it took about a
year. And during that year by the way he repeatedly allowed himself to be kidnapped and
blindfolded and taken to the kidnappers to negotiate with them. He’s a very brave man.

DAVIDSON: Not a situation many people would like…

ANDERSON: If I didn’t like Gianni Picco so much I could hate him. He’s six-feet four,
he’s slim, he’s Italian, he’s handsome, he is extremely able, very brave, and has saved more
people personally than anybody in the world. He negotiated an end to the Afghan War, he
negotiated an end to the Iran-Iraq war, and then he decided to come around and get me out of
prison. So I thought that was kind of neat. He’s a great man.

DAVIDSON: Back to Giandomenico Picco. He tells us why the Hezbollah, Anderson’s
kidnappers, saw him as credible.

PICCO: Because they knew I was prepared to sacrifice my life for my objective. So they
took me very seriously.

DAVIDSON: How did you let them know that?

PICCO: Oh it was very simple. I had no concern whatsoever for my physical safety.
Because when you do a job either you are dedicated to the objective you want to achieve or
you are concerned about your own survival. And in the context of the Middle East that I was
working in, this is very important. May not be the same thing in Latin America or in other
countries. But in the Middle East the total devotion to the objective you are pursuing has to
be seen overwhelmingly. If somebody sees that you are not totally devoted, even if it is just
to save your life, you are no longer taken seriously.

DAVIDSON: And was your life actually in jeopardy?


DAVIDSON: Were you threatened?


DAVIDSON: In what ways? Have you…?

PICCO: Well, this is natural. I was taken by the kidnappers nine times and disappeared
with them. And this was, there was no guarantee that I would come back from my disappearance
acts. I accepted the route then of my own volition. Actually I requested them do that. Because
that was a way of increasing also my credibility with them.

DAVIDSON: So they took you some place and you did not know where you were, talking to

PICCO: No. To this day. I disappeared.

DAVIDSON: And you….

PICCO: And I do not, without knowing when I would re-emerge.

DAVIDSON: And you trusted that they would return you.

PICCO: No, I trusted that I had to do that to pursue the objective I had in mind, which
was to free the hostages.

DAVIDSON: And you continued to do this even after the negotiator for the Church of
England, Terry Waite, was kidnapped.

PICCO: I began after he was taken.

DAVIDSON: And knowing full well then that you might have suffered the same fate.

PICCO: Well, the question is very simple. Either you believe in what you do, or you
don’t. If you believe in what you do, you cannot put a limit to what your actions should be.
You have to be fully dedicated to the objective that you want to achieve. And if you are
concerned with this mentality of your own personal life you have to understand that you will
reduce the commitment to finding objective. Which is, adds to the fact that of course, working
for the Secretary-General of the United Nations, I was fully aware that I was doing something
I had chosen myself. Nobody had asked me to do that. I mean, I invented the whole plan. I
invented the whole idea. Nobody asked, nobody approved any resolution.

DAVIDSON: And you were given free rein?

PICCO: Nobody asked the Secretary-General. We prepared a product which was accepted as
a product to solve the situation.

DAVIDSON: What did the hostage takers get? They released the hostages.


DAVIDSON: What did they get out of that?

PICCO: Well, in the face of it of course, they also received from me the release of
some of the Lebanese detained without due process by the Israelis. So that was one part.

DAVIDSON: And that was what they had been saying all along.

PICCO: Right. Well, no. No, no. No, no. What they had been saying all along was
something else. They wanted the liberation of some of their people in Kuwait. But that was
achieved not through the good offices of the United Nations, but that was achieved thanks to
Saddam Hussein, who during the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 actually opened the jails where
those people, 17 to be exact, who had been at the origin of the first kidnapping in Beirut,
were detained. So one could say that Saddam Hussein made a major contribution to the freedom
of the hostages from Beirut.

DAVIDSON: And then later on you were able to promise the release of some of the
prisoners who were in Israel at the time.

PICCO: I did not promise; I delivered.

DAVIDSON: Would you do it again?

PICCO: Sure. I can’t see why not.

DAVIDSON: In retrospect….

PICCO: This was one of the ways of demonstrating that the United Nations
Secretary-General is a tool which just has to be used with imagination and courage. And that
was one of the ways which we thought would also galvanize the public opinion in favor of the
UN, which I think it did to some extent. You know, you don’t re-launch in the public opinion
of the world, the image of the United Nations by reforming the institutions. How many people
will be aware of a reform of the institutions? Probably a very small elite

DAVIDSON: What would get people’s attention?

PICCO: Operation, like the liberation of the hostages in Beirut.

DAVIDSON: Do you think people are aware that that was the United Nations that
accomplished that?

PICCO: Well, perhaps not enough, but it’s certainly sure to the governments that you
can do things which are not even imagined.

DAVIDSON: Well, I do remember at the time that everyone was talking about this. [They
said] the United Nations has reached a new high, the institution is now going to take off and
be the body that it was created to be. And that didn’t happen.

PICCO: It didn’t happen because there were no ideas which followed. You can only
sustain a car running if you put gasoline into it. The gasoline of the United Nations, of
every activity of the human endeavor, in the field of human endeavors, are the ideas. Not the

DAVIDSON: You were Assistant Secretary-General. If you had had to take your ideas
before the General Assembly or any group, the Security Council, could any of this have

PICCO: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. Institutions and organizations of the size
of the United Nations today, bureaucracies of the size of major corporations,
mega-organizations like international nongovernmental organizations, they achieve results
because in each particular area they have a group of people, very small normally, which is
able to carry the others. And that is the only way an organization like the United Nations
will take off again. You have got to be able to have people who galvanize others to follow
in the pursuit of the objective of the organization. And that is a very, very indispensable

DAVIDSON: And yet the organization is necessary in your opinion, right?

PICCO: The organization is an instrument. And the instrument is very important.
Undoubtedly I could not have done what I’ve done if I did not have a hat with the name United
Nations on top. So I’m totally aware that this was done because of the organization. I just
used the instrument in a way that perhaps others had found too risky or too politically
unusual and all the rest.

DAVIDSON: And yet the people you were dealing with in the Middle East were not talking
to you because they saw the United Nations as a great institution.

PICCO: Yes they did.

DAVIDSON: They did?

PICCO: They did. The sophistication of the people I dealt with can be best summarized
by one small episode which I would like to mention here. It was my first encounter with the
kidnappers of the hostages in Beirut. And the first question they asked me is, “Who is sending
you? Is it the Secretary-General, or the Security Council?”

DAVIDSON: You must have answered correctly.

PICCO: The question was a most sophisticated one. And answering in a wrong way could
have cost me my life. That was made clear. And I did answer correctly because I said the
Secretary-General. These people knew about the working of the United Nations extremely well.
Very sophisticated interpretation of the system.

DAVIDSON: And why was the Secretary-General’s office more trusted than the Security

PICCO: Because we had built during the 1980s a credibility in some quarters of the
Middle East which paid off. Credibility. Credibility.

DAVIDSON: And now do you believe it’s going to take a long time to build that
credibility back again?

PICCO: I believe that credibility when it is lost it takes a long time to be rebuilt.

DAVIDSON: But it can be done!

PICCO: Absolutely.

DAVIDSON: Would you go back to the UN?

PICCO: You never go back, you always, only go forward.

DAVIDSON: Giandomenico Picco has been my guest on Common Ground. A 20-year
veteran of the United Nations, and former Assistant Secretary-General under Javier Perez de
Cuellar, Picco now runs a private investment firm in New York called GDP Associates. For
Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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