Sir Brian Urquhart: A Great Public Servant for a Great International Cause


Main Image Credit Courtesy of UN Photo/Evan Schneider


The passing of the British diplomat who played a key role in the establishment of the UN is an apt moment to reflect on the condition of the organisation and the future of its peacekeeping operations.

The death of Brian Urquhart in the first days of this year means that his life, and indeed his long career as a UN official, bracketed the whole 75-year history of the organisation whose own jubilee has been commemorated in recent months. That is as it should be, since he really was ‘present at the creation’ of the UN, working as an assistant to Gladwyn Jebb, who was at the centre of the diplomacy which led to the UN’s establishment in 1945, and also to its first secretary-general, Trygve Lie. After that, he served for nearly 40 years as one of the key senior officials in the UN’s peacekeeping and peacemaking departments, which won the organisation the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988. And then, following his retirement in 1986, he not only wrote acclaimed biographies of two of the UN’s outstanding personalities, Dag Hammarskjold and Ralph Bunche, and his own autobiography, but acted, from his niche in the Ford Foundation, as a source of well-considered and skilfully presented ideas for reforming and strengthening an organisation which was certainly in need of both a boost and transformation. Not bad for a life, even one which spanned 101 years.

The Face of War and the Imperative of Peace

Urquhart did not come to the UN Secretariat inexperienced in the military and diplomatic issues he was to deal with throughout his professional career. He served in the military through the Second World War, including as an intelligence officer who warned against the overreach of the Arnhem airborne operation in 1944. He was also one of the first British officers to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. His commitment to the UN Charter’s aim of eliminating ‘the scourge of war’ was thus based on personal experience and knowledge of the disastrous consequences of trying to resolve international disputes by the use of force and of the crimes often committed in the pursuit of those objectives.

As he helped to shape the UN’s peacekeeping activities, through the establishment of peacekeeping operations in Sinai, the Golan Heights and Lebanon, through the traumas that followed Congo’s independence including the death of the then secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjold and Urquhart’s own suffering at the hands of rebel forces, through the stabilisation of the Green Line in the divided island of Cyprus, Urquhart brought to the task a clear understanding of military realities and of the sensitive interface between military and political pressures. He understood from his Congo experience how poorly equipped the UN was to handle enforcement operations. He remained an unsparing critic of imprecisely worded mandates from an often-divided Security Council which might paper over differences around a conference table in New York, but which were simply inoperable on the ground.

It is often not appreciated that the UN Charter contains not a word about peacekeeping, not even a mention of the term. So, everything had to be built from the ground upwards with often deeply contested and inadequate building materials. The fact that Bunche and Urquhart, backed up by successive secretary-generals, managed to develop policies which now form the basis for more than 100,000 military, police and civilian personnel being deployed in peacekeeping operations worldwide is little short of the miraculous. And although UN peacekeeping has had its failures – think only of Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia – it has saved countless lives in many corners of the world, ending open warfare that could have raged on indefinitely – just look at Syria today.

Urquhart’s own contributions were all made during the Cold War which hugely complicated mounting peacekeeping operations. Will the demand for more UN peacekeeping activity continue? It is hard to see it not doing so, with the appetite for mounting ‘coalitions of the wiling’ vanishing, but with the incidence of disputes, often ones within fragile and disintegrating states, showing no signs of abating and the risk of war crimes, including genocide, always present. So, the international community is going to need the structure that Urquhart had such a hand in creating if the world is not to slide towards a state of disorder.       

By the time I reached New York in 1990 as the UK’s UN Ambassador, Brian Urquhart was an unfailing source of wise advice, not just to me but more widely. His advice was always presented in moderate and constructive terms, never with the hyperbole which so often accompanies attempts at UN reform. When Boutros Boutros-Ghali took over as secretary-general in 1992, Urquhart and Erskine Childers put forward a whole range of reforms, not just to peacekeeping but across the whole sweep of the UN’s agenda. If only more attention had been paid to their suggestions! He was never a back-seat driver and never one to deliberately make the work of his successors more difficult than it already was. 

Building on Sir Brian’s Foundations

Of course, now is the time to pay tribute to Brian Urquhart’s achievements. But he knew better than most that warm words never get you very far at the UN, whether you are facing the challenges of climate change or of peace and security. So better, surely, to think of ways of building on the peacekeeping foundations which he so impressively laid. Here are a few suggestions: 

  • With the changeover of US administrations there really is an opportunity to bring back more comity and civility to the work of the Security Council. Naturally there will still be tensions, between its Permanent Members in particular. But it could prove possible to widen the currently very restricted areas in which they still cooperate. The initiation of a dialogue on strategic stability between the Permanent Members could be one place to start.
  • Many peacekeeping operations are undermined from the outset by slowness in deployment, with troops, police advisers and civilians trickling in over a lengthy period. Experience has shown that early, full-scale deployment pays dividends and leaves less room for spoilers. It should not be impossible to achieve this. 
  • Too much scope is given to the government of the country or countries where the peacekeepers are to be deployed to inhibit the operations and to ignore their advice. The Security Council should give tougher, more clear-cut mandates, not ones tailor-made for obfuscation and evasion by the host government.
  • Given that a fair proportion of future peacekeeping operations are likely to be in Africa and given the slowly developing capacity of the African Union (AU) and its sub-regional organisations to handle peacekeeping operations, a lot more needs to be done to strengthen and refine the capacity of the UN and the AU to work together in tandem, including providing UN-assessed financial contributions in an era when, post-Covid, such resources will be in short supply.
  • More really does need to be done to eradicate the stain of sexual violence in conflict, including such crimes committed by members of the peacekeeping operations themselves. Some form of international jurisdiction may be required to achieve this and we should not flinch from that if other measures continue to fail.

The UK’s Role  

What role is there in all this for Brian Urquhart’s own country, faced as it is with the challenge of putting flesh on the bones of ‘Global Britain’, which so far consists more of a branding exercise than a policy choice?

One must hope that the government’s integrated review of defence and security, when it finally sees the light of day, will have something positive to say about the UK’s participation in multilateral peacekeeping operations. What is needed is not so much large-scale deployments, which are unlikely to be forthcoming, but the provision of the specialist functions and equipment that increasingly complex and multi-faceted peacekeeping operations require. And can we not progress from training peacekeepers from other countries, which we already do, to mentoring the units we train when they deploy?

There could, I would suggest, be no better way to demonstrate our pride in Brian Urquhart’s achievements than to make some practical contributions to the cause to which he devoted such time, energy and imagination.

David Hannay, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, served as the UK’s Ambassador to the UN from 1990 to 1995, and is co-chair of the UN All Party Parliamentary Group.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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