Obituary: Brigadier Michael Harbottle

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The Independent Online
Of all United Nations activity, it is peacekeeping, the most original of international endeavours, which is the least understood. Peacekeeping depends not on fighting soldiers but on troops trained in mediation and conciliation who need self-control and patience. With the death of Brigadier Michael Harbottle, Britain has lost one of its greatest peacekeeping experts.

There was more to Harbottle's beliefs than wishing to silence the guns of aggression. Peacekeeping led him to a revolutionary idea which involved a new role for the world's armed forces. To create a rational and ethical new world order the world's governments needed to rethink the role of the military. It was a belief often lost on politicians who easily dismissed what Harbottle called his new philosophy of service.

Harbottle believed that there were vital humanitarian tasks which armed forces could perform to alleviate the suffering caused by environmental catastrophe and war. That peacekeeping and peace- building were indispensable and invaluable instruments of peace were, for Harbottle, self-evident truths; there was more to soldiering than fighting or preparing to fight. There were non-military considerations to be taken into account concerning economic, humanitarian and environmental security - priority concerns which called for new perceptions and perspectives.

Harbottle's ideas did not go down too well in either the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office, where there were plenty who argued that the armed forces should have one single task - to defend the nation against aggression. But for Harbottle, the notion that defensive weaponry was the best and only real insurance for peace was outdated - an obsession which caused nations to overspend on weapons research and production to the detriment of economic needs.

This was indeed a surprising view from a solider trained at Sandhurst. In 1937 he had been commissioned into the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and after a distinguished record in the Second World War he was made commander of the lst Royal Greenjackets, becoming in the early Sixties security commander with the British force in Aden. But his road to Damascus came afterwards, in 1966, when he was appointed Chief of Staff to the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus.

In a saner world in which national governments have less sway on who gets UN jobs, Harbottle would have continued his UN work. But after two years in Cyprus, the Ministry of Defence would not accede a request from the UN Secretary General U Thant for him to continue and so Harbottle took early retirement.

He went on to write The Impartial Soldier (1970) and The Blue Berets (1971), the first books - after the debacle of the UN's Congo mission - to look at peacekeeping in a positive way, drawing distinctions between true peacekeeping - the dogged holding of a buffer zone - and the sort of "pacification" policing in support of civil governments in which the British army then considered itself expert, but which was more heavy-handed.

Harbottle believed that colonial enforcement actions were much less positive than peacekeeping and that the two should not be confused. UN peacekeeping was far from standard military practice. In these two books, Harbottle described a peacekeeping mission as the manifest will of the community of nations to achieve peace. He saw a single blue beret at a checkpoint as a symbol; the soldier's weapon was not the rifle slung over his shoulder, but his credibility. Appropriately used, Harbottle argued, peacekeeping could be hugely successful if it started at ground level - the most useful soldier of all was the one around before grievances got out of hand.

His work for peace began in earnest with his appointment as vice-president of the International Peace Academy, an independent, non-partisan international institution dedicated to the prevention and settlement of armed conflicts between and within states which had just been created in New York. It worked closely with the UN and drew on a worldwide network of statesmen and scholars. Harbottle collated the Peacekeeper's Handbook (1978), considered to be a defin- itive work which the UN issued to more than 70 troop- contributing countries as an instruction manual for peacekeeping operations. Between 1974 and 1979 he was a visiting lecturer at Bradford University's School of Peace Studies.

Harbottle's practical peacekeeping experience led him to a belief that international confidence-building would only work through disarmament and he was instrumental in the creation of Generals for Peace and Disarmament in 1981, when east-west relations were glacial: the Soviet Union was deploying SS20 nuclear missiles and Nato Pershing rockets and Cruise missiles. The organisation consisted of a group of like-minded retired soldiers from Nato countries, who met their East European counterparts to develop co- operation rather than confrontation between east and west.

By now, in Whitehall, opinion was effectively poisoned against Harbottle and a whispering campaign described him as a traitor consorting with the enemy, particularly after the Soviet Ambassador in Washington DC, Alexander Dobrynin, endorsed his work. But no one who really knew Harbottle thought that he was in any way politicised; his beliefs sprung from direct peacekeeping experience. He was mischievous though and he could make his critics and those in power feel most uncomfortable with his direct common-sense approach.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, Harbottle transformed Generals for Peace and Disarmament into a world-wide consultative association which comprised senior officers in national armed forces from all over the world. The association focused on the prevention of armed conflict; typically, Harbottle described the association as a "military pugwash".

Long before the post-Cold War tragedies of Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda, Harbottle realised how badly served the international community was by what he considered to be a "chicken-hearted" Security Council. Because of the council's habit of mandating the impossible and providing inadequate resources, Harbottle believed that future security lay in regional and sub-regional arrangements working under the terms of the UN Charter.

The scope of the Worldwide Consultative Associations of Retired Generals and Admirals stretched way beyond the European theatre to Asia and Africa, and there was shared experience on how the military could be used in modern peacekeeping. Two international meetings were held in 1993 and 1994, and at the time of his death Harbottle was helping to plan another event at which a proposal for regional security for Africa was to be discussed.

The effect on his views of his wife Eirwen was recognised by everyone involved in his peace work. It was she who inspired the creation of the charitable Peace Child Charitable Trust which helped children from around the world to produce a successful booklet Rescue Mission: Planet Earth. Another recent project involved Greek and Turkish children on Cyprus jointly undertaking an environmental study of the island. Eirwen believed that "new thinking" should be taught in schools and that no section of society could remain indifferent to the ideal of peace. With Eirwen Harbottle created in 1983 the Centre for International Peacebuilding, based in their home in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire.

Last December an historic statement was issued through the Centre for International Peacebuilding, signed by 62 officers - including three former Supreme Allied Commanders Europe, the former Commander in Chief, US Strategic Command, and a former head of Russian Security - demanding the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Michael Neale Harbottle, soldier and peacekeeper: born 7 February 1917; OBE 1959; Security Commander, Aden 1962-64; Chief of Staff, UN Peacekeeping Force Cyprus 1966-68; married 1940 Alison Humfress (one son, one daughter), 1972 Eirwen Simonds; died 1 May 1997.

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