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We The Peoples

“The Absolutely Indispensable Man”: Ralph Bunche and the UN’s first special political mission

As the UN marks the 75th anniversary of its “special political missions”, Politically Speaking talks to Kal Raustiala about his new book on the life and work of Ralph Bunche, who broke fresh ground as a mediator in Palestine in the late 1940s, establishing the credentials of the nascent Organization to defuse tensions and broker peace.

The United Nations Acting Mediator, Ralph Bunche, signs the General Armistice Agreement between the Egyptian and Israeli Governments, Hôtel des Roses, on the Greek Island of Rhodes, 24 February 1949. Photo credit: UN Photo

“The international problems with which the United Nations is concerned are the problems of the interrelations of the peoples of the world. They are human problems. The United Nations is entitled to believe, and it does believe, that there are no insoluble problems of human relations and that there is none which cannot be solved by peaceful means. The United Nations — in Indonesia, Palestine, and Kashmir — has demonstrated convincingly that parties to the most severe conflict may be induced to abandon war as the method of settlement in favour of mediation and conciliation, at a merciful saving of untold lives and acute suffering.”

-Ralph Bunche, Nobel Peace Prize lecture, 11 December 1950

Ralph Bunche, who was born in 1904 in Detroit and died in 1971 in New York at the age of 67, was a pathbreaker of international mediation and conflict management. His career and the early trajectory of the United Nations were deeply interwoven. In his new book, The Absolutely Indispensable Man: Ralph Bunche, the United Nations, and the Fight to End Empire, UCLA international law professor Kal Raustiala recounts the life and work of the man who would help shape the UN’s mediation and peacebuilding efforts in its earliest days, as well as its work on decolonization and the dismantling of European empire.

In conversation with Politically Speaking, Raustiala describes how he embarked upon his research on Bunche, including going through archives of papers, diaries and journals at UCLA. “He didn’t keep a regular diary, but he did keep one for specific trips and did a ton of jotting stuff down — sometimes literally scraps of paper, sometimes a little more — including exchanges with Dag Hammarskjöld, which are pretty amazing to see.”

The Absolutely Indispensable Man tracks Bunche’s life from his early days in south central Los Angeles, through to his studies and professorships at Howard, Harvard and UCLA, and onto his work at the US State Department. Raustiala describes how, in 1946, then-Secretary-General Trygve Lie “borrowed” Bunche from the State Department and made him Director of the Division of Trusteeship at the UN, the first role in what would become a 25-year long career at the Organization.

“For the UN to make decolonization work, there needed to be a method to help deal with political conflict…and mediation and peacekeeping became two of the key tools in its arsenal,” said Raustiala who, in his book, traces a through-line from Bunche’s work on decolonization to his pioneering mediation and peacebuilding activities, first in Palestine and then in Congo, Cyprus, Kashmir and Yemen. “Bunche believed that mediation could really make a difference,” Raustalia said. “It was, for him, a unique attribute of the UN, that it was able to engage in impartial mediation in these different conflicts.”

On Bunche’s role in the armistice agreement that ended the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Raustiala said that the diplomat showed himself to be “a very creative and agile mediator who was able to toggle between social and formal negotiation measures, and he was also tireless — he held endless rounds of consultations … He became the person who was the obvious choice for mediation, and would be asked to mediate this or that situation — right up to the end of his career. It was a constant thing to say, ‘let’s send Ralph Bunche.’”

Above all, Bunche maintained a sense of optimism, Raustiala said. “He was troubled by certain kinds of politicians, demagogues who he believed would stir things up. But he was a strong believer in the idea that reasonable people could eventually — and should — find a reasonable solution to things. If you were rational and reasonable about politics, solutions were out there. He didn’t have a grand theory of war being endemic to the human condition.”

Premier Cyrille Adoula (centre), of the Central Government of the Republic of
the Congo (Leopoldville), Mr. Mahmoud Khiari (l.), Chief of the UN Civilian Operations in the Congo, and
Ralph Bunche, UN Under-Secretary for Special Political Affairs, on the aircraft taking them to Kitona base for talks with President Moise Tshombe, of Katanga, Province, 1961. Photo credit: UN Photo/BZ

The Question of Palestine

On 18 February 1947, Britain referred the question of the future government of Palestine to the UN. Secretary-General Lie put Bunche in charge of a Preparatory Committee to study the situation and produce a report on previously proposed solutions to the impasse. On 28 April the same year, the General Assembly opened a special session on the topic and, on 15 May, adopted resolution 106 (S-1) on the creation of a committee of inquiry. The UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) had a membership of 11 Member States, supported by a small UN staff led by Bunche. The Committee submitted a report to the General Assembly containing two proposals on Palestine: a two-State plan, and a one-State plan with political guarantees for both peoples. On 29 November 1947, the General Assembly passed resolution 181 on the partition of Palestine, approving the two-State plan, as well as the establishment of a new UN Palestine Commission to implement the plan. The latter was comprised of five Member States and a UN staff team, again headed by Bunche.

On 14 May 1948, the General Assembly affirmed its support of the efforts of the Security Council to secure a truce in Palestine through the adoption of resolution 186 (S-2). The text also empowered a United Nations mediator to “use his good offices with the local and community authorities in Palestine,” with the goal of promoting a peaceful adjustment of the future situation of Palestine and to assure the protection of the holy places, buildings and sites.

The UN’s First Mediator: Count Folke Bernadotte

On 20 May, Lie announced his new mediator: the Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte. Bunche was appointed chief representative of the Secretary-General in Palestine, and the two traveled together in a UN plane to Cairo to meet with the Prime Minister of Egypt, and then the secretary of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, followed by a trip to Tel Aviv to meet Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, with the goal of creating “a truce that would allow time to negotiate a more stable and sustainable peace arrangement.”

After negotiations, Bernadotte and Bunche presented a firm plan for a truce, which was accepted by the parties on 9 June 1948. The UN was then able to send in what became known as the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), which would become the first UN peacekeeping mission. Fighting broke out again, but by 19 July, 1948, a second ceasefire was in place. The mediators worked to prepare their recommendations for the UN, and on September 16, their report was sent back to New York.

The next day, 17 September, Folke Bernadotte was assassinated by members of the radical Jewish Lehi group, also known as “the Stern Gang”. That organization, writes Raustiala in his book, was “deeply opposed to the proposed partition of Palestine and indeed to the entire UN process.” Bunche was appointed as Bernadotte’s replacement, although he took the title of Acting Mediator, in deference to Bernadotte. In November 1948, Bunche made the case for an armistice-based approach to the Security Council, which was at that time meeting in Paris. “An armistice would be different [from a truce] in that it would ‘firmly’ separate the opposing forces… With agreed-upon lines of demarcation, Bunche thought, a more lasting peace might be forged.”

Partial view of the United Nations Security Council in session at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris. As the Acting Mediator for Palestine, Ralph Bunche presents his report to the members, 1948. Credit: UN Photo/MB

The Rhodes Formula

Talks were then scheduled to take place in Rhodes between Israel and Egypt, the Israel and Jordan, Israel with Lebanon and Israel and Syria, beginning in January 1949. The decision to hold talks with Israel and each Arab state bilaterally was Bunche’s, writes Raustiala. He also formulated an ice-breaking move: “Bunche began the mediation with a clever gambit. He first met with each side separately, to determine an agenda. Then, he called the Egyptians and Israelis together in the same room and moved to approve the agenda.” As Raustiala writes, “What mattered most was that they jointly sign a document: anything that looked official. Now the seal was broken, and they had agreed to something.”

Bunche also developed a three-stage process of negotiation, first meeting separately with each side, before holding joint discussions with a representative of each side, before holding formal talks with all sides, as well as other UN officials. Bunche’s mediation process was a success, and the island on which he honed this practice now takes its name. “By placing himself in the middle of the parties much of the time, in what later became known as the Rhodes Formula, Bunche was able to maintain momentum while allowing the two sides to claim, or at least pretend, they were not really talking to their hated enemy,” Raustiala writes.

On February 23, 1949, the UN mediated an armistice between Egypt and Israel, the first of four agreements that would put an end to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Talks then commenced with Israel and Jordan, in February 1949, then with Lebanon, and finally with Syria, resulting in further armistice agreements.

At the Hôtel des Roses, on the Greek Island of Rhodes, Ralph Bunche (centre), United Nations Acting Mediator, reads the Agreement. At left side of the table is the Egyptian delegation, and at the right is the Israeli delegation, 24 February, 1949. Credit: UN Photo/LM

At the time, the UN’s mediation was widely viewed as a major success. As Raustiala notes, Bunche “stressed what he saw as the primary lesson of Rhodes: the ability of the UN to mediate a serious conflict.” In other words, as Raustiala underscores, the Organization “could do more than simply provide a new forum for squabbling…there was now a standing, largely neutral, and generally trusted multilateral body that provided a focal point for such efforts.” Seventy-five years later, the work continues. Raustialia writes that while “seven decades later peace in the Middle East remains elusive … what is undeniable is that the marathon negotiations on the island of Rhodes were an early success that, in many ways, outlasted anyone’s expectations about their impact — including Ralph Bunche’s.”




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Politically Speaking

The online magazine of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs