New Internationalist

Heroes And Villains

December 1994

new internationalist
issue 262 - December 1994

Heroes and Villains

Trygve Lie Trygve Lie (Norway) 1946-52
The first Secretary-General was by far the most outspoken. His strength reflected the high hopes for the new organization in the aftermath of a devastating war. But Lie’s readiness to wade in with his own opinions on any and every world issue had mixed results. In supporting (in vain) Communist China’s right to take its seat at the UN after the 1949 Revolution he was admirably clear-sighted and prepared to stand up to the US. But ultimately his passionate advocacy of the US/UN position in the Korean War won him the enmity of the Soviet Union, which refused to take part in UN activities when he was present, forcing him to resign.

Dag Hammarskjöld Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden) 1953-61
Hammarskjöld was the UN’s finest leader. More carefully diplomatic than Lie, he was just as prepared to take independent initiatives and not simply serve the major powers. He behaved with credit during the Suez Crisis when Britain and France were clearly at fault. And he was largely responsible for the whole idea of peacekeeping, which is not provided for in the UN Charter. The first UN peacekeeping force was deployed in Egypt in 1956. The perils of peacekeeping were soon evident during his intervention in the civil war following the Belgian Congo’s independence in 1960. The UN soon found itself ‘taking sides’ and imposing ‘peace’ through military force. The intervention also cost Hammarskjöld his life – he died in a suspicious plane crash in Northern Rhodesia while on his way to meet secessionist rebels. His Congo policy incurred the wrath of the Soviet Union. Hammarskjöld’s idealistic response was that he was there to serve the interests not of the great powers but of the small states.

U Thant U Thant (Burma) 1961-71
The major powers now informally agreed that no future Secretary-General should have the power and presence of Hammarskjöld. U Thant was the first fruit of that change of policy, being quiet and bureaucratically inclined, almost never speaking at Security Council meetings. He presided over 10 further years of Cold War in which the UN was frozen into immobility on the peace-and-security front. But these were also the years in which newly independent developing countries joined the organization in droves, full of hope that they could harness it in the cause of global justice and equality. The presence of a leader from the South symbolized that new phase for the UN, as did U Thant’s own most daring initiative – his repeated and passionate criticism of the US war in Vietnam.

Kurt Waldheim Kurt Waldheim (Austria) 1972-81
Waldheim will be remembered less for his work at the UN than for the accusations of involvement in Nazi war crimes which dogged his later career as President of Austria. He was arguably the least distinguished of all the UN’s leaders. Publicly diplomatic, even obsequious to the major powers, in private he was vain, with a violent temper. During his term the UN Secretariat lapsed in standards as the quality of senior staff was continually diluted by backscratching ‘political’ appointments and hints of corruption – staff morale in New York sank ever lower.


Javier Perez Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (Peru) 1982-91
Pérez de Cuéllar, a sensitive, soft-spoken aesthete, was bored stiff by budget discussions, which notoriously sent him to sleep. The perilous financial basis of the UN, forever dependent on an increasingly hostile US, was never likely to be turned around in his term of office. And it may also be no coincidence that during his decade the World Bank and the IMF – UN organizations both – started to set the global economic agenda, effectively undermining the UN’s humanitarian development work. Pérez de Cuéllar concentrated instead on the ‘good offices’ function of the Secretary-General – the power to act as an independent mediator in international disputes – and achieved some success in later years in this role, most notably in El Salvador.


Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt) 1992-
Boutros-Ghali is the most forceful UN leader since Hammarskjöld, as ‘hands on’ as Pérez de Cuéllar was ‘hands off’. Staff in New York have already been shaken up by his reorganizations and he may pay more attention than his predecessors to the nitty-gritty internal reforms which are so badly needed. But he would never have been appointed had he not been considered ‘sound’ by the Western powers on the key issue of the global free market. His use of the UN’s post-Cold War freedom of manoeuvre has been generally disastrous, as in Somalia and Rwanda. He does seem to recognize that the world is going to be ever more war-torn if the basic needs of the poor are not met. If his concern were serious he would lead a campaign to bring the World Bank and the IMF to heel, starting perhaps at the Social Summit in Copenhagen. But don’t hold your breath.


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This feature was published in the December 1994 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 262

New Internationalist Magazine issue 262
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