Lessons of history
Hammarskjöld’s legacy with regard to the Congo crisis, and for that matter Lumumba’s too, is controversial.
In a chapter entitled ‘Continuities of Violence in the Congo,’ Helen Hintjens, a senior lecturer at the Erasmus University in The Hague, writing with Serena Cruz of the Florida International Institute, The Hague, writes that “peace in the Congo today seems as elusive as ever, and the prospects for socio-economic justice are as unlikely today as they were in 1960 when UN forces intervened under Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld … even with 20,000 UN troops in the country, it remains a challenge to address the underlying injustices of a violent economic and political order for ordinary Congolese”.
The two writers continue: “These two great historical figures share a common legacy which has been obscured by their sharp inter-personal and political differences in life”.
Expanding on this analysis, Hintiens and Cruz say that the Congo remains, as Lumumba famously said, “an open prison”. Their argument is that few Congolese “have benefited from the vision that Lumumba associated with independence, despite an estimated cost of $8.73bn spent on UN troops stationed in the DR Congo by 2010”.
They add: “Hammarskjöld’s preoccupations were driven by what we would associate today with the ‘liberal peace idea’. [His] social-democratic vision of an ideal political order for the Congo did not necessarily include protection of the elected government [i.e. Lumumba] … The UN stood by when Lumumba’s government was dissolved and when he was illegally arrested, detained, mistreated and eventually murdered.”
There are indications that Hammarskjöld only later realised to what extent Belgian mining interests posed a threat to peace and justice in the Congo’s independence transition. “Once he started to identify the interests behind violence after independence”, Hintiens and Cruz write, “he tried to change tack. Secret cables between the UN headquarters in New York and the UN mission in Congo conveyed [what other writers had said was] the growing frustration of Hammarskjöld and his officials over tactics used by the powerful mining company Union Minière to obstruct and undermine the UN’s mission in Congo.”
However, on balance, Hammarskjöld’s legacy remains that of a peacemaker. Although the Congo crisis remains the most memorable of his undertakings, as Peter Wallensteen of Uppsala University writes in a chapter titled ‘Dag Hammarskjöld’s Diplomacy’, “The 20 crises that saw Hammarskjöld’s action, dealt with seven different armed conflicts or wars”. The one war in the Congo gave Hammarskjöld six diplomatic and military crises to handle in 14 months, from July 1960 until his death.
Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the UN, is also quoted in this outstanding study and tells us that: “Dag Hammarskjöld is a figure of great importance to me – as he must be for any Secretary-General. His life and death, his words and his action have done more to shape public expectations of the office, and indeed the organisation, than any other man or woman in history.”