Obituary: Erskine Childers

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Erskine Childers succumbed to a heart attack during the 50th anniversary congress of the World Federation of United Nations Associations, of which he was Secretary- General. It is perhaps fitting for so totally dedicated a man that he died giving all of his energy and ingenuity to an international organisation that he was trying desperately to revitalise.

Childers was a most unusual person by any count. His great grandfather, Robert Childers, was a distinguished Victorian oriental scholar. His grandfather, Erskine, wrote the classic international thriller The Riddle of the Sands. He also fought as a trooper in the South African war and served in the First World War in the naval air service and the Royal Air Force, among other things doing much of the original aerial mapping of Palestine. After the war he returned to Ireland and joined the Republicans when they took up arms. He was executed for treason by the British in 1922 after being tried for having an automatic pistol without the proper authority. His son, also Erskine, much later on became president of Ireland.

The third Erskine Childers, not surprisingly with such a dramatic family history, grew up with an innate distrust of great powers and of established authority. He was passionately interested in the endless quest for justice, equity and fairness in international affairs. His championing of the Palestinian cause resulted in his first book, Common Sense about the Arab World (1960), which he followed up in 1962 with The Road to Suez: a study in Western-Arab relations.

Starting his career as a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, Childers joined the UN Secretariat in 1967. His special field was economic development, and by the time he retired in 1989, he had worked with virtually all of the organisations of the UN system in all the regions of the world. His last UN position was Senior Adviser to the UN Director for Development and International Economic Cooperation.

Erskine Childers and I came together in 1989 after he had reviewed my memoirs and echoed a remark of mine deploring the slipshod way in which governments and especially permanent members of the Security Council, select the Secretary- General of the UN. We both felt that this question deserved more attention than it had received, and we worked together on a short book, A World in Need of Leadership: tomorrow's United Nations, which was published by the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation and the Ford Foundation in 1990. This subject is once again very much in the news, and it is sad that a new edition of this book, with a number of fresh ideas from Childers, will be published this very week, on 30 August.

Our leadership study received an encouraging reception in 1990, and over the intervening years we produced three more works on UN reform - on reorganising the secretariat, on strengthening international response to humanitarian emergencies, and on renewing the UN system. I was increasingly impressed with Childer's imagination, his vast fund of knowledge and experience, his powers of analysis and his enormous capacity for hard intellectual work. He never tired of his subject or lost his youthful zeal for pursuing it, and the best ideas in our joint works were almost always his.

He was a wonderful person to work with. His enthusiasm was constantly boosted by his passionate convictions, his loathing of anything that smacked of bullying or condescension, and his indignation at the current fashion to denigrate and downgrade international organisations, especially in the United States.

Childers knew as well as anyone how much these organisations needed improvement and strengthening - in fact he had devoted his later years to this cause - but he was outraged at the ignorance, prejudice, xenophobia and petty malice of much of the current onslaught on the UN. His indignation was intensified by the perennial failure of the United States to pay its full dues to the world organisation.

His biting humour and his strong opinions were splendidly stimulating to those he worked with. There is no doubt however that, in the cautious world of the UN secretariat, they also diminished his prospects of advancement. More than one effort to put him in a post which would have given full scope to his great talents was effectively blocked by mumbling and unspecific reservations. I don't think Erskine Childers cared all that much. He was more interested in getting it right and keeping his principles undiluted.

He was, by nature and by inheritance, a champion of the oppressed and the less fortunate. He stood up for the developing countries and their peoples. He fought for their place on the international scene and for the programmes and activities that would help them attain it. To his last day he was indefatigable in writing, researching and addressing meetings all over the world on this subject.

Childers was also an outspoken champion of the United Nations and its mission. In Renewing the United Nations System he wrote, "The only hope of effectively dealing with the world's major problems in the interest of all humankind is through the progressive development of a working world community". That is what Erskine Childers devoted his life to.

Brian Urquhart

Erskine Childers, international civil servant and activist: born March 1929; twice married; died Luxembourg 25 August 1996.