How the Congo crisis reshaped international relations

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.

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By Alanna O’Malley

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