What was the CONGO CRISIS? (And why Katanga’s attempted secession has had such a lasting impact)

What was the CONGO CRISIS? (And why Katanga’s attempted secession has had such a lasting impact)


Katanga’s attempt to break away from the
Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1960, was one of the most important conflicts
of the modern era. It helped to define the international community’s attitudes towards secession and independence movements. In this video I’m going to take a look at this now largely forgotten conflict and show why the positions taken at the time remains so important to this day. [MUSIC] Hi. My name is James Ker-Lindsay. Welcome to Independent Thinking. A channel dedicated to international relations, independence and the origins of countries. Few people today have heard of Katanga or its attempt to secede from the republic of the Congo – now officially known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It certainly isn’t as well-known as many other conflicts of the last 70 or so years. And yet, in many ways, it was one of the most important disputes of the modern era. Many of the contemporary attitudes to separatism and independence movements were formed during this Congo Crisis. On 30 June 1960, the Republic of the Congo gained its independence from Belgium. With little or no planning for statehood, and no experience of self-rule, the new country immediately descended into chaos. Ten days later, Katanga, the southernmost and wealthiest the country’s provinces, unilaterally declared independence. Unable to control the situation, the Congolese government under the pro-Soviet Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, requested military help from the UN. The Security Council passed Resolution 143 establishing a UN peacekeeping force in the country. Although the force’s mission was to stabilize the situation in the Congo, the Congolese government demanded that UN peacekeepers also be deployed to defeat the Katanga secession. However, the UN Secretary-General,
Dag Hammarskjöld, refused. As he saw it, the province’s attempt to break away constituted an internal matter for the Congo, despite evidence indicating that Katanga’s secession was in fact directly supported by Belgium. However, the situation changed following Hammarskjöld’s death in a plane crash in the Congo, in September 1961. Although most of the other tasks assigned to the UN Force had by that point been completed, the situation in Katanga was
becoming increasingly violent. As a result, the Security Council now decided to assist the Congolese government in its fight to stop Katanga’s attempt to break away. Resolution 169, passed on 24 November 1961, ‘completely’ rejected Katanga’s claim to sovereignty and declared all secessionist activity
contrary to the Congolese Constitution. UN forces were now authorized to arrest
and detain any foreign paramilitaries or mercenaries not under UN command. In effect, the UN force was deployed to defeat the Katanga secession. In the year that followed, the UN stepped up its activities and towards the end of 1962 fighting between UN forces and Katanga paramilitary units intensified. Following several fierce confrontations in December that year UN forces routed the gendarmes and the remaining foreign mercenaries fled. In January 1963, the government of Katanga
conceded defeat. In the period that followed, the province of Katanga was formally reintegrated into the Congolese State. So why was Katanga’s attempted secession so significant? What made the Congo Crisis really stand out was the way in which UN peacekeepers acted to stop the secession. The United Nations, despite its initial reluctance to get directly involved in the Congolese government’s attempts to counter Katanga’s efforts to break away, eventually took decisive action to support that effort. Even to this day, this stands apart from UN actions in other peacekeeping missions, where they officially observe a policy of strict neutrality. Crucially, this UN intervention to prevent the secession was only possible because of the high degree of consensus on the issue. This was almost unknown at a time when the international community was divided by the Cold War. However, in this case, there was a rather interesting convergence of interests. For the Soviet Union, the decision to support intervention was driven by a wish to hold the country together in the hope that a united pro-Soviet government would still emerge. This despite the fact that Prime Minister Lumumba had been deposed and executed in 1961. For its part, the United States feared that the loss of Katanga might have a domino effect. It was particularly wary of potential secession of another Congolese province, Orientale, which was led by a leftist pro-Soviet politician. Aside from the narrow political interests of the Superpowers, Katanga represented a watershed moment in another way. It was the moment that the UN started to consider how the rapidly growing pace of decolonization could throw up more and more secessionist disputes. Many UN members, especially the new ones that had been created by decolonization, faced actual or potential separatist movements of their own. They saw their own situation mirrored in the Congo Crisis and feared that Katanga’s independence, if successful, would encourage other
secessionist efforts. It’s perhaps unsurprising that UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 – which not only emphasized the right of colonial territories to independence, but also affirmed the territory integrity of states – was passed at this time. Therefore, while there were very different reasons for opposing Katanga’s attempt to break away, the result was a clear consensus against allowing unilateral secession. In the broader picture, Katanga’s attempted secession from the Congo marked the moment that the international community effectively stopped thinking about the territorial integrity of states solely in terms of threats from outside actors. Instead, it was now recognized that the responsibility to respect the territorial integrity of other countries had to be applied in the face of internal challenges as well. As a result, recognizing acts of unilateral secession became completely off limits – a development that has had enormous
consequences for groups and territories seeking independence to this day. I hope you found this video interesting. If so I have posted links to a couple of other related videos that you might like. And do consider subscribing for more videos. I post a new one every Friday. And do let me know in the comments section if there any questions, or if there any other topics you’d like to see me cover. Thanks so much for watching and see you again soon. [MUSIC]

3 Comments on "What was the CONGO CRISIS? (And why Katanga’s attempted secession has had such a lasting impact)"


  1. Thanks for watching. Although the Congo Crisis has now been largely forgotten, it has had a huge impact on how the international community responds to secession. Understanding what happened with Katanga's secession helps to explain why so many groups and territories seeking independence face such an uphill task.

    On a separate note, it is really worth watching 'The Siege of Jadotville'. It is a rare example of a film about the Congo Crisis: https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80041653

    Reply

  2. The Congo Crisis, from how you explained it, sounded like one of the most significant events in the 20th century and not a lot of people seem to talk about it.

    Reply

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