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Man of peace

Published : Oct 21, 2011 00:00 IST

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Common to us all and above all other convictions stands the truth once expressed by a Swedish poet when he said that the greatest prayer of man does not ask for victory but for peace.

Dag Hammarskjold in his maiden speech at the U.N. on his induction as Secretary-General in April 1953.

THE pursuit of peace guided Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in what his predecessor and first Secretary-General of the United Nations, Trygve Lie, described as the most impossible job in the world. From 1953 until his violent death in 1961 he performed the job with a distinction that his successors, such as Kofi Annan, aspired to reach.

It was Cold War intrigue that got him the job after it forced Trygve Lie out. Such was the secrecy surrounding his choice that not even he knew about it until the President of the Security Council sent him a cablegram: In view of the immense importance of this post, more especially at the present time, members of the Security Council express the earnest hope that you will agree to accept the appointment if, as they hope and believe, it is shortly made by the General Assembly.

The U.N. website records the reply from Hammarskjold, who was then a Cabinet Minister in Sweden: With strong feeling [of] personal insufficiency I hesitate to accept candidature... but do not feel I could refuse to assume the task imposed on me.

Sir Brian Urquharat, who served with Hammarskjold among other Secretaries-General in a 40-year career in the U.N. and who authored the biography Hammarskjold, put the selection of the second Secretary-General in perspective in an interview to U.N. News Centre. He said:

In 1953, the U.N. was in a very parlous condition because the bright, wonderful atmosphere of the San Francisco conference, the relief at the end of the war and the assurances by everybody that they wanted a world at peace, all of that, had sort of worn off.

Trygve Lie had, quite rightly, backed the Security Council's intervention in Korea and as a result he had been excommunicated' by the Soviet Union and was not on speaking terms with anyone in the Soviet bloc, which made it very difficult [for him] to operate.

He resigned in November 1952. Then there was a sort of a free-for-all trying to find someone not who would be the best for the job, but who could escape one veto or another in the Security Council. Something like ten distinguished persons from various parts of the world were tried.

Finally, the British and the French suggested that it was essential to solve this problem. By this time we were in March 1953, and they suggested that four names should be put up by the Western countries to see if any one of them was acceptable to the Soviet Union. The British and the French, among others, suggested Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden, who in those days was not a famous international figure at all. He was very young and he was very successful in his own country but not known much anywhere else.

To everybody's amazement, the Soviet Union agreed. He started extremely quietly and people wondered how he would manage to deal with an organisation that was split clean down the middle.

And it was assumed that they had elected a nice, competent Swedish civil servant who wouldn't rock the boat and wouldn't be very independent and wouldn't create trouble. Well, he actually turned out to be anything but that!

Hammarskjold proved himself to be a hands-on Secretary-General who brokered peace in the Suez Canal dispute (1957) and kept Israel and the Arab states engaged in attempts at reconciling differences and bringing peace to the region.

One of his early successes came in 1955 when he travelled to China and negotiated with Premier Zhou Enlai for the release of 15 American airmen captured while serving under the United Nations Command in the Korean War.

The U.N. as peacekeeper was Hammarskjold's idea, which got off the ground with the establishment of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) in 1956 to secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities in Egypt during the Suez Canal crisis.

For him the U.N. Charter was sacrosanct and he brooked no violation. He told the Security Council in October 1965: The principles of the Charter are, by far, greater than the Organisation in which they are embodied, and the aims which they are to safeguard are holier than the policies of any single nation or people. As a servant of the Organisation, the Secretary-General has the duty to maintain his usefulness by avoiding public stands on conflicts between member nations unless and until such an action might help to resolve the conflict. He must also be a servant of the principles of the Charter, and its aims must ultimately determine what for him is right and wrong. (Security Council Official Records, Eleventh Year, 751st Meeting , October 31, 1956.)

This exposition of the Charter obligations was occasioned by British-French belligerence against Egypt over the Suez issue. In a General Assembly emergency session called on November 1, Britain and France found themselves virtually isolated. That was when Canadian Foreign Minister Lester Pearson suggested the setting up of a U.N. peacekeeping force. Britain and France seconded the idea and agreed to withdraw their forces if a U.N. force would keep the peace. In a matter of days, the UNEF was created and deployed.

The organisation, in terms of its evolution, its administration and the achievement of its goals, was as important to Hammarskjold as the peace efforts it undertook across the world. Besides, his two terms at the helm was also the period when the membership of the U.N. kept growing. A highlight amid this expansion was his visit to 21 countries in Africa in a one-and-a-half-month period from December 1959 to January 1960. It was to him an eye-opener on the situation in Africa and steeled his resolve to come to the defence of the Third World countries.

The year 1960 also saw the admission of 17 newly independent states to the U.N., among them Congo, which was in chaos and upheaval after gaining independence from Belgium. The continued presence of Belgian troops in the mineral-rich Katanga province in the south, where it backed the rebel-leader Moise Tshombe, remained an irritant for the newly elected government of Patrice Lumumba.

Following Lumumba's request for military assistance, the Security Council quickly authorised the establishment of a U.N. force in the Congo, which the Secretary-General set up and which numbered around 20,000 at its peak.

The U.N. force achieved the withdrawal of Belgian troops in six weeks, but Hammarskjold's refusal to use it to fight the rebels irked Lumumba, who then sought Soviet help. The move collapsed and led to the fall of Lumumba's government and ultimately to his assassination. Soviet displeasure over what it saw as his biased role in the Congo led to it demanding his removal.

Hammarskjold's response the same day, October 3, 1960, at a plenary meeting of the General Assembly encapsulated in its essence the raison d'etre of the U.N.:

I said the other day that I would not wish to continue to serve as Secretary-General one day longer than such continued service was considered to be in the best interests of the organisation. The statement this morning seems to indicate that the Soviet Union finds it impossible to work with the present Secretary-General. This may seem to provide a strong reason why I should resign. However, the Soviet Union has also made it clear that if the present Secretary-General were to resign now, it would not wish to elect a new incumbent but insist on an arrangement which and this is my firm conviction based on broad experience would make it impossible to maintain an effective executive. By resigning I would, therefore at the present difficult and dangerous juncture throw the organisation to the winds. I have no right to do so because I have a responsibility to all those member states for which the organisation is of decisive importance a responsibility which overrides all other considerations. It is not the Soviet Union or indeed any other Big Power who need the United Nations for their protection: it is all the others. In this sense, the organisation is first of all their organisation, and I deeply believe in the wisdom with which they will be able to use it and guide it. I shall remain in my post during the term of my office as a servant of the organisation in the interest of all those other nations, as long as they wish me to do so.

The intellectual in action, as Sir Brian Urquharat described him, carried the day and established perhaps the U.N.'s credentials as peacemaker. The only person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after his death, in 1961, Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjold was, in the words of John F. Kennedy, the greatest statesman of our century.

V.M. Rajasekhar

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Oct 21, 2011.)

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