Cedric Thornberry

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Person.png Cedric ThornberryRdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
(human rights lawyer, UN diplomat)
BornCedric Henry Reid Thornberry
22 June 1936
Died6 May 2014 (Age 77)
Alma materSt Catharine's College (Cambridge)

Cedric Thornberry (22 June 1936 – 6 May 2014) was a Northern Irish international lawyer and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, for which he worked for 17 years. He spent most of his United Nations service in international peace keeping in Cyprus, the Middle East, Namibia, the former Yugoslavia and Somalia.[1]


Cedric Thornberry was born in Belfast, where he attended Finaghy Primary School and the Methodist College Belfast. He studied law at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, and graduated first with a BA and then with an LLB and became a barrister in 1959.[2] Thornberry taught at Cambridge University from 1958, and at the London School of Economics from 1960. He was a foreign correspondent for The Guardian in Greece and was a practising human rights lawyer. He was one of the founders of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in 1968. In the 1970s he represented many applicants at the European Court of Human Rights. He was the father of Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade Emily Thornberry.

He stood for the Labour Party at Guildford in Surrey in the 1966 UK General Election|1966]].[3]

United Nations

Cedric Thornberry joined the United Nations in 1978 and became involved in the internationally supervised settlement of the Namibia question. He became Chief of staff of the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG). During UNTAG, he was the Director of the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Namibia, Martti Ahtisaari, and responsible for co-ordination of the Mission’s day-to-day political operation.

Thornberry also served as the Senior Political and Legal Adviser to UNFICYP and to UNTSO, and was Director of Administration and Management at UN headquarters for four years. He was Director of UNPROFOR Civil Affairs at the beginning of the Mission in February 1992, and shortly afterwards became Assistant-Secretary-General of the United Nations when he was made Deputy Chief of Mission of the 50,000-person UN operation in ex-Yugoslavia as well as senior negotiator with all of the Balkan parties. Until the appointment of an SRSG, he was in charge of UNPROFOR’s political, civil, legal and police activities. He remained head of UNPROFOR’s Civil Affairs until early 1994.

Srebrenica massacre

On 10 July 2020, daughter Emily Thornberry wrote a hagiography of Cedric Thornberry to mark the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre:

As deputy chief of the UN mission, Cedric Thornberry sought to broker talks between the warring parties, and protect minority groups from the threat of ethnic cleansing.

In October 1992, he and his colleagues warned the UN hierarchy in New York that a minimum force of 60,000 peacekeeping troops would be needed to properly defend the six “safe havens”. But no one listened, or if they did, they could not persuade global leaders to act.

The following June, after the Serbs bombed a football match in Sarajevo, killing 11 people, including four children, my Dad warned again that “we are terribly thin on the ground”, and blamed governments around the world for not providing the numbers of troops required.

“In peacekeeping,” he said, “without credibility – you are dead.”

He was moved out of Bosnia a year later, still furious about how poorly defended the UN’s “safe havens” were, and deeply fearful of what would happen when the Serbs attacked them, not from a distance with shells and snipers, but through ground assaults.

Nothing changed. And when the butchers rolled into Srebrenica 25 years ago this week, there were still just a few hundred Dutch soldiers in place to deter them, who saw they were massively outnumbered, and turned their backs as the genocide began.

People still argue today that those Dutch peacekeepers should feel ashamed, but I know how my dad would respond: that the real shame lies not with them, but with the governments and leaders around the world who thought that a few hundred soldiers were enough.

It lies with all those in the international community who heard his warnings growing louder each year and saw the forces surrounding Srebrenica growing larger each month, but still sat on their hands and failed to act, until it was too late.[4]


Cedric Thornberry was a consultant to NATO in the exercises it conducts with the Partnership for Peace countries and a visiting professor at King's College in London.


Cedric Thornberry published several books and contributed many articles for publication in international journals, including: