The Blog January 11, 2021

Sir Brian Urquhart: A Tribute

Credit: UN Audiovisual Library of International Law

Sir Brian Urquhart (1919-2021): A Tribute

The Toynbee Prize Foundation regrets to announce that Sir Brian Urquhart, who received the Toynbee Prize in 2007 and was the last non-historian to receive the award, passed away on January 2, 2021. Sir Urquhart, the principal architect of the United Nations’ (UN) peacekeeping activities, was 101.

Urquhart was a British diplomat, but his lifetime of service and dedication was to international affairs. He was involved in the UN’s founding in 1945, was part of the preparatory commission that drew up its charter, and went to New York with the first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, as his personal assistant. Urquhart worked for forty years continuously at senior levels of the UN, including as Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs.

Urquhart was dedicated to conflict resolution and to political, non-military peacekeeping, and believed that there was no alternative to ‘collective internationalism.’ Yet he was not blind to the UN’s failings and failures. He is remembered fondly as one of the organization’s strongest critics. Urquhart led peacekeeping forces in war zones throughout the world, and was also instrumental in their creation at the UN, which had not originally envisioned playing such a role internationally. Urquhart’s ‘blue helmets’ followed his principles of peacekeeping operations: that they should only enter war zones with broad political support and a mandate to remain above the conflict, to use force only as a means of last resort, and to work to end hostilities and facilitate negotiations.

Educated at Christ Church, University of Oxford and serving in the British army in Algeria, Tunisia, and Sicily during World War Two, Urquhart was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II upon his retirement from the UN in 1986. He lived in the US thereafter, where he was a scholar-in-residence for over a decade at the International Program of the Ford Foundation. He thought deeply and wrote prolifically on internationalism, the UN, war, and peace. “Sir Brian’s imprint on the United Nations was as profound as that of anyone in the Organization’s history,” current Secretary-General of the UN António Guterres averred last Sunday, “He set the standard for the international civil service: dedicated and impartial.”

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