Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Dag Hammarskjold

Plucky Little Belgium

This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of Echelon magazine.

 

Belgium is a strange concept, more of a vague idea than a real country. There is a joke that there is just one real Belgian, and he is the king, (currently King Philippe, who is married to a speech therapist). Everyone else is either Flemish or Walloon. General de Gaulle described Belgium as a country invented in 1830 by the British to annoy the French. The dominant powers in the 19th Century constructed a neutral state to prevent an invasion of England from Antwerp harbour.

For rich French people, including Gerard Depardieu, the idea of Belgium is as a tax haven. The village of Nechin – which has a street known as Millionaire’s Row – is less than two minutes drive from the French town of Roubaix.

There is a tired old joke about the only famous Belgians being fictional characters like Tin Tin and Hercules Poirot. Let us not forget Plastic Bertrand, born in Brussels of a French father and Ukrainian mother. There are major real Belgian talents such as Georges Simenon, Jacques Brel and painters like James Ensor, Paul Delvaux and René Magritte. Jonathan Meades observed that when you go to Belgium, Rene Magritte stops looking like a surrealist and starts looking like a devastating social realist.

Magritte often painted enigmatic men holding umbrellas. In his recent novel, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels, (the title of one of Ensor’s paintings) Dimitri Verhulst wrote: “the inhabitants of this kingdom value the anonymity provided so perfectly by an umbrella”. In the novel, Jesus Christ announces his return to Earth, and his selected point of entry is Brussels. The citizens of the Belgian capital receive the news with equanimity. There is no reason to get excited.

Centre of the EU Enterprise

One hundred years ago it was thought of as “plucky little Belgium”, a small powerless nation bullied by German military might. The country is about the same size as Maryland, with a population of 10,839,905 people on January 1, 2010. Today, it is the epitome of what EU haters hate about the EU. For Eurosceptics the name of the Belgian capital, “Brussels”, is shorthand for oppressive, anti-democratic, bureaucratic dictatorship.

Belgium was an early adopter in the European project. It was one of the six founder members of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951; in 1957, it was among the founding members of the European Atomic Energy Community and European Economic Community. Today Brussels is the home of the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the extraordinary and committee sessions of the European Parliament.

As well as 20,000 EU civil servants, Brussels attracts a large population of lobbyists, lawyers, and other professionals. The EU has brought an estimated 115,000 extra people to live in Brussels. These people tend to have few or no Belgian friends. There may be some resentment among Bruxellois because of Eurocrats buying up houses with their large tax-exempt EU salaries. People who had lived in Brussels for years suddenly discovered that the best idea to earn is to rent their apartments to the officials and leave the city.

Let’s Talk about the War.

Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg used to be the Low Countries. From the end of the Middle Ages until the 17th century, the area covered by Belgium today was a prosperous commercial centre. It was also a battleground between European powers. The British ‘invented’ Belgium as a neutral state, a buffer zone against the French. Britain intervened to defend Belgian neutrality when German troops invaded in 1914. Before the war, Belgium had one of the world’s most successful economies. The war displaced a third of the population and in the first months of the war, as many as a million Belgians faced starvation because of German requisitions. Around 6,000 Belgians were executed, there were as many as 60,000 military and 23,000 civilian deaths, 25,000 homes and other buildings were destroyed. One and a half million Belgians (20% of the entire population) fled from the invading German army.

Belgium as Oppressor

Belgium is a young country that grew rich suddenly during the industrial revolution, thanks to coal and steel. It also acquired wealth from looting the Congo. Plucky little Belgium was particularly vicious in Africa. Sir Roger Casement, a British diplomat executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Irish Easter Rising, exposed Belgian crimes in the Congo. King Leopold II of Belgium founded the Congo Free State, which covered the entire area of the present day Democratic Republic of the Congo and ran it as a personal fiefdom and business venture. Labourers were not paid but they were beaten, mutilated and murdered.

The province of Katanga seceded after Congolese independence from Belgium in June 1960. Belgium-based mining interests engineered the rebellion so that they could continue mineral extraction. Belgian settlers and former Belgian Army officers provided military support. Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba demanded that Belgian troops withdraw and, when they refused, Lumumba expelled Belgian diplomats. On October 6th, the Belgian Minister for African Affairs sent a cable that stated clearly that Belgian policy was the “definitive elimination” of Lumumba. Lumumba was, indeed, assassinated. A case has been presented that the Belgian government also had a hand in the killing of UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld.

Rwanda was also part of Plucky Little Belgium’s empire. In 1933, the Belgian authorities issued identity cards classifying every Rwandan as Tutsi or Hutu. In 1994, these ID cards helped Hutu to identify hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and kill them. The ethnic cleansing and genocide of twenty years ago were horrendous extensions of the trend that began in the 1950s under the Belgians.

Economy

Belgium was the world’s 15th largest trading nation in 2007. There is still a highly productive work force, high GNP and high exports per capita. Belgium’s main imports are raw materials, machinery and equipment, chemicals, raw diamonds, pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs, transportation equipment, and oil products. Its main exports are machinery and equipment, chemicals, finished diamonds, metals and metal products, and foodstuffs.

Poverty

Belgian Premier Elio di Rupo has questioned the EC’s commitment to austerity and has raised concerns about the best way for Belgium to balance growth and austerity. Political tensions have prevented him doing anything about this in practice. Between 1990 and 2009, the poorest 30 per cent of Belgians saw their share in net taxable incomes fall (from 11.2 to 8.3 per cent), while the richest ten per cent saw their share increase (from 27.3 to 31.9 per cent).

According to the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions survey, 15.3 per cent of Belgium’s population in 2011 was at risk of falling into poverty. In Flemish-speaking Flanders, the wealthiest region in Belgium, this was 9.8 per cent, whereas in Wallonia, a poor French-speaking region, this was 19.2 per cent.

In 2012, nearly one in seven Belgians had a monthly income that was lower than the official poverty threshold (€1,000 for a single person or €2,101 for a couple with two children).Twenty-one per cent of the Belgian population is at risk of poverty or social exclusion, according to the new European poverty indicators.

An Experiment in No Government

During 2007-11, cultural and linguistic tensions resulted in the state being without a government for 589 days. In 2011, Elio Di Rupo became Belgium’s first French-speaking premier; He is of Italian origin and he is gay and socialist. Despite reforms, tensions remain; the formation of a coalition government took 18 months following the June 2010 federal election. However, the hiatus did show that the country could function with just a caretaker government and the civil service.

Federalism

Verhulst sees Belgium a pantomime horse of a country, puzzling to outsiders and infuriating to its inhabitants. Belgium is a federal state divided into three regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, francophone Wallonia in the south and Brussels, the bilingual capital, where the French and Dutch languages share official status. There is an ongoing political crisis, which may lead to the country splitting, as did Czechoslovakia. It is ironic that the country seen by eurosceptics as the seat of a federalist plot, may itself fall apart. This would provide encouragement to separatist groups throughout Europe. Wallonia is the poorer segment of federal Belgium. How will it survive without the efforts of the industrious Flems? Wallonia will probably need EU subsidies.

Conclusion

A persistent note in visitors’ accounts is that Belgians are discontented and rude. Some might feel guilt at the barbarity of the Belgian colonial project. some feel uncomfortable about the presence in their midst of migrants from that empire.

 

To end on one positive thing about Belgium – it was Belgium that helped soul genius Marvin Gaye to recuperate, if only for a little while. A sojourn in Ostend gave Gaye the breathing space to reach one of his greatest achievements, Sexual Healing.

Plucky little Belgium is in dire need of some kind of healing. One wonders whether this will be possible given Belgium’s central role in the EU project. The EU project itself seems to be increasing the natural disgruntlement of its people.

On 28 July 2010, Plastic Bertrand finally revealed that he was not the singer of any of the songs in the first four albums released beginning in 1977 under the name Plastic Bertrand.

The Death of Dag

dag

 

This article was published in the Sunday Island on September 3, 2011 

 

We saw and felt the bare fangs of commercial interests cornered on a patch of gold.

 
The UN seems to have a lot of enemies in Sri Lanka. I find this sad because I have felt a sort of affinity for the organisation because we share the same birthday, although the UN is a year older than I. Also, Ireland has, over the years, lent its troops to many UN peace-keeping operations.

 
In the early sixties, I was staying at the Grand Union Hotel in Cobh, County Cork. The hotel was run and owned by the Allen family. Captain Allen of the Irish Army was home on leave from service with the UN force in the Congo. He gave us a slide show presentation about the Congo. He did not go into the atrocities that occurred during that time of the assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and the secession of Katanga province under Moise Tshombe.

 
The Grand Union Hotel long ago succumbed to recession and subsidence. It was located in Casement Square. The square was named after Sir Roger Casement who exposed Belgian atrocities in the Congo and was executed for his part in the Irish rebellion of 1916. (See: https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2011/08/31/sir-roger-casement/)

 
In the pages of the Island itself some criticism of the UN has centred on the incumbent Secretary General. K Godage on August 21 declared “Moon has prostituted himself and brought this great office, graced by the likes of Trygve Lee, Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant, Peres De Cuellar, Kurt Waldheim, Butros Ghali and Kofi Annan into disgrace and disgraced his country in the process”.

 
Ghali’s reputation became entangled in Yugoslavian horrors and larger controversies over the effectiveness of the UN and the role of the US; Waldheim concealed his complicity in Nazi war crimes at Banja Luka in Yugoslavia. Hammarskjöld had a good reputation. In these pages, Jayantha Dhanapala, a past potential Secretary General wrote: “By common consent no one has enlarged the scope and stature of the job as much as Dag Hammarskjold (1953-61) did. Was his exemplary character pre-judged?”
Only last week The Guardian claimed that “new evidence” had come to light that Hammarskjold’s plane had been shot down over Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and that British colonial authorities had arranged a cover-up of the assassination. Residents of Ndola said Hammarskjöld’s DC6 was shot down by a smaller aircraft and the crash site was sealed off by Northern Rhodesian security forces.

 
Unpublished telegrams show US and British anger at an abortive UN military operation that the secretary general ordered on behalf of the Congolese government against a rebellion in mineral-rich Katanga . Katanga’s secession, which had followed the Congo’s independence from Belgium in June 1960, was engineered by Belgium-based mining interests keen to continue mineral extraction in the province. Tshombe was, as Conor Cruise O’Brien said, their “black stooge”. Belgian settlers, white mercenaries and former Belgian Army officers provided military support. Hammarskjöld suspected British diplomats secretly supported the Katanga rebellion and had obstructed a bid to arrange a truce.

 
Hammarskjöld upset the major powers on the UN security council with his support for decolonisation, but his re-election was virtually guaranteed by support from developing nations. Days before his death, Hammarskjöld authorised a UN offensive on Katanga – codenamed Operation Morthor – despite reservations of the UN legal adviser (British) , and the fury of the US and Britain.

 
In 1992, George Ivan Smith and Conor Cruise O’Brien, who in 1961 were UN representatives in Katanga, wrote to The Guardian: “Vividly we were made aware of the brutal work of mercenaries, hired guns employed by European industrialists to prevent the UN from resolving a crisis at the heart of Africa …We saw and felt the bare fangs of commercial interests cornered on a patch of gold”. George Ivan Smith was himself beaten in a failed attempt to kidnap him. O’Brien was convinced that the industrialists sent two planes to intercept Hammarskjöld before he met Tshombe. O’Brien does not believe they meant to kill. Ivan Smith claimed to have evidence that the industrialist gave their agents permission to fire across the bows.

 
Matthew Hughes has examined Smith’s papers, including accounts of meetings with former mercenaries in the Congo, in the Bodleian and written about it in the London Review of Books (August 2001):

 
“According to Smith…‘The fear was that Tshombe, left free to negotiate with the United Nations, would understand the principles on which it was operating, i.e. non-interference in the domestic affairs of the Congo, but under obligation to encourage actions to integrate the country by the Congolese at the behest of the Security Council . . . The decision was taken by the control group at Kolwezi (the European industrialists) to attempt to reach Hammarskjöld before he could get to talk with Tshombe at Ndola.’ If Tshombe came to terms with the UN, he goes on, ‘it would put in jeopardy the position of Europeans not only in the Congo, but also in the Rhodesias and in all parts of Africa . . . where white minorities still held immense power.’ The objective thus was to kidnap Hammarskjöld.”

 
Harry Truman is reported to have said that “Dag Hammarskjöld was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said, ‘when they killed him’.”

 
Desmond Tutu wrote that the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission “discovered, during the course of other investigations, documents purporting to be from an institution called the SA Institute of Maritime Research discussing the sabotage of the aircraft in which the UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, died on the night of September 17/18, 1961.” One TRC letter said that a bomb in the aircraft’s wheel bay was set to detonate when the wheels came down for a landing.

 
A counter-view is that Hammarskjöld travelled from Léopoldville to Ndola in the middle of the night in order to prevent a full-scale war caused by the UN in the Congo, defying the Security Council and instigating a botched military coup in Katanga. Hammarskjöld was on his way to Ndola to apologize personally to Moise Tshombe at the insistence of the British government. Pilot error involved flying to Ndolo instead Ndola and misjudging the altitude. In this view, it was more convenient for the UN to have Hammarskjöld portrayed as a saint and instigate rumors about an assassination than to have the world know that he was to apologize for a military coup where 155 civilians, UN “peace-keepers” and Belgian soldiers were killed.

 
A book by Susan Williams is soon to be published, Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa. Williams recounts that: “British High Commissioner Lord Alport was waiting at the airport when the aircraft crashed nearby. He bizarrely insisted to the airport management that Hammarskjöld had flown elsewhere – even though his aircraft was reported overhead. This postponed a search for so long that the wreckage of the plane was not found for fifteen hours. White mercenaries were at the airport that night too, including the South African pilot Jerry Puren, whose bombing of Congolese villages led, in his own words, to ‘flaming huts …destruction and death’. These soldiers of fortune were backed by Sir Roy Welensky, Prime Minister of the Rhodesian Federation, who was ready to stop at nothing to maintain white rule and thought the United Nations was synonymous with the Nazis.”

 

 

 

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