Brian Urquhart Wiki – Brian Urquhart Biography
Brian Urquhart was a British international civil servant, author and World War II veteran, has died. He played a significant role in the founding of the United Nations. He went on to serve as its Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs.
He was best known as the principal architect of the United Nations’ peacekeeping activities. He was present at the birth of the UN and worked there continuously at senior level for four decades, securing a reputation as the leading authority on the organisation.
Urquhart took part in the UN’s foundation in 1945, having joined the preparatory commission in London that drew up the UN charter, as an assistant to Sir Gladwyn Jebb, its executive secretary. Rather than entering the British diplomatic service, Urquhart opted to become an international civil servant in the emerging UN secretariat, wishing to give it his undivided loyalty.
When the UN’s first secretary general, Trygve Lie, set up shop in New York in 1946, Urquhart went with him as his personal assistant. For the next 40 years, Urquhart worked closely with succeeding secretary generals, rising to become under secretary general for special political affairs in 1974. In that capacity, he often dealt at first hand with the UN’s diplomatic efforts and peacekeeping operations to end conflict in crisis-ridden areas, including the Congo, Cyprus, the Middle East, Angola and Namibia.
During a lifetime of service in the political section of the UN secretariat, he never wavered from his faith in the UN and his belief that in the search for conflict resolution there was no alternative to “collective internationalism”. He also recognised the UN’s shortcomings and often spoke out as one of its sternest critics. Nor did he temper his strictures on the lack of support for the world body from some of its leading members.
The son of Bertha (nee Rendall) and Murray Urquhart, he was born in Bridport, Dorset, and was brought up by his mother after his parents’ marriage broke up. Brian’s education began as the only boy among the 200 girls at Badminton school for girls in Bristol, where his mother had become a teacher. Afterwards the public school system took over: Urquhart won a scholarship to Westminster and went on to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1937. He enlisted in the British army on the day the second world war was declared and saw service in Algeria, Tunisia and Sicily. In 1945, he was the first allied officer to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
War, Urquhart said, taught him many lessons that he took with him to the UN. Violence only breeds more violence. Peacekeeping, he thought, “must not rely on military methods to gain objectives and must regard the operation as fundamentally political rather than military”. He was radically opposed to defeatist thinking: “In the UN, a vast and extremely difficult enterprise, it is, in my view, out of the question to contemplate failure. The organisation simply has to be made to work. The probable alternative is not to be contemplated.”
Urquhart served under five very different UN secretary generals: Lie (1946-52), Dag Hammarskjöld (1953-61), U Thant (1961-71), Kurt Waldheim (1972-81) and Javier Pérez de Cuellar (1982-91). He was outraged when it came out after the end of Waldheim’s term that he had lied about his wartime activities, and accused Waldheim of having caused “immense damage not only to his country but to the UN”.
During the Hammarskjöld period, Urquhart had a key role as chief assistant to the assistant secretary-general Ralph Bunche. Though they often worked a 17-hour day, it was “by far the most rewarding experience” of his life. Together they launched peacekeeping operations as a central responsibility of the UN, even though its charter had contained no reference to such activity.
Urquhart had foreshadowed peacekeeping in a paper he wrote in 1944, in which he suggested using soldiers to preserve peace rather than wage war. But it was only when Bunche was hammering out the Arab-Israeli armistice agreement of 1949 that they understood the role that peacekeeping could play in creating such an accord.
UN peacekeeping troops were first used in 1956, after the Suez invasion, when they helped to get British, French and Israeli forces out of Egyptian territory. The UN Emergency Force (UNEF) needed some mark to highlight their neutral presence, and settled on blue, the UN’s colour: since then, the phrase “blue berets” has become synonymous with UN peacekeepers.
Initially Urquhart saw them as lightly armed soldiers to aid the conciliation process, without direct military involvement.
But such a low-key approach could hardly be sustained for long. The first challenge came in the Congo in 1960. The country’s newly won independence was threatened by the secession of Katanga, by chaos, and by civil war. The UN assembled a 20,000-strong force to try to bring order.
Urquhart went out to supervise the operation and accepted that the blue berets had to adopt a far more activist role than he had envisaged for peacekeepers, if the Congo’s territorial integrity was to be preserved. A few weeks after the fatal crash of Hammarskjöld’s plane in 1961, Urquhart was seized and beaten up by Katangese soldiers and had to be rescued by Gurkha troops under the UN command.
With each succeeding crisis, Urquhart learned more and more clearly that effective peacekeeping required a fundamental overhaul of the UN and its key organs, including the security council. He also became preoccupied by the fine line between the safeguarding of national sovereignty and intervention in defence of human rights. Increasingly too, the question had to be answered as to whether UN peacekeepers should engage in “nation building” in the wake of conflict. Urquhart never lost his idealism and his conviction that the UN would remain an irreplaceable tool of international relations.
On his retirement in 1986, Urquhart was knighted. He chose to remain in the US where, for over a decade, he was a scholar-in-residence at the International Programme of the Ford Foundation, and became a prolific writer of articles and book reviews about all aspects of the UN. His deep, but sharply critical and always constructive, approach was best revealed in his autobiography, A Life in Peace and War (1987).
Among other books, Urquhart published a biography of Hammarskjöld in 1972 and Ralph Bunche: An American Life (1993), about his former colleague.
Brian Urquhart Age
Brian Urquhart has died at the age of 101.
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Wife & Children
Urquhart is survived by his second wife, Sidney (nee Howard), whom he married in 1963, and their son and daughter; by two sons and a daughter from his first marriage, to Alfreda (nee Huntingdon), which ended in divorce; and by 14 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Cause of Death
Sir Brian Urquhart, who has died aged 101, Brian Edward Urquhart, diplomat, born 28 February 1919; died 2 January 2021.
His cause of death is not announced.