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Lumumba and the UN

To the Editors:

Brian Urquhart [Letters, NYR, December 20, 2001] writes that my analysis of the role of the UN in the Congo crisis (1960–1964) is dogmatic, partisan, and simplistic. However, he gives not one refutation to the facts I mentioned about the complicity of the UN in the downfall of the Congolese prime minister Lumumba. He tries to make the best of it writing that Secretary-General Hammarskjöld’s green light for the coup against Lumumba was a staple of Soviet propaganda. That’s true, but doesn’t refute my thesis. The cable traffic between Hammarskjöld and his envoy Cordier before and during the coup and testimonies from Belgian advisers are crystal clear: the UN wanted Lumumba “to be broken,” in the words of Hammarskjöld. Not one or two, but tens of cables gave evidence of the partisan role of the UN in the crisis. A last example: in a cable, Cordier writes about his measures to deprive Lumumba access to the radio and blocking him from calling in loyal troops after the coup, officially “in the interests of the maintenance of law and order”: “This seems to go as far as we can to affect the situation favourably and stay within the terms of our mandate.”…

Urquhart writes that he never heard of the internal armed opposition to the Belgian-brokered secession of the province of Katanga. This statement is astonishing, because the civil war in Katanga caused the death of thousands and pushed the UN in the autumn and winter of 1960, when Katangese nationalists were on the verge of toppling the secessionists, to interpose blue helmets between the two sides. This “gap” in Urquhart’s memory is significant: it shows us a glimpse of the way the UN leadership at the time embraced the Katangese regime and overlooked its brutal repression of the nationalist population. Let me also add that, contrary to the gratuitous remarks by Urquhart, the commission of inquiry from the Belgian Parliament on the assassination of Lumumba confirms in its report the instrumentality of the UN in the downfall of the Congolese leader.

Ludo De Witte
Louvain, Belgium

Brian Urquhart replies:

I have already replied to Ludo De Witte’s fulminations at considerable length and I shall not weary your readers by repeating what I have said. De Witte’s new point is to allege that the Belgian Parliament’s recent commission of inquiry “confirms in its report the instrumentality of the UN in the downfall of the Congolese leader.” The word “instrumentality” does not appear in this context in the Belgian report. What the report actually says, on page 9, is:

The Belgian action [against Lumumba] is placed in a larger grouping [ensemble] of opposition forces. Thus, the break between Lumumba and UN secretary-general Hammarskjöld also plays a crucial role in the fall of the Congolese prime minister, on the one hand because it incites Lumumba to seek (openly) the support of the Soviet Union and, on the other, because it incites the United States to organize (behind the scenes) [en coulisse] active opposition to Lumumba (including the elaboration of the first plans for physical elimination). In fact the United States feared a disintegration of the UN force, a disintegration that would open the door to the Soviet Union.

This seems to me to be a reasonably correct estimate of the situation. The Belgian report continues:

In this context [Sous cet angle], the pressure of American and UN diplomats constitutes from that point on an important factor in the downfall of Lumumba.

As I have said before, I believe that Belgian and US pressure and intrigue, not “UN diplomats,” were the key to Lumumba’s fall, and the UN, not for the first or last time, found itself caught in the middle. It is, I suppose, only natural in the context of the Belgian report that its authors would wish to spread the responsibility for Lumumba’s fate as widely as possible.

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