Ralph Bunche's International Legacy: The Middle East, Congo, and United Nations Peacekeeping

By Lyman, Princeton N. | The Journal of Negro Education, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Ralph Bunche's International Legacy: The Middle East, Congo, and United Nations Peacekeeping


Lyman, Princeton N., The Journal of Negro Education


Ralph Bunche is remembered most for three major achievements in the international field. His mediation of the end of the first Israel-Arab war, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize; his work in the tumultuous period of independence in the Congo; and his "invention " of United Nations peacekeeping, which itself won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. This article looks at the legacy of each of these achievements. While Bunche's contemporary achievements were outstanding, in each of these areas the long-term legacy is marked by disappointment and indeed retrogression from the time of his contributions.

THE MIDDLE EAST

This article does not propose to analyze in depth the diplomacy in the Middle East. Instead it looks at the legacy of United Nations (UN) involvement in this region in the aftermath of the negotiations of 1948-49 and again in 1957. In short, Bunche's leadership, especially in the first of these periods, represents the highpoint of UN responsibility and direction of Middle East diplomacy. Since then there has been a steady decline in the UN's role to the point that until very recently it was virtually a non-actor in one of the most turbulent parts of the world. How did this happen?

Bunche learned quickly that diplomacy in this region was fraught with charges of bias, with duplicity by external players, and heavy handedness. In this first period of his Middle East diplomacy, Bunche was accused by Israelis of a pro-Arab bias, a criticism picked up by a broad array of American commentators, even including W.E.B. DuBois (Rivlin, 1990; Urquhart, 1993). The interests of major powers, particularly Britain, would confound his mediating efforts. The position of the United States, still ambivalent on many of the points in question, was not yet as profound as later, but it required special attention. Bunche also faced the continuing efforts of the parties to make progress on the ground, through military or other means. Yet Bunche was able to maintain his position as the central mediating party. Through dogged, six week-long discussions at Rhodes in early 1949, Bunche hammered out the armistice agreement between Israel and Egypt. Agreements with Syria and Jordan would follow. For the moment, earlier accusations were forgotten and Bunche returned home a hero, praised by all sides. In 1950, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1956-57, the UN was once again heavily engaged in the wake of the British, French, and Israeli invasion of the Sinai. But in this situation, the overriding influence of the United States was becoming evident. The decision of the United States to oppose the invasion, insist upon withdrawal of all three forces, and to back the UN in policing the agreement was critical to what UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold, Bunche, and their UN colleagues were able to achieve. What was significant in this regard was the strong support of the United States for a substantial UN role. It was in this situation that UN peacekeeping was born, with the creation of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), the first armed UN military force. Once again, Bunche found himself in the crosshairs of those accusing the UN of bias; in this case, of being "slaves" to the Egyptians in the deployment of UNEF. Meanwhile, the Egyptians made life for the UN almost equally difficult (Urquhart, 1993). Nevertheless, UNEF came to be considered a success, as the warring sides settled down to yet another, albeit short period of peace. Ominously, however, as perhaps signs of problems to come, Israel refused to allow UNEF to be posted on its side of the border.4 Ten years later, Egyptian President Nasser would demand UNEF's withdrawal from Egyptian soil as a prelude to the 1967 Six Day War.

The Six Day War marked the beginning of the end of a major UN role in the Middle East. In the run-up to the war, this time it was Egypt that accused Bunche of bias, to the point that secretary General U Thant was told that Bunche would not be welcome in accompanying U Thant on a visit to Cairo. …

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