I recently had the privilege to dig through the Dag Hammarskjöld archival collection at the National Library of Sweden. Hidden amongst all the myriad of papers and personal effects was a brown photo album that caught my eye. Taken by the man himself, the album contained photos of desert landscapes, scenic cityscapes and expressive portraits. Where were they taken? What mysterious trip had Hammarskjöld been on?
It took me a few pages to figure it out but the album was from one of Dag Hammarskjöld’s many trips to the West Asia and North African Region (WANA). The region has historically held deep religious significance and been marked by violent conflict. Various groups have oftentimes rejoiced at the region’s holy sites, the fertile land, or stunning sceneries, and clashed over interests with others. This was also the case during the time that Dag Hammarskjöld served as the UN Secretary-General (1953-1961), when several important events took him to the region.
As a former resident of Jordan and someone who keenly follows the developments in the region, I decided to look into Hammarskjöld’s role as Secretary-General within the WANA-region. What was his personal involvement during key events of the time? What initiatives and approaches that he applied in the region over 50 years ago can we draw on and find relevance in today?
The time Dag Hammarskjöld spent in office coincided with a turbulent time in the history of West Asia with several important regional and larger international developments. In the beginning of Hammarskjöld’s first term, there were as many as three UN Security Council Resolutions passed with reference to violations of the 1949 Armistice Agreement between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. In fact, the solidification of the state-building of Israel and the corresponding tensions between Israel and the neighbouring states were one of the critical issues of concern to the international community during his tenure as Secretary-General. The conflict is still active today, but significant attempts were made to resolve it already under Hammarskjöld.
In his attempt to facilitate negotiations between key regional actors, Hammarskjöld embarked on ‘Shuttle Diplomacy’, frequently traveling between Damascus, Jerusalem, Amman, Cairo, and Beirut among other places. In doing so, he applied a dedicated and personal approach, often forming bonds with individual heads of state. According to long-term associate Brian Urquhart, Hammarskjöld can be credited with being one of the few international statesmen who had a constructive personal and professional relationship simultaneously with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and David Ben Gurion of Israel, two long-term antagonists of the region.
Certainly, such a personal dedication to maintaining peaceful relations between the peoples of the region was important to reducing the likelihood of large-scale conflicts. Yet, despite these efforts, limited progress was made under Hammarskjöld with regards to the ceasefire-agreement between Israel and Palestine. Hammarskjöld was also unable to prevent the escalation of tensions leading up to the Suez Crisis of 1956 despite ongoing mediation efforts, and the large-scale conflict that erupted between Egypt, Israel, Great Britain, and France, costing over a thousand lives. Even so, Hammarskjöld persevered and engineered both novel and creative solutions to conflicts in the region with long-lasting consequences.
The UN as peacekeeper
Hammarskjöld’s perceived neutrality as an international statesman and his personal investment in finding solutions to conflicts enabled him to establish the UN as an entity that could prevent conflicts from escalating by establishing its presence on the ground. The UN’s first ever monitoring mission, the United Nations Observation Group in Lebanon (UNOGIL), is an important example.
This novel UN mission was designed when the United Arab Republic (UAR, a union consisting of present-day Syria and Egypt which existed 1958-61) interfered in Lebanon in 1958. The role of UNOGIL was strictly limited to observation and it was not tasked to mediate, arbitrate or forcefully prohibit illegal infiltration, although the hope was that its very presence on the borders would deter any such traffic. Remarkably, the mission did just that. Not only was it accepted by all then-adversaries such as Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Israel, but it successfully de-escalated the increasing tensions.
Another notable example is the UN’s first armed peacekeeping operation, the United Nations’ Emergency Force (UNEF), which was deployed on the Egyptian-Israeli border in 1956 following the Suez Crisis. This mission would not only preserve the peace between the two countries for over 10 years, but also set an important precedent that would be replicated in multiple conflict contexts globally – the UN’s ‘Blue Helmets’. Yet, while Hammarskjöld was able to get both Nasser and Ben Gurion to agree to the deployment of an international force, he was forced to include a clause stipulating that the mission could be abolished at the request of Egypt. Prior to the Six-Day War of 1967, this is exactly what happened.
Bringing emerging nation states into the UN
The de-colonialisation of the countries of West Asia and North Africa and their subsequent incorporation into the international community was another important development during Hammarskjöld’s tenure. This did not only mean that new nations emerged, but also generated considerable tension between them and the former European colonial powers, such as Great Britain and France.
The UN’s presence in the shape of UNOGIL and UNEF effectively contributed to a reduced presence of colonial powers in the region, as Hammarskjöld worked to replace unilateral military interventions with multilateral UN ones. Hammarskjöld also sought to bring in the emerging nation states into the UN-system through his inclusive approach and supported them vis a vis the stronger global powers through this incorporation. This is further illustrated by the large number of states (as many as 40) being incorporated into the UN-system under his time in office.
Hammarskjöld dedicated considerable time and energy to finding sustainable solutions in West Asia. He underscored the importance of personal dedication and relationships when attempting to find options that could put an end to violent conflicts. Hammarskjöld also understood that the UN has an important role to play in preserving international peace, a role that is as important today as it was under Hammarskjöld.
Since then, the UN has attempted to continue down the path of inclusivity and impartiality that Hammarskjöld initiated some 65 years ago. Regrettably, some of the conflicts that had arisen then are still active in the region today, serving as testimonies to the complexities of some of the conflicts in the region. It also emphasises the need for international actors to support and sustain engagement with parties in the region to resolve their conflicts. Something which I am proud to be a small part of through my work as we at the Foundation build on Hammarskjöld’s legacy, facilitating dialogue and promoting inclusivity for all all sides working towards peace in the region.
Photo: Dag Hammarskjöld in Egypt in November 1956, reviewing a contingent of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). Credit: UN Photo