You are here: UNA-UK mourns the passing of Sir Brian Urquhart

7 January 2021

It is with deep sadness that UNA-UK mourns the loss of the legendary Sir Brian Urquhart. His life was dedicated to international service, shaping the United Nations we know today as well as giving inspiration to the lives and careers of countless internationalists.

A veteran of World War II, Sir Brian was the second person recruited to the fledgling UN Secretariat and was instrumental in creating the organisation's administrative framework. He served at the UN for four decades, troubleshooting many of the organisation’s most pressing concerns, playing a pivotal role in the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency as well as the development of the concept of UN peacekeeping and its subsequent implementation.  

As one of the only senior officials of the early UN with military experience, it was invariably Sir Brian who was tasked with the logistics and practicalities of early peacekeeping missions. It was Sir Brian who had the idea of painting regulation helmets blue and giving them to peacekeepers so they would be easily distinguished from combatants. It was also Sir Brian who, as assistant to Ralph Bunche, was tasked with establishing the UN Peacekeeping Mission to Congo (ONUC) which was several orders of magnitude larger than any previous mission the UN had attempted. And it was Sir Brian who, as Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs, oversaw peacekeeping for 17 years and developed that department into what it became, the Department for Peacekeeping Operations (now the Department for Peace Operations).

Throughout his career and his retirement, Sir Brian was committed to strengthening and improving the workings of the UN. His analysis on the inadequacy of UN appointment processes - including that contained in the seminal blueprint for a more effective organisation, co-written with Erskine Childers and published in 1991 - provided much of the inspiration for UNA-UK’s founding of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign in 2014. This campaign played an instrumental role in the positive reforms which led to the 2015-16 Secretary-General selection process being the most inclusive and transparent in the UN’s history.

Having started out as assistant to Gladwyn Jebb - who ran the preparatory commission that established the UN - Sir Brian became the personal assistant to Trygvie Lie, the first Secretary-General of the UN. Sir Brian retired over four decades later in 1986 at the rank of Under-Secretary-General, after taking over as head of Special Political Affairs, the precursor to the Department for Peacekeeping (now Peace) Operations, in 1972. 

Sir Brian was an international civil servant through and through who embodied the founding ideals of the Organisation he served for so long. His life’s work was driven by a sense of idealism that multilateralism and international cooperation were the tools needed to overcome global challenges, while also remaining pragmatic in facing the faults and failings of the UN. Sir Brian once said:

"I'm a pragmatic optimist and a idealistic realist... idealism is the only form of realism because unless you’re idealistic to some extent, you don’t have anything to look forward to, you don’t have anywhere to go"

At UNA-UK we proudly present the Sir Brian Urquhart Award annually on UN Day to honour an individual that has reflected Sir Brian’s qualities or distinguished service to multilateralism. Over the years recipients, many of whom are significant figures in their own right, have repeatedly highlighted the unparalleled influence and inspiration Sir Brian’s life and legacy has had on their own careers. From Dame Margaret Anstee, to Ian Martin, Andrew Gilmour and most recently Zeinab Badawi, you can find out more about the award here.

Natalie Samarasinghe, Executive Director of UNA-UK said: 

“Brian was - and remains an inspiration to us all. From peacekeeping to mediation, his impact continues to be felt at the United Nations and by the people it serves. His writing still feels sharp and on point; and his ideas continue to influence discussions on UN renewal today. We at UNA-UK are not ashamed to poach them! Above all, he was, as Andrew Gilmour puts it in his touching tribute, a good chap - never failing to provide words of advice and encouragement, even after he became ill.” 

For more on the life and legacy of Sir Brian:

  • Andrew Gilmour’s tribute to Sir Brian
  • Lord Hannay reflects on the past and future of the UN, and the legacy of Sir Brian
  • Read these anecdotes from Sir Brian’s memoir “A Life in Peace and War”
  • Watch Lord Judd of Portsea describe what makes Sir Brian stand out to him
  • A quote from Sir Brian on UN Peacekeeping
  • Andrew Gilmour’s Sir Brian Urquhart Award acceptance speech
  • Read Sir Brian’s brilliant crafted character sketches
  • Ben Donaldson and Fred Carver share their favorite excerpts of Sir Brian’s writing
  • Listen to Sir Brian’s interview with the BBC on the liberation of Bergen-Belsen
  • Watch this interview with Sir Brian looking back at his distinguished career

UN Video Footage:

UN Interview: