By James A. Paul
NEW YORK, Jan 5 2021 (IPS) – Sir Brian Urquhart, who died on January 2 at the age of 101, served the United Nations in high posts for four decades, beginning in the organization’s earliest days.
Celebrated for his diplomatic skills and his creative organizing abilities, he has often been seen as the embodiment of the UN and its most respected civil servant. After his retirement he lived in New York City, advising Secretaries-General, giving lectures, and writing articles and books. He often appeared at UN-related functions, well into an advanced age.
I heard him quip once, when he had reached the age of eighty-five, that he had become a holy relic, brought out on occasion to add gravity to the proceedings. In reflecting on his death, we should learn from his self-awareness and his skepticism about relics – and we should take his words to heart. The uncritical worship of Urquhart is not a useful activity, even in such a moment.
The UN is understandably seeking to spotlight him, to treat him precisely as a relic in hard times, as a way to celebrate the organization’s history and rally support for its work. But we should see Urquhart as he really was, shortcomings as well as achievements, not as some invented icon from a falsely idealized past.
Urquhart was born in England and trained in two of the most prestigious institutions of the British education system – Winchester school and Oxford University. His was a recruitment path of those who were expected to take important positions in finance and government and to act as managers of the British Empire.
He left university early and enlisted in the army in 1939 at the outset of World War II, joining British intelligence and apparently serving in various secret service capacities throughout the conflict. Late in the war, at the age of just twenty-five, he participated in postwar planning operations at the highest levels of government, including plans for the newly-created United Nations.
Urquhart’s talents were recognized. He was soon brought into the small cadre of top British civil servants assigned to staff the upper echelons of the UN. He is credited with working diligently and effectively to establish the new organization, aided by a keen intellect and a self-effacing humor. When the UN got under way in 1945, he was only 26 and already in a high and influential position.
However “internationalist” Urquhart’s work may have been, his perspective on the world was very different than how we might see things today. He was deeply influenced by conservative British values about the international order and Britain’s place in it.
This included a strong anti-Communist commitment, skepticism about calls for colonial independence, and a determination that the world would be safer in the hands of the great Anglo-Saxon partnership. At the top of the world body, he worked closely with hard-nosed US nationals, including Ralph Bunche, and he shared much with them, including quite likely an ongoing secret service connection.
Though Urquhart was working in a global political context, he had little sense of the personality and geography of the colonial world – “cultural ignorance” says one definitive book on the Congo conflict. Urquhart later confessed that he didn’t know where Congo was located when he first arrived as a key representative of the Secretary General.
“I didn’t even know which side of Africa it was on,” he said later, “I thought it was on the Indian Ocean and I was much surprised to learn that it was on the Atlantic.” Though responsibility for the Congo crisis is shared by many others, Urquhart participated in the dangerous mindset of decision-makers in Washington, London and New York that led to tragedy. He was an influential voice and he helped shape policy that produced awful results.
The Congo crisis saw the first, step towards the militarization of UN peacekeeping. Urquhart is often credited with setting up the earliest peacekeeping missions in the 1940s and 50s, operations that involved interposition of very lightly-armed UN forces between two sides in a conflict. He deserves praise for this.
But in the early 60’s, under pressure of the crisis in the Belgian Congo, peacekeeping went off the rails, setting a dangerous precedent that continues to this day. Urquhart must be held partly accountable for this negative development.
In Congo, the Western powers sought to rein in the country’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. A militarized UN peacekeeping force was formed and deployed into the resource-rich territory in response to Lumumba’s own pleas for assistance.
As it turned out, the UN proconsuls showed little respect for the elected government. Urquhart was part of the inner circle around Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold that promoted the ouster of Lumumba, the one leader who might have held the country together.
Urquhart and the UN top brass knew almost certainly that the CIA was working all-out in this regime-change operation, bribing Congolese politicians and even (we now know) seeking to poison Lumumba. Sadly, the UN failed to prevent the nightmare outcome. Congolese army leader Joseph Mobutu seized power with US backing and long ruled over a broken land.
Lumumba was brutally assassinated by Congolese enemies not long after his ouster, a process for which the UN also bears indirect responsibility. Tragically, the bloodshed did not stop there. Secretary General Hammarskjold himself was later to die in an attack on his airplane, while he sought to broker a Congo peace.
Urquhart, who was an admirer and friend of Hammarskjold, later played the loyal guardian of the secrets. He constantly rejected substantial evidence that the Secretary General had been assassinated – not killed in an unfortunate air accident as the official story insisted.
In his noted biography of Hammarskjold and his many lectures and articles on the subject, Urquhart (more than anyone) closed off serious discussion and investigation of the crime for nearly six decades. The hand of the Western secret services in this infamous murder is now increasingly clear. Did Urquhart know the truth?
Urquhart was a tenacious player in the game of survival at the top of the UN. While Secretaries-General came and went and other top staff faded away, he continued his grip on the top posts. That meant that he had to please the most powerful countries, of course, but it also meant that he had to know how to work diplomatically with all the member states and to keep his friendships among the senior staff too. His wit and his understatement helped him survive in the UN’s complex personal and national rivalries and to maintain friends in every quarter.
During Urquhart’s many active years of retirement he wrote widely on the reform of the UN. The Ford Foundation gave him a special post to carry out this work and to burnish his image. He was certainly extremely knowledgeable on the UN’s inner workings, as was his principal collaborator, the radical Irishman Erskine Childers.
Many observers like to point to these writings, especially the three books they wrote together, as a sign of Urquhart’s more enlightened, “multilateral” and democratic views when free from the constraints of UN office. While he did mellow in later years, it should be said that he never abandoned his basic conservative persona.
The progressive current in the books, their bid for a more “democratic” UN, is due almost entirely to the influence of Childers, who complained bitterly in private at the brakes that Urquhart put on their work and the traditionalism that Urquhart brought to the project. Urquhart deserves our thanks, though, for allowing Childers, here and there, to propose inventive and far-sighted ideas.
Much will of course be said about Urquhart’s intelligence, his diplomatic skill, and his many positive accomplishments. We would do UN history a disservice, however, if we do not see him (and the early UN) as they really were – not as relics of an idealized past but as real, often-flawed actors in a contested and still unfinished drama.
James A. Paul served as Global Policy Forum Executive Director, from its foundation in late 1993 through the end of 2012. As Executive Director, he was a prominent figure in the NGO advocacy community at the United Nations and a well-known speaker and writer on the UN and global policy issues. He is the author of “Of Foxes and Chickens”—Oligarchy and Global Power in the UN Security Council.