Professor Henning Melber, director emeritus and senior advisor of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, reflects on the notion of solidarity and the legacy of the second United Nations secretary-general, who died in a mysterious plane crash on 18 September, 55 years ago. There were no survivors and the circumstances and cause of the tragedy, which occurred as the plane was approaching Ndola in what was then the British colony of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), remain a matter of renewed investigations by the UN. 

What we know is that Dag Hammarskjöld and his entourage were on their way to meet Moise Tshombe, the secessionist leader of the Congolese Katanga province. Due to its natural resources (not least uranium), Katanga was of utmost geostrategic interest for the big powers and under firm control of the western states. After several failed efforts by the UN to find a solution to the crisis in the Congo, Hammarskjöld, the UN’s second secretary-general, was about to seek an end of the secession through direct negotiations with Tshombe.

Like many others at different times and places, those on board paid the highest price for their efforts to practice international solidarity with the people in the Congo.

Solidarity – a Janus-headed term
As with other key terms, solidarity suggest something we can all, in some way or another, relate to. But it is far from clear and rather fluid, if not fuzzy. It also leaves unanswered who practices solidarity with whom, and for which purpose. The alliance of right-wing anti-immigration parties is as much an act of solidarity among like-minded as is the struggle by human rights activists for refugees to be treated decently. Strictly speaking, solidarity simply characterises a specific form of interaction, without considering the aims, contents and meaning of such actions. We should therefore be careful when naively assuming that solidarity by definition means something ‘good’.

As David Featherstone observes in Solidarity – Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism, there exist ‘many different uses of solidarity by elite and middling as well as subaltern and working-class movements’. But solidarity also has a dimension of inter-state and multilateral relations, less often reflected upon. Despite numerous confrontations over the power of definition, the multilateral relations include an element of solidarity – and its contestation.

Solidarity and the UN
The UN’s mandate embraces the notion of solidarity, and neither the Genocide Convention nor the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would exist without a concept of solidarity. Dag Hammarskjöld hammered this home by declaring, at the 1960 Economic Commission of Africa in Tangier, that ‘Partnership and solidarity are the foundations of the United Nations.’

Once the Cold War era faded away, the relative success of the UN’s 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna symbolised, for a short while, a new beginning for shared human rights. But renewed divisions soon emerged – often along a north-south divide or guided by religion, faith or ideology – and the notion of cultural relativism gained new ground. Notwithstanding such contradictions, the UN’s member states in their declarations recognise the need for solidarity.

The Millennium Declaration identified solidarity as one of the 21st-century’s fundamental values of international relations and on 22 December 2005, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 60/209. It identified solidarity as a fundamental and universal value and proclaimed 20 December an annual International Human Solidarity Day to ‘encourage debate on the ways to promote solidarity.’

In 2005 the UN Commission on Human Rights (predecessor to the Human Rights Council) took the initiative, which was endorsed by the Economic and Social Council with the Human Rights Resolution 2005/55, to appoint ‘an independent expert on human rights and international solidarity’ to ‘prepare a draft declaration on the right of peoples to international solidarity’. A 2010 report by the former independent expert Rudi Muhammad Rizki, reinforced international solidarity as a principle, and even a right, in international law. It concluded: ‘There is an abundance of hard and soft laws, policies and values that can form the basis of (…) a draft declaration on the right of peoples and individuals to international solidarity.’

In 2014 Virginia Dandan, the current independent expert, submitted a preliminary draft for such a declaration. Her report of 27 April 2016, indicated some kind of consensus is still a long way off since ‘a number of recurring issues … have not been resolved’, including ‘the definition of the right itself’.

Solidarity as a universal notion
As these extended negotiations suggest, solidarity among the member states remains a vision not yet close to reality. A recent example illustrates this stalemate. On 30 June the 47 members of the UN Human Rights Council adopted a landmark resolution, ‘Protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI)’. Designed to safeguard the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities, it is a milestone in elevating LGBT rights to the level of human rights.

While celebrated as a major breakthrough in some quarters, the resolution was adopted by a narrow margin – 23 for and 18 against. Six countries abstained. One of the main arguments against the resolution, castigated as ‘divisive’, was that it violated cultural norms and imposed western values. After a heated debate the final text was watered down considerably.

This illustrates that solidarity can take different forms and orientations. If a resolution would name and shame waterboarding, other forms of torture or extrajudicial interventions by state authorities, the voting behavior of member states would most likely produce different patterns and alliances. States holding opposite views on matters like homophobia would all of a sudden share a much more amicable understanding, even if for different reasons. Acts of solidarity are at the same time inclusive (including those sharing and practicing solidarity as regards a specific issue) and exclusive (by excluding those with other views and convictions on this matter).

Back to the roots
In September 2015, UN member states adopted the ‘Agenda for sustainable development’ with 17 sustainable development goals. The document declares to be ‘based on a spirit of strengthened global solidarity, focused in particular on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable and with the participation of all countries, all stakeholders and all people.’ The wording of such appeal might be new, but not the message.

The moral compass was in existence 60 years earlier. It guided the UN’s second secretary-general when advocating solidarity. His values and visions shaped an agenda, whose goals on too many occasions have since been sacrificed on the altar of self-interests. Engaging with Martin Buber’s philosophy, in an address at Cambridge University on 5 June 1958, he appealed to tear down the ‘walls of distrust’ through acts of international solidarity, but also through solidarity practiced in a much more personal form of engagement guided by human values:

‘The conflict to different approaches to the liberty of man and mind or between different views of human dignity and the right of the individual is continuous. The dividing line goes within ourselves, within our own peoples, and also within other nations. It does not coincide with any political or geographical boundaries. The ultimate fight is one between the human and the subhuman. We are on dangerous ground if we believe that any individual, any nation, or any ideology has a monopoly on rightness, liberty, and human dignity.’

Such conviction and engagement also required a firm belief, guided by courage. In Hammarskjöld’s words, when addressing a gathering on 15 May 1956 to celebrate the 180th anniversary of the Virginia Declaration of Rights: ‘It is when we all play safe that we create a world of the utmost insecurity. It is when we all play safe that fatality will lead us to our doom. It is ‘in the dark shade of courage’ alone, that the spell can be broken.’

Representatives of the UN’s member states claiming to speak on behalf of ‘We the Peoples’ (though they often do not), as the preamble of the Charter begins, should find such courage and return to a true meaning of solidarity – the solidarity of people with people in their fight for human dignity and a worthy life free from fear.

‘To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained.’ (Preamble of the UN Charter)

What is needed is a return to the values that inspired such a manifesto. Admittedly, it will remain an uphill battle, but global solidarity is an urgent need for the community of states to address the fundamental challenges created by our anthropocentric lifestyle. Many people live at the expense of even more and in a self-destructive way, risk the extinction of all living creatures.

We urgently need empathy for those paying too high a price and the awareness that acts of solidarity will help secure a future not only for humanity and humanism, but for all life on our planet. We are therefore still left with the basic, fundamental question and choice: solidarity with whom and for what.

Professor Henning Melber is director emeritus/senior advisor of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and senior research associate at the Nordic Africa Institute, both in Uppsala/Sweden. He is also extraordinary professor at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria and at the Centre for Africa Studies, University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, and senior research fellow at the Institute for Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), a member of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. His most recent co-edited publication is Peace Diplomacy, Global Justice and International Agency: Rethinking Human Security and Ethics in the Spirit of Dag Hammarskjöld, which provides an objective analysis of Hammarskjöld’s achievements during his time as the UN’s secretary-general.