The League of Nations, established after the first World War as an institution of global governance, already included in principle forms of intervention into affairs of member states (not least through the institutionalisation of trusteeships and the establishment of the International Court in The Hague) as a mechanism to contribute to international peace and security.
This article reviews the development of this interventionist role, its practical forms and the normative justifications of the United Nations. It explores the ambiguities of such interventions since Dag Hammarskjold as second Secretary-General shaped some of the principles and values underlying a global responsibility to protect people from being killed by those occupying state power.
The understanding and insights of four prominent mediators and seasoned diplomats are used as a particular point of reference, while the changing concepts within the United Nations system with regard to humanitarian relief missions, the responsibility to protect and the rule of law are the general notions explored and analysed with a focus on and perspective from Africa.
"You try to save a drowning man without prior authorization."
Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), gave up his life in pursuit of a peaceful solution to the civil strife in the former Belgian colony of the Congo. He was on his way to meet Moise Tshombe, the leader of the Katangese secessionist movement. His death, on the night from 17 to 18 September 1961, shocked the world and left Sweden in mourning. Fifteen others were aboard the plane, which crashed while approaching the airport of the Northern Rhodesian mining town of Ndola. The only survivor died in a local hospital without being able to offer an account of what happened. Ever since then speculations were rife, if the plane-crash was more than just a tragic accident (Williams, 2011).
During his terms in office since 1953, Dag Hammarskjold not only institutionalised the UN peacekeeping operations to solve the Suez crisis, but also created the special representatives. He appointed them to act in specific missions on his behalf in sensible matters on the ground. He thereby created a UN presence, which at times was able to find solutions maybe not at hand without the involvement of the world body. Not least, his concept of humanitarian intervention pre-empted the later norm of a Responsibility to Protect. His response to the inter-ethnic violence erupting in the Congo, which for him was bearing characteristics of an incipient genocide, resembled features of a humanitarian intervention (Bring, 2011:580.
Under Hammarskjold, the UN's executive rule
developed through the systematisation of practice rather than through the development of detailed doctrines or norms. (...) The terms in which the practices of international rule were rationalised remained remarkably stable for almost forty years. The UN and other humanitarian internationalists understood themselves to be impartial and neutral actors, intervening to maintain peace and protect life with the consent of those they governed (Orford, 2011: 6). (2))
Throughout the period of the Cold War the UN were able to claim a role of a more or less neutral actor in interventions, despite being contested and challenged ever since Hammarskjold pursued a policy of foremost and exclusive loyalty to the UN Charter and not to national interests. Being criticised at different times by all big powers holding veto rights in the Security Council during his terms in office (and even in confrontation with all of them on the UN's role in the singular case of the Congo) could be seen as ultimate proof of such independence vis-a-vis the dominant interests at play.
This article has been developed from a summary based on the work of four prominent international civil servants, who since the 1970s served the UN in various missions. …