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Measure a mountain to discover how low it was

Although not specifically central to Italy’s African policy, which is oriented more toward the Horn of Africa (particularly Somalia and Ethiopia) and the countries along the Mediterranean shores, Congo has always been an element of extreme importance, both in terms of bilateral relations between Rome and Kinshasa and of the democratic stabilisation, development and peacekeeping that Italy has fostered through the EU and the UN. The laborious institution-building launched by Dag Hammarskjóld began a positive process – albeit non-linear and often studded with bloody conflicts as it alternated between successes and backsliding – in the territorial and institutional stabilization of that African giant. Looking at its history over the half-century that has passed since Hammarskjóld’s death, Congo has continued to be a highly problematic country for itself and its neighbours. Dag understood perfectly well that the United Nations could make an enormous difference, and it is certainly no accident that the country for which he invented “peacekeeping” is now home to the largest peace operation ever authorized by the UN Security Council – MONUSCO, which has been operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 2010 with a contingent of 19,000 soldiers.

Hammarskjóld’s efforts in this context were not only prophetic, but strongly conscious that the Congo question was the indisputable testing ground for that international order that the United Nations was proposing to ensure. At a time, the start of the 1960s, in which the Cold War was at its peak and various serious political crises were under way (Berlin, Cuba, Vietnam and Laos), the West could not afford delays. In the difficult phases that followed the death of Prime Minister Lumumba, Dag Hammarskjóld sought to have the Security Council authorise the use of force, putting all his prestige on the line for the goal of preserving the territorial integrity of Congo: an extremely complex operation that ultimately cost his life and, in some respects, remained incomplete.

Hammarskjóld also worked toward the democratisation of the UN. Many years after the Hammarskjóld era, as Ban ki-Moon was stepping into that office, the UN General Assembly once again went about the task of improving the criteria for choosing the new Secretary General, in an effort to become less formal and more political on a decision that was crucial to the life of the organization in a less than relaxed climate that bore the scars of the Iraq operations, the growing risk of nuclear proliferation, unresolved development issues, difficulties in pursuing the Millennium Goals and a multitude of new challenges (terrorism, climate change, poverty) that had led its membership to the new conviction that the selection of the new Secretary General had to be open, transparent and democratic. Increasingly widespread was the conviction therefore that the half-century monopoly hold of the five permanent members (the so-called P5: USA, USSR, China, Great Britain and France) over this appointment, based on counterbalances and politically balanced interests exclusive to them, had to be broken. In truth, in this respect, not much had changed in 2006 as compared with April 10th 1953, the day Dag was elected. The five countries that had emerged victorious from the Second World War had indeed assured themselves with article 27 of the Charter, that every Security Council decision would be validly adopted through the affirmative vote of nine members, including the concurring votes of the P5.

If Hammarskjóld’s experience demonstrates what he saw as right, in his quest for a different balance between the Secretary General and the Security Council, and above all the P5, the subsequent history of the United Nations confirms that this quest continues to be a priority concern in an effort to increase the effectiveness of the UN’s irreplaceable function on the current international stage. From the mission standpoint, the organisation’s field of responsibility has expanded exponentially in a world whose population has more than doubled, and nearly quadrupled in terms of the number of sovereign States, with a globalised economy, fragmented security, challenged by the risks of climate and environmental change, terrorism and extremist radicalisation; a world whose protagonists, for at least 20 years now, are new.

On this new world stage technological innovation has subverted every former method of disseminating information, as non-governmental actors enter fully into the process of forging foreign policy. In various respects, Italian foreign policy objectively acknowledges the personal and political legacy of the second Secretary General of the United Nations. With great continuity, throughout the entire post-war era our country affirmed and sustained the values of that man of peace and multilateralism. The rule of law as the genetic patrimony of Italian legal practice has always been fundamental to all the processes of institution-building supported by the United Nations, and to which Italy has variously contributed over the past half-century. Italian diplomacy’s unwavering commitment to a Security Council reform that curtails the privileges of status attached to obsolete historic conditions, and that hinges all its constituent bodies on the principles of democracy and equality, can be seen as a further tribute to Hammarskjóld’s memory, fifty years on from his passing.

“Never measure the height of a mountain until you have reached the top, then you will see how low it was”; perhaps these words of Dag Hammarskjóld are his most important legacy to those who survive him in the 21st century United Nations. An invitation to overcome the intrinsic limitations of a 192-member organization that, even today, 66 years after its creation, continues to see in the planet’s weakest the only possible rationale for its own existence – a hope that was renewed on 14 July of this year when South Sudan became the 193rd Member of the United Nations.