The second Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld – who died in office in 1961, when he was on his way to negotiate a cease-fire in Congo – has been referred to as one of the best heads of the inter-government organisation, and the UN’s “Dag Hammarskjöld: Instrument, Catalyst, Inspirer” is a chronological collection of speeches made by the posthumous Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Some of his most interesting perspectives related to the office of the Secretary-General as well as the mandate and composition of the UN Secretariat, but Mr. Hammarskjöld was also prescient about changes to the global world order, and how in the absence of a global sovereign with authority, the UN has to adjust its approaches.
Yet some quotes are applicable in general too, beyond the UN context:
“It is false pride to register and to boast to the world about the importance of one’s work, but it is false humility, and finally just as destructive, not to recognise – and recognise with gratitude – that one’s work has a sense. Let us avoid the second fallacy as carefully as the first, and let us work in the conviction that our work has a meaning beyond the narrow individual one and has meant something for man”.
To hear from the man himself, here are quotes from his speeches, organised across four themes:
Objectives of a Multilateral UN
- On whether world organisation was meaningful, desirable, and necessary, especially in the maintenance of peace and security: “World organisation, as represented by the UN, is a good deal less meaningful in the policies of member governments than many people thought it would be in 1945, but that it is a good deal more meaningful than many people think it is in 1954″.
- The UN is anchored by four objectives, from the maintenance of peace and security to the promotion of socio-economic progress, and political and psychological considerations have placed emphasis on the latter: “Multilateral forms of assistance have emerged as superior to the bilateral ones in important respects. If aid is channelled from the giver country to the beneficiary country through the UN … a political accent is avoided and psychological pressure is eased [at the same time]”.
- And in terms of security, the UN “has never been meant to be an organ of collective security of the alliance type, but it is aimed at a universal system for the maintenance of peace which may have, as a natural complement, defensive alliances”.
The Absence of a Global Sovereign
- Writing in 1954: “We live in a time when world organisation cannot enforce peace or impose a political settlement, when no alliance can do it either, and when the price of a third world war is the suicide of civilisation”.
- On the challenges to a world federation: “It is difficult to see how a leap from today’s chaotic and disjointed world to something approaching a world federation is to come about. To attain such a goal, elements of organic growth are required … For such a development, the UN offers a framework which appears as good as the world situation permits at present”.
Organisational Agency and Reforms to the UN
- The UN is not a passive entity which only responds to the demands of its member states, Mr. Hammarskjöld said and illustrated using a metaphor of the UN as a social organism: “Because the [UN] Secretariat is a living thing – and its individual members, with their own convictions and hopes, their own idealism, are independent of orders from any government – it is, however, something more than a ticking mechanism. It has creative capacity. It can introduce new ideas. It can, in proper forms, take initiatives. It can put before the member governments new findings which will influence their actions”.
- Nevertheless, in most circumstances, “Only to a limited extent does the UN have an existence and possibilities of action independent of the will of the member governments and the policy of the member states themselves”.
- For the present and the future: “We need the organisation in the present situation for the negotiating possibilities it opens up. We need it as an executive organ. We need it for the constructive additions it offers in international attempts to resolve conflicts of interest. And we need it as a foundation and a framework … to find forms in which an extra-national – or perhaps even supra-national – influence may be brought to bear in the prevention of future conflicts.
The UN Secretary-General and the UN Secretariat
- Detailing Articles 98 and 99 of the UN Charter, Mr. Hammarskjöld said the inclusion “takes us beyond the concept of a non-political civil service into an area where the official, in the exercise of his functions, may be forced to take stands of a politically controversial nature”, with a corresponding discourse on the interpretation and implications of “neutrality”.
- He elaborated: “The international civil servant cannot be accused of lack of neutrality simply for taking a stand on a controversial issue when this is his duty and cannot be avoid”. However, he noted the importance of integrity, “But there remains a serious intellectual and moral problem as we move within an area inside which personal judgement must come into play. Finally, we have to deal here with a question of integrity or with, if you please, a question of conscience”.