Honouring Humanity- Dag Hammarskjöld, In the Service of Peace

The ongoing global pandemic has highlighted the work of humanitarian organisations around the world. The United Nations estimates that 274 million people will require humanitarian assistance and protection in 2022. Throughout this year, we will celebrate the selfless acts of humanity by a select number of individuals while appreciating the ongoing work of thousands of humanitarian workers across the globe. 

The Swedish economist and public servant Dag Hammarskjöld was the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. He remains the youngest person to have held this position, as he was aged only 47 when he took up the appointment in April 1953. His candidacy proved equally acceptable to the Western powers, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, and he quickly moved to improve the efficient operation of the United Nations Organisation while also helping resolve global crises in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Peacekeeping in the Middle East and Africa

The first United Nations Emergency Force was created in 1956 to police the Egyptian-Israeli border following the abortive Israeli, British and French attempt to seize control of the Suez Canal by combined military action and remove the Egyptian president. A second United Nations peacekeeping force was formed in 1960 to assist the newly independent Republic of Congo from descending into civil war following the withdrawal of Belgian troops from the former Belgian colony.  Hammarskjöld was preparing to negotiate a cease-fire between United Nations troops and a breakaway state which claimed independence from the Republic of Congo when his aircraft crashed in Zambia on 18 September 1961, killing everyone on board.

The Greatest Statesman of Our Century

United States President John F. Kennedy called Hammarskjöld ‘the greatest statesman of our century’. On the sixtieth anniversary of his death, the Governor of Kinshasa paid tribute to ‘Dag Hammarskjöld, of blessed memory, [who] will forever be remembered by Africans, in general, and the Congolese in particular, due to his fight for justice and equality, as well as the critical role he played in the consolidation of the fledgling African democracies in the sixties.’

The Dag Hammarskjöld Medal

ON 22 July 1997, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1121 which established the Dag Hammarskjöld Medal as a posthumous award to any military or police personnel or civilians who lose their lives while serving in a United Nations’ peacekeeping operation. The first award was to Dag Hammarskjöld himself, while the second was made to René de Labarrière, considered the first United Nations soldier to have been killed in action when his vehicle detonated a land mine in Palestine in 1948.

The medal is a clear lead crystal ovoid, which features the name and date of death of the recipient at the top, the United Nations logo at the base, and on either side the inscriptions ‘THE DAG HAMMARSKJÖLD MEDAL – IN THE SERVICE OF PEACE” and “MEDAILLE DAG HAMMARSKJÖLD – AU SERVICE DE LA PAIX’. Awards of the medal are made on 29 May, which is the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers. Louis Nelson designed the medal to be easily held in the palm of one’s hand, to emphasise the value of life as a posthumous benediction. The medal is not meant to be worn, but instead placed on display in a family home.

Demining in Northern Iraq

In 1999, the British company Greenfield Consultants was contracted by the United Nations to undertake de-mining operations in Northern Iraq. The Kurdistan region was amongst the areas most severely affected by landmines in the world, with millions of mines left behind after the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Iraqi government of 1999 disapproved of efforts to remove the mines on the basis that they were still necessary to help protect the border with Iran. Greenfield Consultants employed several former members of the New Zealand Army to assist in the training of local residents in mine-clearing work and land rehabilitation. Nicholas Speight had served with the Corps of Royal New Zealand Engineers as an officer, while Ian Broughton had served as a Corporal.

Nicholas Speight – killed in the service of peace

Nicholas Speight was shot and killed near Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, on 24 April 1999. Speight and a fellow United Nations employee were walking near the United Nations compound at the Erbil airport when they were fired upon by two assailants in a taxi. Speight was shot three times, while his companion fell to the ground and feigned death. He had been working in northern Iraq for the previous three months, during which time there had been sporadic attacks against United Nations convoys in the region. Two months later Ian Broughton was falsely accused of burying boxes of locust eggs in order to eliminate already drought-stricken crops and was ordered to leave Iraq.

Mixed Feelings

The family of Nicholas Speight received his Dag Hammarskjöld Medal in 2009, in an informal ceremony at the Speight family home in New Zealand. His father said that the family was ‘honoured to receive the award’, and that ‘not many days went by when he did not think of his son’. His mother expressed her ‘mixed feelings’ about receiving the medal and thought that Nicholas would have rather seen others recognised for their humanitarian work before him.

Author’s Profile:

Dr Aaron Fox is a New Zealand-based military and security intelligence historian. He trained as an historian at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, before directing medallic policy for the New Zealand Defence Force. He later worked as a senior local government manager, and as a specialist advisor to the renowned Weta/Te Papa exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’. His current projects include a biography of the notable New Zealand soldier and politician, Brigadier James Hargest.