Suez and the Congo: Hammarskjöld’s lasting legacy

What can we learn from Dag Hammarskjöld and his courageous conflict mediation during the Cold War?

In a few weeks, on the night of 17 September, I will, as I have often done, take a quiet moment to think of Dag Hammarskjöld and the 15 others who died that very night 55 years ago. Their airplane crashed under un-clarified circumstances when approaching the airport of Ndola in then Northern Rhodesia. The Secretary-General of the United Nations had planned to meet Moise Tshombe, the secessionist leader of the Congolese Katanga province to break the political stalemate in the country. But Hammarskjöld’s mediation efforts ended in tragedy. Even so his negotiation and diplomacy skills have remained a lasting legacy, an outstanding example in my mind, despite their limits in midst of the Cold War and the decolonisation of the African continent.

The Suez crisis

When Egypt’s president Nasser announced in mid-1956 plans to nationalise the Suez Canal, Israel, the United Kingdom and France – in clear violation of the UN Charter – prepared for military intervention to remain in control over this strategic transport route. But Hammarskjöld managed to utilise an alliance of shared interests between the Soviet Union and the USA. They both supported a Security Council resolution, which made it impossible for the French and British to use their veto power. As a result, the UN mandate enabled Hammarskjöld to act.

Following mainly the advice of the Canadian diplomat Lester Pearson, Hammarskjöld institutionalised the “Blue Helmets” in Egypt, the first UN peacekeeping force. Stationed in the conflict zone under the ultimate command of the Secretary-General, they prevented war. Much to his frustration it was impossible to obtain any mandate to respond in parallel to the Soviet invasion in Hungary, but his diplomatic skills and determined action to solve the Suez crisis remain a masterpiece of conflict solution, one that I expand upon in a recently published paper.

The Congo conflict

The independence of the Congo in June 1960 triggered violence bordering to civil war. Upon request of the Congolese government, the UN empowered the Secretary-General to act. But the mandate was guided by conflicting motives and interpretations. Its vagueness turned implementation into a mission impossible. The mineral rich Katanga province (from where the uranium for the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki came) had under Tshombe seceded from the Congo. It remained under control of the Belgian mining company Union Minière, Belgian troops and mercenaries, and was of geostrategic relevance for the West.

The situation in Congo worsened when Congo’s head of government, Patrice Lumumba, soon after independence was ousted from office, and at the end of 1960 kidnapped, tortured and executed with the direct involvement of the CIA. Some critically opinionate that Hammarskjöld was at least indirectly responsible for Lumumba’s gruesome death. But in a letter to John Steinbeck he commented the assassination as follows: “his murder was in Tallyrand’s words: ‘more than a crime, it was a major stupidity’ […] I incline to the conclusion that no one, in the long pull, will really profit from Lumumba’s death, least of all those outside the Congo who now strain to do so but should one day confront a reckoning with truth and decency.

Despite relentless efforts, Hammarskjöld was unable to find common ground for a solution of the conflict. His efforts were criticized by all big powers. In the Security Council he stated in response to the continued demands for his resignation by the Soviet Union but also the Belgian, French and British government, who saw their vested economic interests at stake:

For seven or eight months, through efforts far beyond the imagination of those who founded this Organisation, it has tried to counter tendencies to introduce the Big-Power conflict into Africa and put the young African countries under the shadow of the cold war. […] We effectively countered efforts from all sides to make the Congo a happy hunting ground for national interests. To be a roadblock to such efforts is to make yourself the target of attacks from all those who find their plans thwarted.”

No happy ending, but a lasting legacy

While Dag’s diplomatic navigation through yet unknown waters was a major success in solving the Suez crisis, his compass to navigate through Scylla and Charybdis at the height of the Cold War in the Congo was an insufficient instrument to overcome the antagonisms at play.

The Congo showed the limitations that exist for a single person to handle and solve a conflict, which involved a variety of stakeholders with strong interests. It also displayed the vulnerability when decisions had to rely on the advice of other people, who at times were guided by differing loyalties, mentalities, ideologies and interests. Resolving conflicts requires skilful mediation and the involvement of competent diplomats to find compromises for sustainable solutions. But the complexity of situations and the lack of clarity of mandates might prevent even the most skilful mediators from achieving desired results.

We do not know what might have followed a meeting of Hammarskjöld with Tshombe, if it would have taken place. What we know is, that the Congo remained a war-torn territory for generations to come, at the cost of millions of lives. Among them were those of Dag Hammarskjöld and 15 others, who sacrificed their lives while in search of peace.

Henning Melber By Henning Melber

Henning Melber is Senior Adviser and Director Emeritus. He has served as Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Kassel University, was Director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit in Windhoek, and Research Director of the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala. Henning is an Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and at the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein and a Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for Commonwealth Studies/University of London. He directed the Foundation from 2006 to 2012. He holds a PhD in Political Sciences and a Habilitation in Development Studies. In 2017 he was elected President of the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI).