Panel 2 of a triptych: A book review for Peacehawks of Hammarskjoeld: a Life, by Roger Lipsey, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2013. 738 pp; illus, footnotes, indexed, bibliography.

by Jamie Arbuckle


There have of course been several books about Dag Hammarskjoeld, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. The most authoritative was Sir Brian Urquhart’s Hammarskjoeld[1] first published in 1972; Urquhart combined immediacy – he was there – with scholarship. More recently (2011), there has been the extremely useful and readable work by Manuel Froehlich. [2]

Do we need another biography of Dag Hammarskjoeld? As we wrote in the first panel of this triptych[3], we believe that there are some stories that are so important to us that they need to be retold afresh in each generation, and there is no redundancy in the retelling. Each generation needs to hear, in its own voice and in its own time, the vital stories of the times. The past is not necessarily fate, but it is often prologue. And living in history is like map reading: if you know where you were and how you have gone, you should know where you are, and you can have a good idea where you are going. Updating the map from time to time can never be of no use.

And so, just over a half-century after his untimely death, another biography of Dag Hammarskjoeld, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, should be a welcome addition to our knowledge toolkits. We therefore offer this review to our followers at Peacehawks.

This review will cover four points, the literary high ground, as it were, of this book and of the story it tells:

  1. The first area we will cover is to review the book as an excursus on Markings[4];
  2. We will review the birth of peacekeeping operations, which occurred on Hammarskjoeld’s watch and under his ultimate responsibility;
  3. Hammarskjoeld more or less invented the role and the functions of the special representative of the secretary-general; and
  4. Finally, Hammarskjoeld gave form and enduring substance to the role of the Secretary-General of the United Nations.


Markings is one of four books which changed my life, and which have influenced me continuously to this day. My copy of Markings has made over 100 jumps – it was in my rucksack instead of the customary baton.[5]

Roger Lipsey’s extended review of Markings places well-known entries in the context of wider and perhaps less well-known events, especially for an audience of readers who may have read little else from or about Hammarskjoeld. For just one example, it is invaluable to know what Hammarskjoeld was privately thinking, feeling and writing during the most trying of all his days as secretary-general during the ongoing Congo crisis from 1960 until his death in the Congo in 1961.

Read in Lipsey of the events of the 15th Session of the General Assembly (September 1960 to April 1961).  During that period there was an almost unbroken series of disasters in the Congo; these were accompanied by ceaseless and brutally personal attacks on Hammarskjoeld by the Soviet Delegation, the worst by Kruschev himself, in person and into his very face.  Yet, in the midst of a nightmarish onslaught on his office and his person, Hammarskjoeld could write in his private journal (in December 1960):

The road

You shall follow it.

The fun,

You shall forget it.

The cup

You shall empty it.

The pain

You shall conceal it.

The truth

You shall be told it.

The end

You shall endure it.

We need to know, we need to be reminded, of these writings, and of the strong personal moral force which, in spite of all external circumstances, produced such truth and beauty.  This is a story worth any frequency of telling and retelling, and the portrayal of a unique sense of the excitement of a life – of such a literal manifestation of grace under pressure –  justifies, if justification were needed, this book.  Most importantly, we need to be aware of the moral and the spiritual content of Hammarskjoeld’s life and his work.  In this day of selfish and egoistic “leaders”, of vulgar triumphalism in sports,  of naked greed in almost all sectors of public and professional life, we need to be reminded that modesty and humility are essential characteristics of civilized people, whatever their walk in life. We need to be reminded that there is no life without spiritual life.  We cannot be reminded too frequently of these things, and Mr. Lipsey does us all great service by again placing this story before us.

But there is much more to this book than this excursus.

The Birth of Peacekeeping – the Beginning of our Times

Much has been written on the subject of the birth of peacekeeping operations, out of the seeming chaos of the simultaneous emergencies in Hungary and the Suez in 1956 – quite a bit of it we wrote ourselves.[6]  It is nevertheless important that we be reminded of where on our road map we began this journey, and to wonder just how far we have come.

One of the major factors forming peacekeeping forces and their mandates is the issue of consent. Despite a new, or seemingly new, emphasis on more robust mandates, usually phrased as enforcement operations authorized under Chapter VII of the Charter, consent, however begrudged by the host nation and however frequently violated on the ground, remains vital to the success of an operation.

The major stumbling block to the drafting as to the implementation of any mandate, consensual or less so, is contained in two paragraphs of one section of the Charter of the U.N. Of the two provisions most frequently invoked to prevent the launching of a non-consensual intervention, one is Article 2.7: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are within the domestic jurisdiction of any state  …”. It is this Article which is most frequently invoked by those governments who hope to cover their tracks and continue to abuse their own people and/or their neighbours, which is why we have called this article the modern last refuge of scoundrels.

The other piece of DNA coding of the U.N. is found in Article 2.1: “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its members” – this is the perennial favourite of the leaders of failed states.  What we had not perhaps fully realized was how early these factors were recognized and brought into play.

Hammarskjoeld himself seems to have been the first to refer publicly to domestic jurisdiction when replying to a journalist’s question about possible UN action in respect of the situation in Tibet in April 1959, which was then in the worst throes of a brutal occupation by the People’s Republic of China.  Hammarskjoeld said first that neither of the protagonists  were members of the UN, then he said, “ …I think that the famous Article 2.7 might be invoked by some parties.” A bit later, the Soviet delegation took up the cause of their Chinese friends, saying that Tibet as an integral part of China was under “Article 2.7 protection”. (our emphasis)

Hammarskjoeld recognized that the Article 2.1 sovereignty of Egypt included their right to refuse to allow the peacekeeping force, the United Nations Emergency Force, to enter or to remain in Egypt. However it was tacitly assumed that Egypt, in accepting the mandate and the deployment of the Force, “had effectively agreed to allow UNEF to complete that mission”: this was known as “the Good Faith Agreement.” Sadly that “good faith” was too fragile to survive the next crisis.  When, on the eve of what came to be known as the Six-Days’ War (June 1967), Nasser ordered the Force to leave Egypt, the peacekeepers had no option but speedy compliance.

But a revolution in conflict management had taken place, despite the obstacles, some procedural, some educational, and some deliberately prejudicial to peaceful processes (it would take another generation, and a Secretary-General widely believed to be Hammarskjoeld’s true successor, to recognize and confront deliberate spoilers of the peace).  A powerful tool had been added to the world’s efforts to keep the peace, to effect and to support the peaceful resolution of conflict – to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. The instrument was and is still imperfect, and it would and it will have as many failures as successes. Much would be painfully learned, and speedily forgotten. But the agenda for peace was changed utterly by Dag Hammarskjoeld and those who marched with him.  Whether we are informed or we are reminded of these things, Mr. Lipsey’s concise and precise record of these critical events, and of their transforming nature, has rendered us valuable service.

Secretary or General? An Evolutionary Tale

If the person and the job are right for each other, they will change each other, hopefully both for the better. As Hammarskjoeld was only the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, and as he had had little experience of high-level diplomacy, there was  unusual scope for him and for the job to change and define each other.  We will try to detect and to measure these changes, subtle and gradual as they will have been.

The tenure of the first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, had ended unhappily for him when in 1953 he was denied re-election to his office.  He was almost certainly a victim of Soviet blame of the UN for its action in Korea, even though the Security Council approval of the “police action” to defend the Republic of Korea was in fact the direct result of an ill-advised Soviet boycott of the Council session which authorized the action. Lie did not distinguish himself in his loudly public disappointment in being ousted, and lowered himself further in a fairly transparent campaign using his office and his staff to disparage his designated successor, Dag Hammarskjoeld.

Hammarskjoeld was a late choice for the nomination, and his selection was in part the result of a stalled selection process. Earlier candidates were Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (Nehru’s sister), Paul-Henri Spaak and Lester Pearson, but a seemingly endless series of deadlocked discussions – which Pearson, then President of the General Assembly, said made the U.N. look ridiculous – could not yield a consensus candidate.  Hammarskjoeld’s name did not even come up for discussion until 23 March, and then events moved so swiftly that there was relatively little discussion – Hammarskjoeld himself, on one of the few occasions he was given to react to the possibility of nomination, said only, “Nobody is crazy enough to propose me, and I would be crazy to accept.”  He was sworn in to the office on 10 April.

Hammarskjoeld had been rather hastily judged to be a safe pair of hands, judged largely by those who knew nothing about him, or, perhaps more importantly in the matter of consensus building, knew nothing against him. However, Hammarskjoeld soon proved to be far from the “careful and colorless official” he had been thought to be, one who would be far more secretary than general. It was rather carelessly assumed that he would not engage on political issues, that he “would not make waves”; this as we know was as wide of the mark as were all the other rushed judgments of Hammarskjoeld, then and later. As Urquhart recalled it,

They went searching around all over the place and, by pure accident, picked up somebody who was exactly the opposite of what everybody wanted. They thought they’d got a safe, bureaucratic civil servant, non-political, and they got Hammarskjoeld. It will never happen again; nobody’s ever going to make that mistake twice.[7]

In his acceptance speech, he spoke unexpectedly from  a deep knowledge of and an almost spiritual respect for the Charter of the U.N.:

Ours is  work of reconciliation and realistic construction.  This work must be based on respect for the laws by which human civilization has been built. It likewise requires  a strict observance of the rules and principles laid down in the Charter of this Organization. My work shall be guided by this knowledge.[8]

Within weeks of taking office, he began referring to the Organization as “this house”: it was a home, a sanctuary – an almost mystic sense of a core of belonging to something much more than an organization, a feeling for a whole which was so much more than the sum of its parts.  He used this phrase often, as one might of a church in a secular community.  But the house was a household, and it could be managed and it must be disciplined in the conduct of its affairs. These things would count; he would see to that.

Hammarskjoeld  had very early to confront the eternally vexing issue of neutrality. It had always been very clear that there was no possibility of implementing any mandate in respect of conflict management, let alone resolution, without seeming to offend at least one of the parties to the conflict. That “offense”, real or imagined, could then be used to  influence the process, to scapegoat the outsiders, to render a mediator – for that was what, ideally, the U.N. would be – impotent.  The emerging NGO community was perennially a part of that problem, then as now widely advertising their “neutrality” as their strength, and justifying withholding their cooperation from organizations they considered less holy than they.  The International Committee of the Red Cross found it for this reason nearly impossible to cooperate with anyone.  As I wrote in my book, Military Forces in 21st Century Peace Operations – No Job for a Soldier:[9]

… insistence by the International Committee of the Red Cross on their twinned traditions of neutrality and confidentiality are seen by some as a refusal to name and to condemn evil – it was in breaking with this tradition that Bernard Kouchner (among others) founded Medicins sans Frontiers.

Satish Nambiar, who in 1992 was the first Commander of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in the former Yugoslavia,  wrote that “Enforcement actions, by their very nature, are subjective and biased towards one side or the other …”. And we recall the ICRC’s solemn injunction against involvement in an enforcement operation: “… the concerned components of the Movement should not avail themselves of armed protection for their operations when this is offered by UN troops during an enforcement action under Chapter VII or when it is possible that the UNO will sooner or later be considered as a party to the conflict by the local population or by the belligerents” (our italics)[10].  But two analysts, Ramesh Thakur and Albrecht Schabel, have written:

Timidity masquerading as political neutrality has also led to the operational failure to confront openly those who challenge peacekeeping missions in the field. The United Nations, while striving to remain impartial, should suspend its long-standing attachment to neutrality between belligerents if one or several pursue morally reprehensible goals in repugnant ways. That is, the United Nations should no longer extend, directly or indirectly, a seal of moral equivalency in its relationships with combatants.  Impartiality should not translate into complicity with evil.  The UN Charter sets out the principles that the organization must defend and the values that it must uphold. The reluctance to distinguish victim from aggressor  implies a degree of moral equivalency between the two and damages the institution of UN peacekeeping.[11]

But Hammarskjoeld had faced and, for his purposes and for the record, confronted and largely resolved that conundrum nearly a half-century earlier. In his speech in acceptance of a honourary doctorate in law at Oxford University in April 1961, Hammarskjoeld observed  that

…  the international civil servant cannot be accused of lack of neutrality simply for taking a stand on a controversial issue … He is not requested to be a neuter in the sense that he has no sympathies or antipathies … or that he is to have no ideas or ideals that matter to him.  … And if integrity in the sense of respect for law and respect for truth were to drive him into positions of conflict with this or that interest, then that conflict is a sign of his neutrality and not as a sign of his failure to observe neutrality ….[12]

Later, speaking to journalists, he was able to put it much more simply: “I am not neutral as regards the Charter; I am not neutral as regards the facts.

That should have been carved into the lintel over the entrance to UN Headquarters, and sent to every head of a UN mission since.

Hammarskjoeld would be one of the U.N.’s strictest critics.  As he said of the Congo operation in one of the closing sessions of the 15th GA April 1961, in response to a barrage of frivolous and offensive criticisms from the Soviet Delegation:

I think it would be appropriate to make a distinction between demands , authority, and means. I believe that all through the history of the Congo operation demands have gone far beyond authorization and authorization far beyond means.[13]

Thus Hammarskjoeld, by now clearly much more general than secretary, had, under withering fire in the GA, neatly summarized what was then and, sadly still is, a major systemic weakness in the founding and the conduct of U.N. peace operations. Nearly a half-century later, the Brahimi report would show how correct Hammarskjoeld had been in his summary – and how little had been done about it:

The Secretariat must tell the Security Council what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear, when recommending force and other resource levels for a new mission, and it must set those levels according to realistic scenarios that take into account likely challenges to implementation. Security Council mandates, in turn, should reflect the clarity that peacekeeping operations require for unity of effort when they deploy into potentially dangerous situations. [14]

Despite the not-infrequent bruisings he took in the General Assembly (GA), Hammarskjoeld seems to have enjoyed the Assembly and worked well with them. He was often on very friendly terms with successive presidents of the GA. His first major success in the U.N. was the founding of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF)  for the Middle East. Originally the brainchild of Lester B. Pearson (who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his accomplishment), the creation of the Force was authorized not in the Security Council (SC) but in the GA. After France and Britain had vetoed a SC resolution calling for a cease fire and withdrawal of foreign troops from Suez[15], the issue was moved to the GA in accordance with the Uniting for Peace Resolution[16], and there passed.
Hammarskjoeld found his greatest freedom to act in Article 99 of the Charter. Leaving Article 97 (“He shall be the chief administrative officer of the Organization”) well behind when it suited him to do so, he had as we have said a lively and permissive attitude towards Article 99: “The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” (The italics are ours; they might have been his.)

And Hammarskjoeld continued to expand his vision of what the Organization was to be. In addressing the assembled Secretariat personnel on Staff Day on 8 September 1961 (the last time most were to see him), he challenged the Staff in precisely the words he had used in his annual report to the SC: “what was the Secretariat to be, ‘an intergovernmental’ organization serving a ‘conference machinery’ or a truly international force dedicated to peace and development?”[17]

Nine days later he was dead.

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General

The tools which Hammarskjoeld added to the peacekeepers’ toolkit were several, and nearly all are steadily evolving to this day. One of the most efficient and effective has been what has come to be called the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG).

As we have  said, Hammarskjoeld believed implicitly in a quite permissive view of Article 99 of the Charter. In forming his very free-ranging use of this Article, he clearly acted in the belief that anything not prohibited was permitted; if the Council didn’t want to be told something they would tell him just that (they never did).

The earliest example of his use of a special representative seems to have been in August 1958. Hammarskjoeld was in Amman, Jordan, and wanting to do something modest and low-keyed to support a very satisfactory resolution by a group of Arab states of tensions between Lebanon and Jordan.  Hammarskjoeld clearly could not be everywhere, a peace operation was not called for, nor had anyone any further stomach for New York debates.  Perhaps, Hammarskjoeld is said to have been musing, a “presence” might be established. It would, in the form of perhaps just one diplomat, report directly to the Secretary-General, and would make the parties aware that he was doing so.  Such an appointment would assure them of the attention for which they might not then feel the need, but for which they might in the future be grateful.   Urquhart called this “a  new experiment in preventive diplomacy.”[18]

Constantly testing the Security Council with his interpretation of Article 99, Hammarskjoeld was occasionally in hot water, seemingly deliberately so. But the method was at a certain level so effective, so inexpensive and so flexible that it was difficult to object to the very positive results so easily obtained.  As a friend of ours once remarked, “It works in practice, now let’s see how it stands up in principle.”

That practice has been expanded today to encompass more formal political and peace-building missions, steered by the Department of Political Affairs, whose mandate generally is to

manage political missions and peace-building support offices engaged in conflict prevention, peacemaking and post-conflict peacebuilding in Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East.[19]

There are at this time 12 such missions in existence: eight in Africa, one in Central Asia and three in the Middle East.  These employ just under 4000 personnel.  There are in addition seven other Special Envoys engaged in “good offices” missions and supported by DPA. These political missions often work in conjunction with peacekeeping missions, and have in some cases succeeded the peacekeepers when those missions were concluded, but it was thought advisable to maintain a “UN presence.”  Sometimes they are created and placed instead of a peacekeeping mission. Generally, they keep the Secretary-General informed while reassuring the “hosts” that their concerns are receiving the attention they deserve.[20]

As so often has happened in the short history of modern peace operations, principle has almost caught up to practice;  perhaps we might call these Article 99 missions?


Hammarskjoeld was an avid reader of Hermann Hesse, and especially The Glass Bead Game, which would have formed and reinforced his ideal of a sanctuary which was nevertheless not separate from the open world.  The dichotomy of a longing for a spiritual life, but of the real need to live life in active participation in the wider, necessarily coarser society of striving and conflicts – that was Hammarskjoeld’s challenge, as it was for Hesse’s Magister Ludi, Joseph Knecht.  Eventually (in the novel) Knecht felt himself compelled to leave the sanctuary and return to the world he had left – and there met his death.

Hammarskjoeld, near the end of  his life, and especially on that last UN Staff Day, seems to have manifested that same feeling for the organization and the structure to which he belonged and which he led, as did the novel’s Joseph Knecht:
Not only did he intimately share the life of this community, but he also felt himself to be something like its brain, its consciousness, and its conscience as well, not only participating in its impulses and destinies, but guiding them and being responsible for them.[21] The loss of Dag Hammarskjoeld was  grievous and there is still grief for his early death. But we must be grateful for his life, and we should be grateful for this book, which brings back not the man, but the memory of the  man, and that memory we need in our toolkits – all of us do.
[1] Urquhart, Sir Brian, Hammarskjoeld, Harper Colophon, New York, 1972

[2] Froehlich, Manuel, Political Ethics and The United Nations: Dag Hammarskjöld as Secretary-General (Cass Series on Peacekeeping), Routledge, London and New York, 2008. (originally Dag Hammarskjoeld [1905-1961]): Welt Ideen und Impulse des zweiten UN Generalsektretaers, Brandes & Apsel, Frankfurt, 2011).

[3] See Peacehawks, What and How We Learn From History – Or Else, posted 05.12.2013

[4] Hammarskjoeld, Dag, Markings, Knopf, New York, 1964.

[5] I leave aside here the controversy which arose in 2005 over the W.H. Auden translations, which were said to have imposed much of Auden’s own cultural and religious biases. If this were so, it did not disturb most readers then nor does it generally matter now.

[6] See R2P vs. State Sovereignty: The Last Refuge of Scoundrels, 22.1.2010; National Sovereignty, Jurisdiction and Consent, 24.01.2010; Peacekeeping in Our Time: Past the Age of Consent? 14.04.2012

[7] Lipsey, p 117

[8] Lipsey, p 124

[9] Arbuckle, James, Military Forces in 21st Century Peace Operations – No Job for a Soldier?, Routledge, London and New York, 2006, p 11.

[10] Arbuckle, op.cit.

[11] Thakur, Ramesh, and Schnabel, Albrecht, United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, “Cascading Generations of Peacekeeping”, UN University Press, New York, 2001, p 21 (also quoted in Arbuckle, p 80).

[12] Lipsey, p 506

[13] Lipsey, p 496.

[14] See A/55/305–S/2000/809, The Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (the Brahimi Report), 21 August 2000, page x.

[15] They should not have been allowed to do so: Article 27 paragraph 3 provides that “in decisions under Chapter VI … a party to the dispute shall abstain from voting.” This procedural error was to have serious later consequences when, in 1994, Rwanda as a member of the SC was allowed to vote against a resolution imposing an arms embargo on Rwanda.

[16] The Uniting for Peace Resolution (November 1950) is also referred to as ‘The Acheson Plan”, after its originator, who intended to strengthen the provisions of Articles 10, 11, 14 and 20 of the Charter. This resolution provides that “if the Security Council, because of a lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security … the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately …” (see Basic Facts About the United Nations, Department of Public Information, New York, 1998, page 7 [footnote]). Urquhart (op.cit., footnote page 175) notes that “The constitutionality of this device … had always been challenged by the U.S.S.R.” Article 18.2 of the Charter of the United Nations specifies that “Decisions of the General Assembly on important questions shall be made by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting”. (Italics added). Thus, given a quorum, absences and abstentions would have no effect.

[17] Lipsey p 543.

[18] Urquhart, Brian, Hammarskjold, Harper and Row, Cambridge, 1972, page 295.

[19] See, accessed 25 November 2013

[20] For more on the more recent workings of the SRSG, see Karlsrud, John, “Special Representatives of the Secretary-General as Norm Arbitrators? Understanding Bottom-up Authority in UN Peacekeeping”, in Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations, Lynne Rienner in conjunction with The Academic Council on the United Nations System, Boulder, Oct-Dec 2013, pp 507-544. Karlsrud argues that, in pushing their envelope in what might be termed a Hammarskjoeldian manner, SRSGs may become what he calls norm entrepreneurs, actually directly influencing if not indeed changing the rules as they play the game. He also takes note of “practice preceding policy and doctrine development at UN headquarters.”

[21] Hesse, Hermann, The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi), Vintage Books, London, 2000, p 218

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