Friday, July 22, 2011

Road Marking #4

"So let us here resolve that Dag Hammarskjold did not live, or die, in vain."

This, the request made by John F. Kennedy to the UN General Assembly on 25 September 1961, a week after the news had come in that the Secretary-General was killed in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia, what is now northern Zambia. Kennedy urged the Assembly to rally, for in the UN lay "the only true alternative to war". He continued,

This will require new strength and new roles for the United Nations. For disarmament without checks is but a shadow - and a community without law is but a shell. Already the United Nations has become both the measure and the vehicle of man's most generous impulses. Already it has provided - in the Middle East, in Asia, in Africa this year in the Congo - a means of holding man's violence within bounds.

It was Hammarskjold's personal intervention in Congo – then, with a break-away republic of Katanga threatening Congo’s independence and stability, at the very centre of Cold War tensions – that led indirectly to his death. UN forces operating in the southern Congolese province of Katanga (under Conor Cruise O’Brien) had engaged in military action against a Congolese break-away army serving General Tsombé and backed by Belgian interests. The military engagement expressed, albeit in an unwanted way, the increasingly interventionist nature of UN involvement in the area and the role of the UN more generally. It also necessitated Hammarskjold's presence on the ground – he was the man behind the UN’s new approach, and the situation in Congo had come to symbolise his style as Secretary-General. His purpose now was to arrange a ceasefire between UN troops and Tsombé, and he was on his way to Katanga when, a few minutes before his scheduled landing in Ndola, the UN plane clipped the tree canopy and crashed.

The events that night came at the end of what was already a long history of conflict in the Congo, a history that of course continues unabated fifty years later (the UN is still heavily involved). Here is a timeline of some of the most significant events in the area in the lead-up to Hammarskjold's decision to go to Congo in mid-September 1961.

30 June 1960: The independent Republic of Congo is declared.

11 July 1960: Katanga, a region in the southeast of Congo, declares itself an independent state.

Dec 1960: The Prime Minister of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, is captured and held prisoner in Katanga.

13 February 1961: The Katanga Minister of the Interior announces the death of President Lumumba.

14 February: The Soviet Union calls for the resignation of Dag Hammarskjold as Secretary-General.

21 February: The UN Security Council
authorises the use of force in Congo as a last resort to prevent civil war. Hammarskjold sees the role of the UN in Congo as encouraging national reconciliation and eliminating foreign interference in Katanga.

April: The UN Operation in Congo intervenes to control the area between Kabalo and Albertville. Hammarskjold appoints Conor Cruise O’Brien, a member of the Irish Foreign Service and later editor of the London Observer, as the UN representative in Katanga. As Brian Urquhart later wrote, “Hammarskjold did not know O’Brien but had read and liked his Maria Cross, a series of essays on a group of French and English Catholic writers.” (Urquhart, Hammarskjold, Bodley Head, 1972, p.549 - this is my source for much of the information in this timeline)

12 May: President Kasa-Vubu of Congo announces the intention to reconvene Parliament.

30 May: Hammarskjold delivers a lecture at Oxford University - "The International Civil Servant in Law and Fact". This is his last major public address, and is read as a defence of his personal integrity and neutrality in the office of Secretary-General (in particular against attacks on him by the Soviet Union).

June: O'Brien takes up his post as the UN representative in Katanga, arriving on 14 June. O’Brien attempts to rid the area of its large number of European mercenaries.

July: Congo Parliament reopens. A new government in Belgium signals a possible weakening of Belgian antipathy towards the UN. Hammarskjold is asked by staff in Congo whether they may attempt a military takeover of Katanga. He refuses. However, he does permit O’Brien to adopt “more stringent methods” (Urquhart, p. 552) – arrests and expulsions.

August: A government is formed by Prime Minister Adoula, which the UN recognises and which paves the way for the UN to demand the expulsion of the foreign elements within Congo that are disrupting its progress towards being an independent democracy, and for a possible downscaling of the UN presence in Congo.

16 August: Hammarskjold is informed by the Congolese government that action is needed on Katanga in order to maintain stability and unity in the new Cabinet. Hammarskjold has indicated he is prepared to go to Congo if needed. He gives “instructions that all possible efforts short of the use of military force must be made to remove European officers from the mobile units in North Katanga.” (Urquhart, p. 554) He also strengthens the UN military presence in Katanga.

O’Brien, who has been attempting to get Tsombe into talks with Adoula, is quoted in the international press as saying he will undertake military action against the Katangese breakaway forces.

28 August: O’Brien succeeds in arresting  81 foreign officers.

September: Hammarskjold becomes more concerned about the position of UN people in Katanga, and the need for decisions to be made with his authorization. With tensions between O’Brien and Katangese military officers rising, it is increasingly likely that matters will play out on their own terms. It also becomes clear that Hammarskjold needs to visit Leopoldville and possibly also Katanga in order to diffuse the hostilities.

10 September: O’Brien’s assistant, Tombelaine, is arrested and then released. Hammarskjold prepares to leave for the Congo, telling “Mongi Slim that this would be his last personal effort to solve the Katanga problem and that if he failed he would be unable to remain as Secretary-General and had decided to resign.” (Urquhart, p. 565)


I will pick up this timeline in a later post. But first a link to my previous one, which was on the topic of the relation between contemplation and action. In one of his last letters, to the Swedish lyrical poet J. Erik Lindegren, Hammarskjold wrote this on what he thought was an illusory idea of "poetry in action":

We all remain free to form our personal life in accordance with standards which otherwise may find expression in poetry. But obligation to action, especially in the political field, is more of a danger than of a privilege. (Qtd in Urquhart, p. 544)

I doubt that he was concerned about the danger to himself. But on the eve of his flight to Congo he must have been very aware of the acute hazards involved in his participation: it seemed that every action now brought only more danger for those involved. In many ways, the challenge lay in convincing people to stop acting.