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“To save us from hell”
– by Henning Melber
Dag Hammarskjöld welcoming Kwame Nkrumah, the prime minister of newly independent Ghana at the United Nations in 1958
2011 marks the 50th year of the violent death of the United Nations second Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld. In historical perspective, he is praised as the most outstanding secretary-general the UN had so far. “More general than secretary,” was a common appraisal at his time. The Swedish bureaucrat was a norm-setting international civil servant, who steered the institution through the rough waters of the Cold War and the winds of change blowing across the African continent.
In 1954, after one year in office, Hammarskjöld stated that the saying according to which the United Nations was not created “to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell” summed up the right attitude. Unfortunately, little has changed since then. The slogan still holds true.
Half a century after his death, scepticism seems to reign. The UN is barely appreciated for its achievements, but tends to be criticised for shortcomings and failures. The wide range of covenants, conventions, resolutions and other codified programmes and declarations adopted over more than 60 years often reveal an appalling discrepancy between defined norms and sobering social and political realities. But would the world today be a better place in the absence of such frameworks? Would we be better off without the UN?
Especially those in the so-called “Global South” who are prone to criticising the institutions of global governance as tools for hegemonic interests should remember that our world would be an even more troubled place without the limited power of the UN. Consider the case of Southern Africa, for example.
Early on, the UN Trusteeship Council, which supervised the administration of territories before they became independent, and the General Assembly used their normative force to declare apartheid a “crime against humanity”. Following suit, the UN Security Council eventually imposed its first arms embargo on the minority regime in South Africa. The UN Council for Namibia similarly played a relevant role in facilitating the decolonisation of that country.
Other UN organs and UN Special Representatives, who were first appointed by Hammarskjöld as his personal envoys, played constructive roles in mediating the end of conflicts elsewhere. Many struggles for emancipation would have taken longer or perhaps might not have succeeded at all had it not been for the global arena created by the UN.
Hammarskjöld, moreover, introduced the peacekeeping missions. He did so against all odds when dealing with the so-called Suez Crisis in 1956. In 1960, he took decisive action during a mission to the Congo. The organisational pattern for peacekeeping he designed back then has stood the test of time.
Nonetheless, Hammarskjöld’s efforts to seek a peaceful solution for the Congo failed. He died in the early morning hours of 18 September 1961, close to the wreckage of the plane that crashed before landing in Ndola, a town in what was then Northern Rhodesia that borders the former colony of the Belgian Congo. None of the 15 other members of his entourage and crew on board survived. The cause of the crash remains a matter of speculation.
The Congo fell victim to autocratic rule and remained torn by violence. In civil strife since the 1990s, millions of lives were lost and the physical and mental health of millions of others destroyed. Typically, women and children suffered most from militia violence that did not shy from systematic rape and other atrocities.
Though unable to stem all catastrophes, the UN is rising to diverse challenges. UN Security Council Resolution 1325 of October 2000 paved the way for a new approach to dealing with gender issues and Security Council Resolution 1960 of December 2010 consolidated new standards and norms for dealing with systematic sexualised violence in military conflicts. Rape can therefore now be prosecuted as a war crime. That should serve as a beacon for humankind and a point of reference for measuring the effectiveness and legal and moral weight of the world body.
Sadly, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is not the only place where the UN failed to enforce peace. Recent news of hunger and violence in Somalia are but one more example. On the other hand, the UN is increasingly rising to challenges. The UN Security Council Resolutions 1962, adopted in December 2010, and 1970 and 1973, adopted in February and March 2011 respectively, dealt with the Côte d’Ivoire (1962) and Libya (1970 and 1973). They certainly made a difference in those countries. In the long run, they may yet prove to have set a new norm concerning the international community’s responsibility to protect people from murderous governments.
It is true: both cases are unusual and carry the risk of yet more one-sided, opportunistic exploitation for hegemonic purposes. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of UN sanctioned military interventions as a means to deal with dictators’ unacceptable violations of fundamental standards and norms. The perpetrators concerned often refer to national sovereignty, but it has become obvious that this principle does not give them the right to slaughter their own people.
National borders and global challenges
In view of daunting global challenges, the UN is an important instrument for global governance. It transcends the Westphalian order, which is basically one of bi- and multilateral relations. The greatest threats to human survival – climate change, food shortages and war, to name but three – do not respect national borders however.
One can only speculate what Hammarskjöld’s initiatives would have been for dealing with environmental challenges, international terrorism and various other phenomena that were still unknown in his time. He certainly would have approached matters in his own way, based on his propensity to seek dialogue instead of polarisation and his deep love of nature, culture, religion and the arts.
In an address on “Asia, Africa, and the West”, delivered to the University of Lund on 4 May 1959, Hammarskjöld confidently stated: “The Organisation I represent … is based on a philosophy of solidarity.” Empathy and integrity were other values for which he stood and by which he lived. He created a moral compass to guide the international civil service, thus defining standards that still serve to measure the performance of the UN and its leaders.
For Hammarskjöld, the work of the UN was to build on what humankind has in common. In February 1956, he addressed the Indian Council of World Affairs. Prompted by his encounter with South Asian culture, his speech explored the dimensions of human universalism: “Our world of today is more than ever before one world. The weakness of one is the weakness of all, and the strength of one – not the military strength, but the real strength, the economic and social strength, the happiness of people – is indirectly the strength of all.” In regard to the UN, he said it was a reconfirmation of the human potential to shape one’s own destiny and to create a world of dignity for all.
A cosmopolitan Swede, Hammarskjöld believed in an international civil service that had to be independent from powerful interests. On 8 September 1961, he addressed the staff at the secretariat of the UN for the last time. His words are still relevant today: “What is at stake is a basic question of principle: Is the Secretariat to develop as an international secretariat, with the full independence contemplated in Article 100 of the Charter, or is it to be looked upon as an intergovernmental – not international – secretariat providing merely the necessary administrative services for a conference machinery? This is a basic question, and the answer to it affects not only the working of the Secretariat but the whole of the future of international relations.” In Hammarskjöld’s view, the UN had to speak for those whose voices otherwise would not be heard or ignored.
His legacy remains alive – not only, and not least through further drafting, adoption and implementation of normative frameworks to promote and protect human rights. Obviously, normative frameworks alone cannot save us from hell. But hell is much more likely in the absence of such frameworks.
No, the UN is not perfect, nor has it made the world a perfect place. It has, however, made the world a better place – and continues to do so.