UN envoy Giandomenico Picco, who helped end the Iran-Iraq war and won hostage releases, has died

Mar 10, 2024, 11:51 AM

Former U.N. diplomat Giandomenico Picco, whose negotiating skills helped resolve some of the thorniest crises of the 1980s and 1990s, including the Iran-Iraq war and the kidnappings of Westerners by Hezbollah in Lebanon, has died.

Picco passed away peacefully Sunday after a long illness, his son, Giacomo Picco, said. He was 75.

Picco worked at the United Nations from 1973 until 1992. Javier Pérez de Cuéllar of Peru, the fifth secretary-general of the world body, appointed him to his executive office in 1982, and he eventually became assistant secretary-general for political affairs.

Picco represented Pérez de Cuéllar in negotiations between New Zealand and France after the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior was sunk by French secret agents in 1985. At the time of its sinking, the vessel was protesting French nuclear tests in the Pacific.

The following year, he became the chief U.N. official in charge of negotiating the truce in the war between Sunni-majority Iraq and Shiite-majority Iran. More than 1 million people were killed in the conflict that began when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded his neighbor in 1980 and featured trench warfare, waves of attacks by Iranians and chemical weapons assaults by Iraq.

Picco also played a role in Afghanistan, helping facilitate the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet forces after Moscow’s 1979 invasion of that country.

Picco’s understanding of and relations with Iran allowed him to negotiate the release of hostages kidnapped by groups with ties to the Islamic Republic, including Terry Anderson, the bureau chief in Beirut for The Associated Press, who was held the longest — from 1985 to 1991.

The mission was not without risk. In 1987, Anglican church envoy Terry Waite disappeared from Beirut while trying to win the release of the hostages and was held captive himself — also until 1991.

As Pérez de Cuéllar’s special envoy, Picco faced that risk with personal bravery and an understanding of diplomacy and the Middle East.

“When asked for the difference in my approach to securing the release of the hostages to that of Terry Waite, I responded, ‘He went to Beirut from the West and I went to Beirut from the East.’ In those days, the East began in Teheran,” Picco wrote in his 1999 biography, “Man without a Gun: One Diplomat’s Secret Struggle to Free the Hostages, Fight Terrorism, and End a War.”.

In a 2013 BBC interview, Picco described how at one point in the negotiations he traveled to Beirut, where an Iranian diplomat told him he would meet with the kidnappers that night.

The car came to a screeching halt, he said, and a bag was put on his head.

“Then I was thrown into the boot of the car, something which I don’t recommend to anybody,” recalled the 6-foot-4 Picco, known for dressing elegantly.

“Of course I knew that I could be taken,” he said. “At that point I had no choice. I had invested quite a bit of time, and my own belief that what I was doing was right.”

Picco eventually negotiated a deal in which the militias would release 10 Western hostages, including Anderson, over several months, In return, Israeli-backed forces in southern Lebanon freed dozens of Arab prisoners.

Picco was born in Udine, in northeastern Italy, near both Austria and the former Yugoslavia. It was a location that influenced his ability to triangulate the needs of different groups and to resolve difficult problems, according to friends and family.

“He was dealing with the hostage-takers, the kidnappers, he was able to draw on this background,” said longtime friend, John Connorton, an attorney with experience in international relations. “Gianni Picco could relate to all kinds of people.”

Picco had political science degrees from the University of Padua and the University of California, Santa Barbara, along with the universities of Prague and Amsterdam.

As importantly, his son said, he was equipped with deep empathy and curiosity.

“He was just a curious individual. It doesn’t matter who you were, he could always learn something from somebody,” said Giacomo Picco, who works in finance in New York.

After joining the world body, the elder Picco became the political affairs officer of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Cyprus. Pérez de Cuéllar brought him to U.N. headquarters in New York in 1981.

“Different from government diplomacy, we don’t try to score a political point in favor of one or another,” Picco said in a 1991 interview about the U.N.‘s role. “We would like to develop a situation where at the end, everybody wins. And if indeed everybody wins, then we have all won.”

In an interview earlier this year, Anderson said Picco was selected for the hostage negotiations because “I guess the secretary-general thought that if he could talk to the Afghans and the Iranians and the Russians and the Iraqis, he could talk to anybody, and he did.”

“He broke the logjam, is what he did, and he did it at great risk,” Anderson added. “He was one of the most brilliant men I ever knew.”

In his book, Picco describes how a longtime relationship with Pérez de Cuéllar took him to Afghanistan when his mentor got the “thankless Afghan brief” after the Dec. 26, 1979, Soviet invasion. Helping run the U.N.‘s Office of Special Political Affairs, de Cuéllar asked Picco to develop a road map for peace in the country.

The experience taught him about the role of the diplomat, Picco wrote.

“Our job, then, was to fill the gap, nurture coalition politics in a way that would end the bloodshed,” he wrote. “It’s fine to emphasize the good-officer role of the secretary-general, but then it’s up to each of his representatives to stretch the confining rubber band as far as possible without snapping it. This is critical to understanding what we did in Afghanistan.”

On Dec. 12, 1991, President George Bush presented Picco with the Presidential Award for Exceptional Service.

“His skillful diplomacy with Middle Eastern governments and officials and representatives of the hostage holders has resulted in freedom for many individuals held in the region outside the due process of law, including six Americans,” said Maj. John Wissler, reading Picco’s citation. “His personal courage in the face of danger and his dedication to the mission represent the best tradition of international civil service.”

In 1994, Picco left the U.N. to become the chief executive officer of international consulting firm GDP Associates.

A regular lecturer at conferences and universities, and the author of numerous publications on foreign affairs, Picco received honorary degrees and awards from at least five governments.

Working for an international body without the money or military power of major nations, Picco said he had to be armed with his own commitment, neutrality and dedication to winning innocents’ freedom.

“I did like a lot to execute my own ideas. I don’t think it was really fair to think about something and then ask somebody else to do it. It’s not very courageous,” Picco said in a 2017 talk in New York.

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UN envoy Giandomenico Picco, who helped end the Iran-Iraq war and won hostage releases, has died