You are here: Dag Hammarskjöld - the quintessential UN Secretary-General

Based on remarks delivered at a reception commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dag Hammarskjöld's death, organised by UNA Westminster branch and held at the residence of the Ambassador of Sweden on 1 September 2011

Dag Hammarskjöld is the man whom most historians and commentators would still unhesitatingly identify as the outstanding holder of the world's most demanding - but not, as Hammarskjöld himself demonstrated, even in most unpromising circumstances, impossible - tasks: that of Secretary-General of the United Nations. The fact that, as only the second holder of the office, he demonstrated such skills of leadership and mediation, remains particularly important because he set the office and the organisation on a course which was a good deal more prominent and more significant in international affairs than possibly many of the founding fathers and certainly many of his contemporaries at the head of the UN's quarrelsome member states had ever intended.

Hammarskjöld set a standard which his successors all strive to attain and that has over the years greatly benefited the cause of international peace and security for which he died. And he did something even more noteworthy; he put the imprint of a human face and the characteristic of a remarkable personality on that great, sprawling, amorphous and often impersonal body. International organisations suffer greatly from being what General de Gaulle called in a different context 'monstres froids', entities to which many pay lip service but which fail to elicit warmth and loyalties in the way that their stakeholders, the member states, still do. When I reached the UN in 1990, knowing, I fear, all too little about the organisation, I had read Brian Urquhart's great biography of Hammarskjöld and drew inspiration from his example.

It is always a bit presumptuous, even impertinent, to try to answer the question 'what would Hammarskjöld have thought of our world as it is now should he be amongst us?' But it cannot be entirely avoided. I feel sure that he would have rejoiced greatly at the massive shifts that took place in international affairs at the end of the last century, with the ending of the Cold War, whose frozen certainties had so greatly inhibited his own field of action, the freeing of countries in central and eastern Europe from Soviet domination, and the collapse of apartheid in South Africa. But he might have felt that we had not really made the most of the opportunities offered by the end of the Cold War - and he would be right.

He would surely be saddened and critical of the fact that so many of the conflicts and crises with which he had had to grapple - in Korea, in Kashmir, over Palestine - remain unresolved and every bit as dangerous threats to international peace and security now, if not more so, than they were then.

He would perhaps marvel at the fact that UN peacekeeping had survived the major crisis for it, in which he lost his life, and that more than 100,000 peacekeepers, both military and civilian, were now deployed worldwide; but he would be unsparingly condemnatory of the failings in some of those peace operations and at the failure of the member states to back up the UN with political will and adequate resources when the going gets rough - and he would surely have been saddened by the fact that the Congo was back again in intensive care, demonstrating how fragile the gains from peacekeeping operations can be.

He might be pleasantly surprised that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty had so successfully stemmed the rapid spread of nuclear weapons which appeared imminent at the time of his death; but he would certainly have been concerned by the threats to the NPT regime represented by the nuclear programmes of North Korea and Iran and I doubt if he would have felt we were handling those threats very effectively.

But that is enough of gazing into a crystal ball. If we are, as I believe we should be, to be inspired by Hammarskjöld's example, what should we be focussing on most at this point in time? I will mention three issues, but there are many more than that.

First, in very general terms but affecting all the other issues, we need to shape the UN so that it can function effectively in the new multipolar world which has succeeded the bi-polarity of the Cold War period and the brief, not very happy, experience of uni-polarity which followed it, since multi-polarity is what we are going to be living with for the foreseeable future. It sounds easy, but it is not. There is a real risk that multi-polarity could slip into the sort of balance of power politics which were such an unstable feature of the period leading up to the First World War; or that it could cause to resemble the ineffectiveness and marginalisation of the League of Nations. Nor can it be achieved simply by institutional fixes such as enlargement of the Security Council, desirable though that is. It requires good working relations between the five permanent members of the Security Council and a willingness by them in particular but also by the wider membership to give the UN solid political backing and adequate resources when it does become engaged on their behalf; and it requires close ties and effective measures of cooperation between the UN and the regional and sub-regional organisations which have come to play an increasingly important role in international peace and security in the widest terms and which need to be encouraged to assume greater responsibilities and to implement them successfully.

Then secondly, we do need to recognise that we have not yet found the proper policy mixes for dealing with the phenomenon of failing and failed states, for helping them to avoid failure in the first place and then, if that does not succeed, for handling the subsequent chaotic situations - situations on which threats as diverse as terrorism, genocide, and appalling humanitarian disasters have already, and can in the future, emerge. Currently it is fashionable - driven partly by the constraints on resources resulting from the financial and economic crises we are living through and partly by perceived failures in Iraq and Afghanistan - to decry the politics of intervention. But the phenomenon of state failure is not going to go away any time soon.

If we turn our backs on intervention are we simply going to stand aside when massacres occur, as they almost certainly would have done in Cote d'Ivoire and in Libya earlier this year? Are we going to renege on the international responsibility to protect to which all our governments subscribed as recently as September 2005, at the UN Summit in New York? Or are we going to move ahead, developing more effective and more generally acceptable ways for the international community to handle those sorts of situations? Either choice will have costly consequences, but I would suggest that a retreat into what would be an international variant of isolationism would be the more costly.

And then, thirdly, there is nuclear proliferation and the need to work towards a world free of nuclear weapons. The glow from President Obama's Prague speech is fading now, and the skies have darkened since the US and Russia negotiated a further reduction in their strategic delivery systems. But we should have no illusions. We are at one of those moments - the 1960's when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty came into force was the last such occasion - when errors and the failure to act could result in a major slippage towards further proliferation. There will not be some painless, soft landing if North Korea and Iran are able to establish themselves as nuclear weapon states. We are not dealing here with the kind of situation we had between the US and the Soviet Union - and perhaps even between India and Pakistan - where a balance of terror and deterrence could avoid the worst. But we will not avoid these risks by purely punitive policies such as sanctions. There will need too to be policies of reassurance and of strengthened regional security to address the concerns which push countries, however misguidedly, towards developing nuclear weapons in the first place.

I trust I have not strayed too widely in these remarks. In a way the example of Dag Hammarskjöld tempts one into doing so. Because he was a man of wide vision, one who refused to accept the limitations on his field of action imposed by contemporary politics and who did his best to push back those limits. The best way we could honour his memory would be to emulate him.


David Hannay is a former Chairman of UNA-UK. He served as British Ambassador to the United Nations and on the UN Secretary-General's High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. He is currently an independent member of the House of Lords and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the United Nations.