How the Congo crisis reshaped international relations

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In July 1960, within a week of achieving independence from Belgium, the Congo (later renamed Zaire and now known as the DRC) was plunged into a civil conflict that soon turned into a political and constitutional crisis that besieged the country for almost five years. The Congo crisis challenged how the superpowers and the United Nations managed the process of decolonization and fundamentally impacted the relationship between the West and the post-colonial world.

The introduction of a UN peace-keeping force to safeguard the sovereignty of the Congo following the intervention of Belgian troops to protect European lives and interests, immediately had the effect of internationalizing the crisis. Never before had the UN intervened to protect the sovereignty of a country, and certainly not from incursion by a Western power. This action set the stage for a contentious debate about the relationship of Belgium, Britain and the United States with the newly-independent Congo and raised questions about the role of the UN in managing the process of decolonization.

The events also had wider and deeper implications as newly independent countries positioned the Congo crisis as a means to challenge the manifestations of all forms of imperialism and imperialist internationalism across Africa. Policymakers in London and Washington DC were quickly confronted with a conflict that combined the problems of decolonization with mounting Cold War tensions, but also the realization that the UN was increasingly susceptible to African and Asian influence.

When UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld invoked his power under Article 99 of the UN Charter and elected to bring “the Congo question” (as the crisis became known) before the Security Council immediately in July 1960, he established a precedent. The subsequent Security Council and General Assembly resolutions that mandated the UN peacekeeping mission, known as Opération des Nations Unies au Congo (ONUC) served to create the largest and most complex UN mission ever undertaken up to that point. In many cases, these resolutions were negotiated and tabled by members of the Afro-Asian bloc in the General Assembly.

From the beginning therefore, the UN intervention was innovative in many respects. ONUC was manned primarily by troops from neutral countries, such as Ireland and Sweden, but also relied heavily on contributions from non-aligned, anti-colonial African and Asian states, such as Ghana and India. This meant that as the crisis progressed, African and Asian representatives came to the fore in formulating and executing UN policy and enjoyed a close relationship with Hammarskjöld and his deputies. As the crisis progressed, Britain and the US gradually discovered that the nature of the UN had changed both in terms of the tenor of the environment in New York and through this more activist role of the organization in Africa. Over time, Britain in particular experienced a diminishing influence over the direction of UN Congo policy, as initiatives were spearheaded by the anti-colonial voices of the General Assembly.

The situation in the Congo deteriorated rapidly on July 7 1960 when separatist leader Moise Tshombe declared the secession of the south-eastern province of Katanga. In 1960, almost 70% of the world’s industrial diamond supply and almost 50% of global cobalt was mined in Katanga. The secession threw the central government in the capital Leopoldville (Kinshasa) into chaos, eventually resulting in a constitutional breakdown and the assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in January 1961. In view of the escalating conflict, the US increasingly regarded the Congo as a precarious Cold War “hot spot.” While the State Department was simultaneously engaged in the war in Vietnam, policy-makers sought to balance relations with European former colonial powers, especially Britain and Belgium, against the objective of stemming the perceived spread of Soviet influence throughout the country. This was in fact substantially over-estimated by the State Department and research has shown that Soviet influence among Congolese people and politicians was actually quite limited. Violent attacks on Hammarskjöld and the mission in the Congo by the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev served to magnify, in American eyes, the Cold War dimensions of what was viewed by European and African states as a decolonization conflict.

In the British view, the unstable Congo posed a threat to neighboring British colonies in Northern and Southern Rhodesia, Tanzania and Uganda. In a similar vein to Belgium, the British approach towards the Congo had at its core, the preservation of European networks of influence, especially private companies such as the Union Minière du Haut Katanga (UMHK). Financed by an umbrella group called Tanganyika Concessions, the UMHK processed the vast resources of Katanga, creating large profits for British shareholders. The central point of contention, which quickly emerged between Britain and the US, was whether or not the UN should use force to end the secession and thereby restore territorial sovereignty to the Congo. Crucially, doing so involved redirecting the revenue of UMHK and other firms from financial groups in Brussels and London to the central government in Leopoldville.

In February 1961, in keeping with the precedent-setting nature of the mission, UN troops were authorized for the first time to use force in self-defense. Peacekeepers had been engaged in a standoff against Katangan mercenaries and had also been involved in skirmishes with the Congolese army, which sought to re-establish the authority of the central government through its own military campaign against the province. The Security Council extended the mandate of the force in 1961 in order to enable the peacekeepers to gradually and peacefully dismantle Tshombe’s regime. However, his well-armed mercenary forces retained the upper hand through the use of aircraft and by destroying key infrastructure, thereby hindering the movements of the peacekeeping force. In response, the US sought to enable the UN to enforce its mandate more effectively and supported a series of military campaigns against Katanga in September 1961, aimed at ending the secession. Britain however, remained resolutely opposed to the use of force and even supplied tacit and indirect assistance to Tshombe. By 1962, the situation was becoming untenable. Clashes between Tshombe’s forces and UN peacekeepers alongside widespread civil unrest led to calls from African and Asian countries to accelerate the military campaign to definitively quash the Katangan regime. Britain continued to play a problematic role by refusing to sanction the use of force against Tshombe in negotiations at the UN while the US, frustrated with British intransigence, granted political and financial support for the operation.

On December 24 1962, Operation UNOKAT was launched and UN troops seized control of the provincial capital Elisabethville (Lubumbashi). Tshombe fled to Northern Rhodesia and the “independent” state of Katanga ceased to exist. For Britain, the UN action was a humiliating revelation of the lack of British influence in restraining the organization, and also directly threatened the maintenance of British economic and political influence in Central Africa. Moreover, the ending of the secession in this way represented a defeat of one of the central features of British imperial internationalism; the quest to maintain a world role, even as a declining imperial power.

For the US, different views of how the Congo operation should proceed pointed to deeper disagreements with Britain about the preservation of colonial networks and interests in post-colonial African states. The quick dissolution of Western unity on the Congo had highlighted to American officials the difficulty of balancing Cold War objectives with support for European policies that were perceived as neo-colonial by African and Asian states. The Congo question had also forced the US to confront the challenges of implementing an anti-colonial position at the UN, as for the first time during the crisis the State Department abandoned the policy of automatically abstaining on colonial questions, leading to a public split with Britain and Belgium at several key moments.

At the center of this divergence of views were also different visions of the UN and its potential and utility in managing the process of decolonization. The ending of the secession by UN forces in 1962 reflected that African and Asian countries could implement anti-colonial policies through the UN, even when this was contrary to the interests of European colonial powers. By destroying Western consensus, highlighting the agency of anti-colonial actors and demolishing the last vestiges of Belgian colonial rule in the Congo, the UN action thereby represented the first important defeat of imperialist internationalism in Central Africa.

Alanna O’Malley

Dr. Alanna O’Malley is a lecturer at the Institute for History in Leiden University and author of The Diplomacy of Decolonisation, America, Britain and the United Nations during the Congo Crisis, 1960-1964.

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