Sir Brian Urquhart Interview: Institute of International Studies, UC Berekely

A Life in Peace and War: Conversation with Sir Brian Urquhart; 3/19/96 by Harry Kreisler

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Early Peacekeeping Operations: Israel/Palestine; the Congo

The Palestine - Israeli settlement was really the first successful effort at peacekeeping, right?

It wasn't a settlement, it was an armistice. The first peacekeeping operation -- there were two actually -- were military observer missions to monitor and maintain a truce. There was one in Palestine, between Israel and the armies of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. And then there was another one at the same time on the cease-fire line in Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Bunche wrote the principles and the rules on which these operations would be conducted. One of the things he insisted on was that the observers must never favor either side, they must be absolutely impartial, no matter what their personal feelings were. And in fact, if they began to get too popular in the newspapers on one side or the other, they would get a tremendous blast from Bunche saying, "What's all this about being so popular, what are you doing? It's not at all the point. Being popular is not the point, being fair is the point." The other thing he insisted on was the observers being unarmed. Soldiers always want to be armed, and these were officers and they all wanted to carry pistols. Bunche said, "If you carry a pistol, you're identified as a military man with the capacity to shoot, and that is very unsafe for you and very bad for the mission. You have to be unarmed. It may be risky, but you do it." And that's been the rule ever since. He wrote the basic principles of peacekeeping in those operations.

Peacekeeping became, in a sense, a major portfolio for you?

Organizing the first peacekeeping force, the UN Emergency Force; November 1956 (UN photo) -- picture shows men around a table.

Well, we had these two observer missions, and then in 1956, during the Suez crisis, military observers weren't enough. The armies of Britain and France were in Egypt. The Israelis were in Egypt. There were three armies to be got out, and in order to do that, you had to have a sort of buffer zone between them and the Egyptians, otherwise you would simply carry on the war by other means. So then we put in the first actual peacekeeping force.

Which was armed.

They had light arms, they had personal weapons, but they are not allowed to use force either except in self-defense. Bunche was the architect of that force. He was the person who put that together and did the leg work. It had never been done before, so we had to invent everything as we went along, including the headgear and the rules and everything.

It was actually the Congo operation in the beginning of the next decade where the UN role became even more complicated.

The Congo really was a kind of rehearsal for these huge operations the UN does today, like Cambodia or Bosnia or Somalia, where it isn't just peacekeepers keeping two national armies apart, but it's trying to deal with a country that's completely broken down within its own boundaries, and dealing with all sorts of armed factions and nonsense of this kind, and trying to keep the civilian structure going, the public administration and so on.

Sir Brian with Ralph Bunche in Leopoldville, Congo, July 1960.

And this crisis, we should remind the audience, occurred when the Congo was declared independent from Belgium.

There was a great avalanche of decolonization in Africa in the late '50s. It was started by the British, carried on by the French, and the Belgians panicked. The Congo was easily the richest colony in Africa and the Belgians had never thought of leaving until they suddenly realized that the French were leaving Africa. They gave independence to the Congo at about six months notice in early 1960, without any preparation at all, believing, completely wrongly, that they would stay on and run it just as they'd always done. It was technologically a very complicated country, the Congo, because it had huge mining interests; a very complicated transport system (river, road, and air); great agricultural resources; and so on. It was also tribally extremely complicated: there were about 200 tribes.

So you had a civil war.

What happened was that we had the independence day and the King of the Belgians making an ill-advised speech about the honorable record of his ancestors. This infuriated Patrice Lumumba, who was the totally untried new prime minister, and then, of course, the Belgians didn't move. There were still no Congolese officers in the army, and the army mutinied against the Belgian officers and threw them out. The Belgians panicked and sent in parachute troops to recapture the airport in Leopoldville and other places. They got into a sort of knock-down, drag-out fight with the Congolese army, which had no officers but was still pretty rough. Organized life broke down, and Lumumba appealed, first of all to President Eisenhower, to send the U.S. marines. Eisenhower neatly dodged that one and said, "You want to go to New York, to the UN, that's the place to ask." So he appealed to the UN for help. And Hammarskjöld took this to the Security Council. It wasn't supposed, at that point, to be a military intervention. It was supposed to be a kind of humanitarian operation. Bunche was in Leopoldville where he'd been for the independence ceremonies, and stayed on because he thought it was all going to go wrong. He said, "We have to put soldiers in here. We need a great number of soldiers now, before a great number of people have been killed, because the moment a lot of people have been killed, it will be impossible to control this thing." We flew in 3,000 soldiers in three days and another 10,000 in two weeks. They simply arrived and got between people who were likely to be killing each other.

You were making things up as you went along.

Well, few of us even knew where The Congo was. I went there at three hours notice the day the thing was decided on, and I was under the impression that the Congo was on the Indian Ocean. I'd never been to Africa before except for North Africa during the war, and I was much surprised when I got to Leopoldville to discover it was on the Atlantic. That's how prepared we were. But we had to make it up as we went along, and for some time, for about two months, it was an extraordinary success. We did manage to get things quieted down. We got the Belgians out. We managed to get the government going again. We started training all the people who had to be trained in the public sector. We started training the army. But then, unfortunately, three months later the Congo broke up on Cold War lines. Patrice Lumumba, the prime minister, was a firebrand, a great demagogue, and an extremely capricious and volatile figure. You never could tell what he was going to do next. The president was a rather dim figure, President Joseph Kasavubu. He suddenly dismissed the prime minister, actually for very good reason, because Lumumba had sent the army into one of the secessionist provinces where they started killing all sorts of people. And then Lumumba, on the same radio station, dismissed the president. And then the Soviet Union backed Lumumba and the United States backed Kasavubu. So you had a civil war, on which was superimposed the Cold War in the outside world, and that was a nightmare. We kept going for another four years but it was very, very difficult.

At a crucial point in this operation, you almost lost your life.

Three provinces of the old Belgian Congo had seceded from the central government, of which the most important was Katanga, where the richest mines were. There was no way you get the Congo quieted down as long as Katanga was seceded, because the central government would never admit that this could happen. Katanga was very important financially to the central government, so they would not really settle to anything as long as Katanga was claiming independence. Afer Hammarskjöld was killed, I was sent to be the UN representative in Katanga which was, I must say, not a post that I would have asked for if I'd been consulted, but there it was. The first night I was there, I was kidnapped, ironically enough, from a dinner party in honor of Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut, the father of the present Senator Dodd, who was the secessionist leader Moise Tshombe's greatest advocate in the United States and a real pain in the neck, in my view. Just as this dinner was about to start, all these thugs came roaring in and kidnapped me and my colleague, George Ivan Smith. It was very rough.

You were beat up...

I was very badly beaten up and I finally got out because we had, in those days, an Indian brigade in Katanga and the colonel of the Gurkha regiment said to President Tshombe, "Either you get our boss, Mr. Urquhart, back, or my troops will blow up the presidential palace. And you have four hours, that's it." So poor old Tshombe came out in his car and was searching the countryside and he finally got me out.

And the Congo was the place where Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash. Tell us a little about him.

Dag Hammarskjold and Sir Brian, 1955. Hammarskjöld was the most extraordinary person I've ever met in public life, with the possible exception of Ralph Bunche. But Hammarskjöld was really spectacular because he was an intellectual in action and well on his way to being a kind of secular saint as well. He was a person of very complicated, very dedicated character. He became increasingly a mystic in later years. He was intellectually the most effective person I've ever seen in my life. There was no problem, in any discipline of the human mind which Hammarskjöld couldn't master with some ease, even nuclear physics. When the UN took up the peaceful uses of the atom, to everybody's intense amazement, Hammarskjöld turned out to be able to discuss problems of nuclear physics with people like Professor I.I. Rabi and Sakharov. He was an extraordinary person. Hammarskjöld had a sense of mission, and he believed that the Charter was a sacred document. He developed an extraordinary respect for the UN worldwide. This was interesting because Hammarskjöld was a very shy, quite awkward person in human relations. He didn't like close relations with people. He was a bachelor and his private life was totally private. He was essentially a loner, an aristocrat, an intellectual of intellectuals. But you could go to downtown Cairo or Rio de Janeiro or Delhi and the taxi drivers, the people in the street, would have heard of him and would have quite a reasonable idea of what he was trying to do. Nobody else has ever managed to do that in that job. He had charisma, in other words. Hammarskjöld was the person who made the UN an active peace organization rather than just the diplomatic, bureaucratic outfit it had started as. He was the person who developed peacekeeping, and he became the world's chief negotiator of really difficult problems.

Ralph Bunche, Sir Brian, and Dag Hammarskjold.

Next page: The UN in the Post - Cold War World

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