IPI held a commemorative policy forum on February 21st to mark the centennial of Sir Brian Urquhart, the British diplomat born February 28th, 1919 who in 1946 became the second staff member of the United Nations and in the succeeding decades of advising five Secretaries-General rose to the official position of Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs—and the unofficial one of being the often-cited conscience of the world organization.
“He is the embodiment of what it meant to be an international civil servant and a committed multilateralist,” said Jake Sherman, Director of IPI’s Center for Peace Operations that is named for Sir Brian. The name was chosen, said Adam Lupel, IPI’s Vice President, because of Sir Brian’s “long experience as the second employee of the UN, innovator of peacekeeping, keen observer of the Security Council… but also because of the reasonableness, and clarity of his thinking, and the strength of his principles.”
Sir Brian himself was unable to attend the event, but he was remembered warmly by a number of speakers, including Karen Pierce, the Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the UN, who noted that he had long been a model for people entering the British foreign service. “There isn’t a British diplomat who doesn’t know, who isn’t trained in Brian Urquhart and the legacy that he left at the UN. And although he hasn’t been to the foreign office in London in very many years, I don’t think there’s a single diplomat who doesn’t know what Brian looks like.”
“Everything he embodies about what the UN is for, what the UN can do, how many people it can save, and the contribution it makes to global peace and security is outstanding,” said Ambassador Pierce. “I don’t think we should ever forget quite how innovative this was at the time.”
And she said that his interest in bettering the UN never flagged during his long service, as was evident when she attended meetings during her last UN assignment 10 years ago discussing proposals for UN reform. “Even at 90, Brian was still thinking about ways to make the UN even more effective and to get the best out of its structures and its people,” she said.
Sir Brian’s earliest achievement was in securing an essential role for peacekeeping, a function that is nowhere mentioned in the UN Charter and one that was actively discouraged amid Cold War tensions between the West and the Soviet Union. “During the Cold War,” Mr. Sherman said, “Sir Brian was able to help actualize this very innovative idea of making peacekeeping work, almost in the margins, between where these two great powers bumped up against each other. So it was this idea of making peacekeeping work despite the differences between the permanent members of the Council.”
Another example of his bent for creative innovation was his involvement in the planning process that established the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to promote the peaceful use of atomic energy which he did, Mr. Sherman said, as a “side assignment”.
Alexandre Zouev, Assistant Secretary-General for Rule of Law and Security Institutions, noted that UN peacekeeping was now just six weeks into a new reformed structure and that while he had met him only once, Sir Brian was an “inspiration” for modern day reformers of the institution. Reflecting on how Sir Brian’s legacy informs peacekeeping in 2019, he said, “I believe it was a very, very strategic decision to bring the peacebuilding support office into the new peace and security architecture.” He said, “Right now we are creating many different types of peacekeeping, it’s not traditional…but they’re derivatives, in a certain sense, from the first mission…Right now we are definitely going through another test, and people like Sir Brian, they really bring the best examples.”
Also commenting on the life and career of Sir Brian was David Malone, Under- Secretary-General Rector of the United Nations University, based in Tokyo, and President of IPI from 1998 to 2004 when the institute was known as the International Peace Academy (IPA) and Sir Brian was on its Board of Directors.
Mr. Malone traced his singular impact on the UN to his “combination of principle but also realism…as well as his personal attributes: the humor, the charm, the sometimes biting judgments.” He was no “starry eyed idealist,” he said. “He met lots of knaves and fools, and he treats them thusly.”
“What he loved about being on the board was the young people at IPA, he was very invested in them,” Mr. Malone stressed. “He’d always be there genuinely in listening mode to young researchers who would be advancing their theories, their conclusions, their analysis.”
One person who met him early in her career was Teresa Whitfield, Director of the Policy and Mediation Division at the UN Department of Political Affairs, and she told of being immediately struck by Sir Brian’s enthusiasm and keen interest in helping young people.
“I was introduced to Brian when he was mediating the peace agreements in El Salvador. I was a very young and inexperienced journalist and Brian swept me across the road from the Ford Foundation into the UN with no pass or anything and took me up to Álvaro de Soto, and I wrote a book about El Salvador. I later joined the UN in ‘95 and in my second day at work in March 1995, Andrew [Gilmour] appeared in my office, and I didn’t know him at all, and Andrew said, ‘Brian Urquhart has sent me to tell you what an awful position you are in, I must buy you coffee.’ So I do think of the legacy in terms of the quality and the principles and the substance and the brilliance but above all the sense of an extraordinary man with a life more lived than anything I have seen.”
Adam Smith, member of the Strategic Force Generation and Capabilities Planning Cell of the UN’s Department of Peace Operations and formerly Research Fellow and Director of IPI’s Peace Operations Program, cited Sir Brian’s acclaimed biographies of Ralph Bunche, UN chief mediator and Under-Secretary-General, and Dag Hammarskjold, the second UN Secretary-General, as “one of his tremendous legacies that will carry on forever.”
Mr. Smith recalled sending Sir Brian a long letter in 2012 asking him if he would agree to having IPI put his name on its Peace Operations Center. “He wrote back a very short response, and it said, ‘Happy to do so, but please leave off the Sir.’”