Global Policy Forum

Hammarskjöld Perspectives - Solidarity and Ethics in Global Governance


Henning Melber, Senior Adviser and Director Emeritus at the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and Policy Advisor of Global Policy Forum, reflects on the legacy of Hammarskjöld. In his presentation to the Plenary Panel on “Ethical Leaders and Global Leadership: Building on the Legacy of Dag Hammarskjöld” on 18 June 2013 at the Academic Council on the United Nations (ACUNS) 13th Annual Meeting, Henning Melber highlights the importance of ethics and solidarity in global governance. He sets Dag Hammarskjöld as an example of the kind of a leadership also needed today.

18 June, 2013 | Henning Melber

Global Governance and Solidarity: The Hammarskjöld approach[1]


Ethical leadership is about ethics. And ethics is about politics. Dag Hammarskjöld has been an ethical leader, though in his own view most likely never a politician, but an international civil servant loyally seeking to promote certain policies related to visions. As Thomas Weiss recently observed with regard to the challenges we face in terms of global governance:

“Without having a vision and then imagining how we can achieve it, we risk going nowhere and perhaps even moving backwards. It is ironic, to say the least, that even the most committed internationalists no longer dare to imagine what is required beyond tinkering.”[2]

These pioneering visionaries, whose absence today he bemoans, existed. The second Secretary-General of the United Nations was among them. He was a global leader whose integrity and values created a moral compass during the post-World War II era. His efforts to find common ground despite the escalating Cold War confrontation in times of decolonization left a legacy of relevance also for our world today.

Already at the beginning of his terms in office, Hammarskjöld used his “Introduction to the Eighth Annual Report” (which was his first one) to identify two fundamental trends in human society as his credo: the one directed, “towards wider social justice and equality for individuals”, the other “towards equality and justice between nations, politically but also in the economic and social sense”.[3] As he continued: “International equality and justice were prerequisites of the domestic social development of all the peoples of the world and, together, they are the decisive factors if we are able to build a world of peace and freedom.”[4] And he reiterated: “The search for peaceful settlements, for collective security and for ultimate disarmament … has to be based upon an orderly and steady advance towards higher living standards for all peoples.”[5]

During the opening debate on the world economic situation for the 18th session of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) a year later he identified the problem of internal economic stability in both economically advanced and underdeveloped areas, and the linkage and interdependence between domestic policies and international developments. Economic stability had for him national and international significance. He therefore pleaded for more awareness about the inter-connectivity and the need for greatest possible cooperation by all.[6] He constantly advocated a greater responsibility of the states and governments representing developed economies to assist the economically less advanced societies. But he also was of the view that this assistance should happen through an international institution such as the United Nations and not through a club of the wealthy executing power and control at their own terms.

Hammarskjöld was aware of the dialectics and inter-relationship between peace, security and human rights, as his address to the American Jewish Committee in New York on 10 April 1957 testifies:

“We know that the question of peace and the question of human rights are closely related. Without recognition of human rights we shall never have peace, and it is only within the framework of peace that human rights can be fully developed.”[7]

He was also aware that the notion of human rights has an explicit socio-economic dimension, which requires measures to redistribute wealth. He therefore concluded a speech on “Asia, Africa and the West” in 1959, when he addressed students at the very place we are gathered today, the University of Lund, with the words:

“We thus live in a world where, no more internationally than nationally, any distinct group can claim superiority in mental gifts and potentialities of development. (…) Those democratic ideals which demand equal opportunities for all should be applied also to peoples and races. (…) no nation or group of nations can base its future on a claim of supremacy.”[8]

For the United Nations he confidently claimed that, “the Organization I represent … is based on a philosophy of solidarity”.[9] His role as the highest international civil servant was guided by values that were permeated by this notion of solidarity, his belief in integrity and the loyalty to humanist ethics. On 26 January 1960, towards the end of his journey through more than twenty countries in Africa, he declared at the second session of the Economic Commission of Africa in Tangier: “Partnership and solidarity are the foundations of the United Nations and it is in order to translate these principles into practical measures of economic cooperation that we are gathered today in this hall.”[10]

Hammarskjöld then reverted to the already quoted speech he had given a few months earlier here, where we are assembled today, when he had reminded his audience that, “nobody should forget that colonization reflected a basic approach which may have been well founded in certain limited respects, but which often mirrored false claims, particularly when it touched on spiritual development. Applied generally, it was untenable.”[11]

He reiterated his conviction in his last address to ECOSOC in 1961, when he linked the principles of national sovereignty in the times dubbed “the winds of change” with the belief that international solidarity and social consciousness have to go hand in hand by

“accepting as a basic postulate the existence of a world community for which all nations share a common responsibility (…) to reduce the disparities in levels of living between nations, a responsibility parallel to that accepted earlier for greater economic and social equality within nations.”[12] 

Hammarskjöld had formulated his ideals, which as a legacy remain valid until today, only a few months into his office on 14 September 1953 in an address at the American Association for the United Nations:

“As individuals and as groups we can put our influence to the best of our understanding and ability on the side of what we believe is right and true. We can help in the movement toward those ends that inspire our lives and are shared by all men of good will – in terms very close to those of the Charter of the United Nations – peace and freedom for all, in a world of equal rights for all.”[13]

On 31 October 1956, during the Suez crisis, Hammarskjöld stated before the Security Council in no uncertain terms that in his view “the discretion and impartiality … imposed on the Secretary-General … may not degenerate into a policy of expediency”.[14] He reiterated this integrity, which guided his conduct in office, in his introduction to the Annual Report of the UN for 1959-1960:

“It is my firm conviction that any result bought at the price of a compromise with the principles and ideals of the Organization, either by yielding to force, by disregard of justice, by neglect of common interests or by contempt for human rights, is bought at too high a price. That is so because a compromise with its principles and purposes weakens the Organization in a way representing a definite loss for the future that cannot be balanced by any immediate advantage achieved.”[15]

Hammarskjöld’s ethics, his concept of solidarity, his sense of fundamental universal values and human rights in combination with his respect for the multitude of identities within the human family, as well as his responsibility as the world’s highest international civil servant to assume global leadership, set standards that have to this day lost none of their value and relevance. The way he defined and executed both his role as international civil servant, as exemplified in remarkable detail and clarity in his famous Oxford Lecture of 30 May 1961 on “The International Civil Service in Law and in Fact”[16] as well as how he combined his ethos with his duties was practical international solidarity guided by a loyalty to fundamental values and principles of a nature we are often missing today.

In executing his tasks he all too often faced a mission impossible. Hammarskjöld was aware of these limitations. As he wrote in a letter to his friend Bo Beskow on 27 January 1961: “We are far from a world where even a true national interest leads to the individual subordinating himself, not to mention how far we are from the stage where a question of vital international interest is given superiority over a national one.”[17] Just a few weeks earlier, on occasion of the annual celebration of the Human Rights Day on 10th December 1960, Hammarskjöld contemplated in a short statement the linkage between official policies and individual lack of emancipation, when he reminded his audience: “let us not forget that there is a colonialism of the heart and of the mind, which no political decision can overcome and against which the battle must be waged within ourselves, without any exception.”[18]

As Rowan Williams, the former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury recently stated: “Hammarskjöld was one of the most significant moral influences in international politics in the decades immediately after the war”, who

“almost single-handedly shaped the vision for international co-operation and crisis management that we struggle to realise and, however reluctantly, take for granted across a great deal of the globe. (...) Hammarskjöld … told us, as loudly and clearly as he could, that the vision of a world in which interests converge was a necessary exercise of the imagination. We need a good many more today to echo him.”[19]

More than half a century after his untimely, violent death, Dag Hammarskjöld’s legacy remains a beacon of hope for those in our world, who believe that the United Nations can contribute to a better life on our planet. Roger Lipsey ends his impressive and pioneering new biography on Hammarskjöld, which reconciles the spiritual dimensions and the love for art and nature with the diplomatic skills and the conduct in the political office the Secretary-General held in such an exemplary way, by a quote from another letter Hammarskjöld wrote on 16 March 1957 to Bo Beskow – the Swedish artist who lived with his family not far away from here in the vicinity of Backåckra, where Hammarskjöld had his summer residence. Reflecting on Hammarskjöld today seems to confirm the optimism expressed then by the Secretary-General, who gave his life during the execution of his duties in office: “I take pride in belonging to the family of grasses, and I remain quite green in spite of a lot of trampling.”[20]  


[1] Presentation to the Plenary Panel on “Ethical Leaders and Global Leadership: Building on the Legacy of Dag Hammarskjöld” on 18 June 2013 at the Academic Council on the United Nations (ACUNS) 13th Annual Meeting on “Leadership in Global Governance”, held June 17-19, 2013, at Lund University, Sweden. Henning Melber is Senior Adviser/Director emeritus of The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and Extraordinary Professor at the Department of Political Sciences/University of Pretoria and the Centre for Africa Studies/University of the Free State in Bloemfontein.

[2] Thomas G. Weiss, Global Governance. A ”Philadelphia Moment”? A One Earth Future Discussion Paper. Broomfield, CO: One Earth Future Foundation 2013, p. 23.

[3] Dag Hammarskjöld, ”Introduction to the Eighth Annual Report”, July 15, 1953. In Andrew W. Cordier and Wilder Foote (eds), Public Papers of the Secretaries-General of the United Nations. Volume II. Dag Hammarskjöld, 1953-1956. New York and London: Columbia University Press 1972, p. 68.

[4] Ibid., p. 70.

[5] Ibid., p. 74.

[6] Dag Hammarskjöld, ”Statement in the Economic and Social Council Opening Debate on the ’World Economic Situation’”, Geneva, July 7, 1954. Ibid., pp. 318-320.

[7] Quoted from Kaj Falkman(ed.), To Speak for the World. Speeches and Statements by Dag Hammarskjöld. Stockholm: Atlantis 2005, p. 154.

[8] Dag Hammarskjöld, “Asia, Africa, and the West”. Address Before the Academic Association of the University of Lund. Lund, Sweden, May 4, 1959 (UN Press Release SG/813, May 4, 1959). In: Andrew W. Cordier/Wilder Foote (eds), Public Papers of the Secretaries-General of The United Nations. Volume IV. Dag Hammarskjöld, 1958-1960. New York and London: Columbia University Press, pp. 380-387 (here: pp. 383f.).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dag Hammarskjöld, “Statement at the Second Session of the Economic Commission for Africa”, Tangier, Morocco, 26 January 1960 (UN Press Release SG/890, 25 January 1960). Ibid., p. 517.

[11] Dag Hammarskjöld, “Asia, Africa, and the West”, op. cit., p. 381.

[12] Quoted from Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Poverty and Inequality – Challenges in the Era of Globalisation. In: Sten Ask/Anna Mark-Jungkvist (eds), The Adventure of Peace. Dag Hammarskjöld and the Future of the UN. New York and Houndsmill: Palgrave Macmillan 2005, pp. 220-234 (here: p. 222).

[13] Dag Hammarskjöld, ”Address at Dinner in His Honor Given by the American Association for the United Nations in Cooperation with the New York University Institute for Review of United Nations Affairs”. New York, September 14, 1953 (UN Press Release SG/336, September 14, 1953; United Nations Bulletin, vol. XV, no. 7, October 1, 1953. In: Andrew W. Cordier/Wilder Foote (eds), Public Papers of the Secretaries-General of the United Nations. Volume II, op. cit., pp. 87-95 (here: p. 89).

[14] Quoted from Kaj Falkman (ed.), op. cit., pp. 120 f.

[15] Ibid., p. 71.

[16] Cf. Hans Corell, ”The Need for the Rule of Law in International Affairs – Reflections on Dag Hammarskjöld’s address at Oxford University on 30 May 1961, ’The International Civil Service in Law and in Fact’”, in Hans Corell/Inge Lønning/Henning Melber, The Ethics of Dag Hammarskjöld. Uppsala: Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation 2010, pp. 6-17.  

[17] Quoted from Roger Lipsey, Hammarskjöld. A Life. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2013, p. 477

[18] Quoted ibid., p. 462.

[19] Rowan Williams, ”A Review of Hammarskjöld: A Life”, in The Cambridge Humanities Review. A Journal of Literary and Intellectual Essays. Issue Three, Lent Term 2013, pp. 2 and 3.

[20] Quoted from Roger Lipsey, op. cit., p. 603.


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