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Negotiation (part 3): at the United Nations

In the course of restating Dag Hammarskjöld’s political wisdom for readers today, this site has so far taken little notice of the United Nations issues with which Hammarskjöld was actually grappling. This entry is all UN throughout. The ideas reflected here may initially seem dated or of narrow interest only. But a closer look shows their political wisdom for our time. Consider Hammarskjöld’s painstaking concern to find the right venue and timing for negotiations, for the inclusion of all relevant parties including the most belligerent and inconvenient, for a stubbornly rational analysis of issues, for leaving as few loose ends as possible, for couching negotiated solutions in a context of law. Attitudes and perspectives that remain broadly applicable.
Dag Hammarskjöld was famous in his era for his agile practice of what he called quiet diplomacy: behind-the-scenes meetings with adversaries, often serving as an adviser respected by all and providing a communication channel.

There has always been this practice of private—or quiet—diplomacy in the United Nations, and there has been a marked increase in its use…. But the need for it is not sufficiently understood. The best results of negotiation between two parties cannot be achieved in international life, any more than in our private worlds, in the full glare of publicity with current public debate of all moves, unavoidable misunderstandings, inescapable freezing of position due to considerations of prestige, and the temptation to utilize public opinion as an element integrated in the negotiation itself. (Public Papers 4, 27)

In the General Assembly, as well as in the Councils, open debate is the rule. The public and the press are admitted to practically all meetings and are able to follow the development of arguments, the evolution of conflicts and the arrival at solutions. The debates cover a ground which in earlier times was mostly reserved for negotiation behind closed doors. They have introduced a new instrument of negotiation, that of conference diplomacy. This instrument has many advantages. It can serve to form public opinion. It can subject national policies and proposals to the sharp tests of world-wide appraisal, thus revealing the strength, or weakness, of a cause that might otherwise have remained hidden. It can activate the sound instincts of the common man in favor of righteous causes. It can educate and guide. But it has, also, weaknesses. There is the temptation to play to the gallery at the expense of solid construction. And there is the risk that positions once taken publicly become frozen, making compromise more difficult. (
Public Papers 2, 521)

I feel that in order to make the operations of the Security Council fully fruitful, it is desirable that all efforts should be made beforehand to reduce the differences of opinion to an absolute minimum, so as to present to the world from that very high forum only what remains to be settled in open negotiation after attempts to iron out differences, as far as possible, in privacy. (
Public Papers 2, 667)

Unlike the Assembly and the Councils, the Office of the Secretary-General, by its very nature under the Charter, must practice private diplomacy on almost all occasions until results are reached. In recent years the Secretary-General has increasingly been used for operations of a purely diplomatic type, either on behalf of the United Nations as such, or for one government in relation to another on a good offices basis. He is in a position of trust vis-à-vis all the member governments. He speaks for no government. It should go without saying that in the course of a negotiation, or a mission of good offices, he must respect fully the laws of diplomatic discretion. He can never give away what must be considered the property of the government with whom he is working. Nor could he pass public judgment upon their policies without wrecking the use of his office for the diplomatic purposes for which experience shows that it is much needed. Of course, when a mission has resulted in a formal agreement between the parties, the agreement is made public, but it is, of course, not for him to evaluate it in public.
Public Papers 4, 29)

It is quite obvious that, if you exclude certain countries from a specific form of negotiation which may be needed to solve problems concerning those countries, you are really cutting off your hands. (
Public Papers 2, 535)

Dag Hammarskjöld inherited from his father, Hjalmar, a lifelong commitment to the development of international law. "Over the years," he said in 1959 (Public Papers 4, 355), "…again and again in my reports to the General Assembly I have pleaded for a greater role for the International Court and, in general terms, for greater interest in and respect of the legal aspects which practically every political question has." The following passage relates that concern to the negotiation process:

There are disputes…in which the existing law really covers all or some of the issues, but those concerned simply do not wish to settle on the basis of law, though they admit its binding force. This attitude is not necessarily misguided. It may be desired to settle by conciliation, and it may be thought that a clear definition of the rights of the parties would leave too little flexibility for negotiation to bring them together. But a clarification of the legal position can often help when the positions of the parties are too far apart to be reconciled. Moreover, a negotiated solution that ignores the legal issues is just as unlikely to be permanent as a solution that ignores any other main aspect of the case; a party which is induced to accept a settlement without any consideration of its legal claims is likely to retain an abiding sense of injustice. (Public Papers 2, 594)

And finally, this quietly heated encounter in a December 1954 press conference convened just before Hammarskjöld left on the ‘Mission to Beijing’ to negotiate, if possible, the release of American airmen convicted by the Chinese government of spying. Here Hammarskjöld defends a range of values bearing on negotiation: clarity of intent, precise use of words, cool not hot and emotive interpretation.

QUESTION:  By undertaking this trip to Peking under the instructions of the Assembly do you not feel that the head of the World Organization is now going to Peking to kneel somehow before Mr. Chou En-lai for the release of the thirteen Americans?
THE SECRETARY-GENERAL:  I do not get your point.
QUESTION:  I mean do you not feel that there is a kind of humiliation for the United Nations, which is a belligerent organization with the Chinese, to go to China to beg them or ask them to release the thirteen Americans?
THE SECRETARY-GENERAL:  I am not going anywhere to beg anybody for anything.  I am going to bring up a situation which in my view calls for mutual consideration with the background to which I can refer in the General Assembly resolution.
QUESTION:  I gather though that Mr. Chou En-lai replied that he wished to discuss pertinent questions.
QUESTION:  Could you tell us whether you are willing to discuss other matters than the question of the prisoners which was specified by the resolution?
THE SECRETARY-GENERAL:  Well, it all depends upon what you mean by the word "discuss." I feel that you put into that word exchanges of views coming very close to negotiation. And if that is what you put into the word "discuss," I can only point out to you that the Secretary-General in this context acts under a specific authorization which is limited to one set of problems. (
Public Papers II, 433)