Dag Hammarskjold and United Nations Peacekeeping

By Bildt, Carl | UN Chronicle, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Dag Hammarskjold and United Nations Peacekeeping


Bildt, Carl, UN Chronicle


United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold arrived in Gaza on 23 December 1958 to spend Christmas with the troops of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). At left is Lt.Col. J.C. Ruy, Commander of the Brazilian Battalion, and at centre, 2nd row, is UNEF Commander, Lt.Gen. E.LM. Burns, who accompanied the Secretary-General.

When Dag Hammarskjold was appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations on 7 April 1953, there was a full-scale war on the Korean peninsula, the Organization was deeply divided between East and West, and the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council over the refusal of the United Nations to give the now communist Chinese regime a seat on the Council. It was by no means a safe bet that the United Nations was going to be more successful than its predecessor, the League of Nations, in preventing an outbreak of a new world war.

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The man who took on this mission, however, had a firm belief in the United Nations role as an international peacekeeping body and protector of the interests and integrity of less powerful nations. He was also a strong believer in the power of diplomacy. He knew that even the most intense conflicts must reach a political solution, and that it was the task of international diplomacy to pave the way towards that end.

One would not necessarily expect a person of vision and principle to also be a pragmatic and creative person. That is why Dag Hammarskjold, fifty years after his death, continues to fascinate and inspire people from all over the world. Hammarskjold combined these seemingly antithetical virtues remarkably well. His often quoted ambition that the United Nations should be a dynamic instrument for its Member States essentially cast pragmatism as vision, for Hammarskjold understood that the Organization's relevance lay in its ability to constantly adapt to new challenges.

Peacekeeping is perhaps the most prominent example of that adaptation. When the Suez Crisis erupted in 1956, the United Nations Charter did not contain any provisions for using impartial and armed UN forces to stabilize fragile situations. It still does not--but neither has it ever barred such arrangements. For Hammarskjold, this void was an opportunity rather than a constraint. On the basis of a suggestion from Canada's Foreign Minister, Lester Pearson, he devised the concept of peacekeeping in a few days, and managed to assemble the United Nations Emergency Force (UNRF) within weeks. It testifies to Hammarskjold's wisdom that the basic principles of UNKF's operation have remained a central feature of all similar UN interventions to this dav. As we consider the future of UN peacekeeping, however, we should view UNEF as the epitome of Hammarskjold^ pragmatism and creativity.

A number of developments have fundamentally altered the premise of UN peacekeeping since the Suez Crisis. The end of the Cold War gave rise to intrastate conflicts of political as well as ethnic and religious stripe, conflicts that had been kept in check by the bipolar tension. Globalization and the improvement of all means of communication have shrunk distances in time and space. The emergence of regional forms of organization have created structures that sometimes complement, sometimes duplicate, the functions of the United Nations. While these circumstances have enabled UN peacekeeping operations to lake on a wider range of conflicts than before, they have also created significant challenges.

Today, the actors are more numerous and the agenda is broader. Since the end of the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has played a significant role in a number of operations in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. The European Union is currently implementing its External Action Service in order to further increase its diplomatic strength and political relevance. The Arab League and the African Union are important actors in Africa. …

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