Professor Henning Melber introduces his new book, which explores the years of African decolonisation during which Dag Hammarskjöld was in office at the United Nations, investigating the scope and limits of his influence within the context of global governance.

The years 2019–20 mark a century of the International Civil Service (ICS) with the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference, and the subsequent establishment of the League of Nations in January 1920.

In December 2018, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the ‘International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace’ resolution, (document A/73/L.48) by a recorded vote of 144 in favour to two against (Israel, US), with no abstentions. And on 24 April 2019, a UN High-level Plenary Meeting discusses the challenges of multilateralism committed to a rules-based world order.

An autonomous ICS is crucial for promoting and maintaining such rules-based international cooperation. Already then, international civil servants were expected to be loyal to the aspirations of the international community and to remain neutral and independent of any authority outside their organisation. Eric Drummond, first Secretary-General of the League of Nations (1919–33) played a crucial and pioneering role in the conceptualisation of the ICS.

Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN’s second secretary-general (1953–61), elaborated the concept further and set standards that are still in play today: integrity, loyalty to the principles of the UN Charter, independence from any national or regional interests and the courage to uphold these values were at the core of his ethics.

My new book, released on the same day as the UN Plenary Meeting, pays tribute to Hammarskjöld’s hitherto unexplored commitment to self-determination on the African continent. Entitled Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations and the Decolonisation of Africa, it focuses on the emergence of normative frameworks and Hammarskjöld’s continued emphasis of these vis-à-vis the dominant East-West confrontation and its geostrategic implications. It analyses the scope and limitations, the interpretation and implementation of these principles adopted by the UN member states through his diplomacy during the cold war era.

Decolonisation processes on the African continent gained momentum during the 1950s. The UN became an important forum for the growing demands for self-determination. As secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld played a prominent role during the unfolding of the processes, which finally culminated in the Congo crisis of 1960–61.

The monograph documents why normative frameworks, their interpretation and implementation matter. It assesses Dag Hammarskjöld’s role in the process, with the scope and limitations his office provided under the existing asymmetric post-World-War-II power relations.

His support for the struggles for national sovereignty shows that individuals and their running of office do matter, despite all limitations imposed through the policy of the big powers. As Hammarskjöld’s numerous programmatic as well as political-philosophical statements and speeches document, his terms in office were guided by strong and coherent ethics concerning the independence of the international civil service.

But while the importance of individual leadership is exemplified, emphasis is also on the limitations such an office and its incumbent have. The study critically reflects on some of the failures and flaws during Hammarskjöld’s time as secretary-general. After all, while he set the bar very high and remains widely respected for this, he was far from unfailing.

However, notwithstanding the structural as well as individual limitations while operating within the confinements of the UN, his diplomacy towards the end of his time in office was followed with suspicion and mistrust in the West and open calls for resignation in the East. This testified to his integrity. Revealingly so, the newly independent states remained largely supportive. For them he was ‘their’ secretary-general.

When Hammarskjöld and 15 others in his company died in a plane crash near the northern Rhodesian mining town of Ndola in the night of September 17/18, 1961, the adjacent white settler-minority regimes were visibly relieved. And despite the world-wide recognition and appraisal, the secret services of all big powers had closely followed his attempts to bring the Katanga province back into the Congolese territory.

Re-assessing Hammarskjöld’s anti-hegemonic stance suggests that there were more than enough parties satisfied that he could not bring his mission to the planned end. The hitherto unclarified causes for the plane crash remain a matter of renewed investigations triggered by a book written by Susan Williams, Who Killed Hammarskjöld?. The current efforts to establish what happened then are also summarised in a chapter.

Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations and the Decolonisation of Africa argues that despite all limitations, values matter for a global governance body seeking to solve or at least contain conflicts through multilateral diplomacy based on normative frameworks. It highlights the battles over the power of definition by different interest groups in the era of decolonisation and the East-West conflict as well as the potential role and influence of an individual in charge of the UN Secretariat.

In addition, it recognises Hammarskjöld as an outstanding international civil servant, who believed in the spirit and word of the UN Charter and the virtues of a service guided by loyalty to its values and principles. A hundred years after the creation of the ICS, Hammarskjöld deserves to be remembered for leading by example.

Professor Henning Melber is senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is also director emeritus and senior advisor of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, senior research associate of the Nordic Africa Institute (both in Uppsala/Sweden), extraordinary professor at the University of Pretoria and Bloemfontein’s University of the Free State, and president of the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI).