Legacy of Sir Brian Urquhart Offers Lessons for Challenges Facing UN

Sir Brian Urquhart, former Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs, addresses the UN General Assembly. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Today, February 28, 2019, is the 100th birthday of Sir Brian Urquhart, whose distinguished career at the United Nations began at its creation and lasted until the final years of the Cold War. As an adviser to five secretaries-general, his influence over the first generation of UN peacekeeping missions was without peer. A committed multilateralist, Sir Brian was clear-eyed about the idealism of the UN as a mechanism to address international crises—and the reasons it often failed.

His centennial is an apt moment to reflect on his legacy and how his experiences at the UN continue to inform contemporary challenges facing the organization. Two aspects of Sir Brian’s legacy stand out: his ability to find imaginative solutions to crises despite fundamental differences among the five permanent members—the “P5”—of the Security Council, and his reputation for impartiality and loyalty to the ideals of the organization he served for over four decades.

After a six year stint in the British Army during World War II, Sir Brian achieved his strong desire to join “whatever world body would succeed the League of Nations,” becoming the UN’s second staff member in 1946. As an aide to the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Ralph Bunche—and one of the few early staff with military experience—Sir Brian planned the UN’s early missions almost singlehandedly, including its first peacekeeping operation following the Suez crisis in 1956. The use of the blue helmet—arguably the most iconic symbol of the UN—was his idea to distinguish peacekeepers from other military forces. During the years of East-West struggle, Sir Brian’s peacekeepers adhered to principles of impartiality, consent of the parties, and non-use of force. He viewed strong political support from the P5 as essential for peacekeeping’s success, at times even securing the participation of both US and Soviet military observers.

But despite early signs of progress, the ink on the UN charter had barely dried before competition between the United States and Soviet Union killed the spirit of collective responsibility for maintaining international peace on which the UN Charter was based. Throughout the Cold War, the P5 tended to prevent the Council from taking up major crises in which they were involved. Sir Brian observed that if the Council didn’t function with unanimity as intended, the next best scenario was that its most powerful members would use it as a last resort. De-escalation of crises in the Middle East—often to prevent more direct US and Soviet participation—was a rare, but recurring exception to deadlock.

Sir Brian supervised UN peacekeeping for nearly two decades, overseeing operations in Cyprus, Lebanon, Namibia, as well as the UN’s first foray in the Congo, which prefigured today’s multidimensional missions, and their attending challenges. Shortly after his retirement, the collapse of the Soviet Union overturned the political order, and with it the stasis in the Council, which deployed peacekeeping missions with a widening set of civilian, military, and policing tasks at an unprecedented pace. More than 110,000 civilian, military, and police staff now serve in 14 peacekeeping operations.

Today, however, peacekeeping appears to be in increasing trouble. Complex, costly missions in the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) face a shifting constellation of armed groups and criminal gangs. In the case of the mission in Mali, terrorist groups continually target UN peacekeepers. Stalled political processes, obstructionist host governments, and widespread targeting of civilians, particularly women, also challenge missions, especially in Darfur and South Sudan. Longstanding buffer missions in Cyprus and Western Sahara—the thin “blue line” practiced by Sir Brian—face deepening skepticism from the current US administration. There are also worrying signs of contentiousness over the renewal of peacekeeping mandates, as negotiations over the DRC, CAR, and Western Sahara suggest.

Similar to the political environment in which Sir Brian operated, UN peacekeeping must once again navigate a Security Council divided by great power animosity. It has proven unable to halt violence in Syria and Yemen or outright territorial seizure in Ukraine due to the direct involvement of permanent members. Ideological differences over human rights and competing visions of the inviolability of state sovereignty have paralyzed action over Burundi, Myanmar, and Venezuela.

Under President Donald Trump, the United States has relinquished its political leadership and questioned the value of the UN and multilateralism itself, while Russia and China challenge the liberal norms on which they are based. Echoing Sir Brian, Richard Gowan recently suggested that as competition worsens, the least bad outcome would be for the US, China, and Russia to maintain the Security Council as a mechanism to manage their competition in the face of common security threats, like nuclear proliferation, counterterrorism, and managing armed conflict. Nonetheless, the Council has found moments of consensus—on chemical weapons in Syria (if fleetingly), the tightening of sanctions on North Korea, and in most cases, continuing the mandates of peacekeeping missions.

In a deeply divided, cost-conscious Security Council, the future of UN peacekeeping may become less ambitious. Established functions like security and justice sector reform and human rights promotion could be increasingly debated. Now one peacemaker among many, the UN will also need to contend with parallel operations by regional organizations and other actors that may have a comparative advantage. More UN missions are likely to resemble those familiar to Sir Brian: monitoring and verification missions like those deployed in Colombia and, more recently, in Hodeidah, Yemen. Yet both these examples, deployed as more politically-palatable “special political missions,” also demonstrate the kind of innovation championed by Urquhart. In the former, unarmed military and police observers were sent as a political mission to avoid government sensitivities about “peacekeeping,” while in the latter, the observers are being deployed under the existing mediator’s office to support a truce and enable delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Beyond his role in shaping UN peacekeeping, Sir Brian championed what it meant to serve the UN. Throughout his years of service, Urquhart embodied political independence and loyalty to the UN Charter, epitomizing the ideals of an international civil servant promoted by his one-time boss, Dag Hammarskjöld. The impartiality of the UN and its staff is essential for the credibility of the organization, whether mediating a peace agreement or calling out human rights violations. Sir Brian could be withering in his assessment of the UN’s failings, including the tendency of its intergovernmental meetings towards tedious rhetoric, its bureaucracy towards parochialism, and its member states towards resistance to reform.

While politicization of the UN’s top jobs has been a longstanding concern, there are now worrying signs that national loyalty is seeping into rank and file appointments today. Sir Brian argued that the role of the UN was to look equally at all the problems facing the most people. It cannot do this if it is beholden only to its most powerful members. In a related problem, few senior UN officials running missions demonstrate a willingness to honestly assess their progress to the Security Council out of concern that they may run afoul of its members and harm their prospects for future employment.

To improve its responsiveness to current political and development challenges, on January 1, the United Nations underwent its biggest reorganization since the creation of the Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Political Affairs in 1992. Championed by Secretary-General António Guterres, the reforms aim to break down silos to better prevent and resolve political crises. One of the most tangible outcomes is expected to be better political analysis and reporting to the Security Council. The reforms should also provide more efficient support to field operations mandated to enable peace agreements and protect civilians in war zones.

While it remains to be seen whether the reforms will transform the organizational culture and promote cooperation, their approval by member states was a strong endorsement of the need for change. So far, however, member states appear less able to follow through on their own political commitments to Secretary-General Guterres’ Action for Peacekeeping initiative, launched in March 2018 to spur governments to address challenges outside the UN’s control, like better coordinating political processes, adequately training and equipping troops, and allocating resources.

The UN has always faced a gap between its aspiration and performance. Yet, as Sir Brian observed, the UN is the only global design for the daunting task of managing both conflict and progress. In the struggle to narrow the gap, setbacks need to be met with intensified efforts to find creative solutions. “If we fail to do this,” he wrote, “coming generations will pay a terrible price.” Facing a future marked by rising global disorder, we should all heed his message and his legacy.

Jake Sherman is Director of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute (IPI).