The mysterious death of a UN Secretary-General


Revisiting the events that led to the tragic death of Dag Hammarskjöld, a key UN official in the decolonization of Africa during the Cold War.


Dag Hammarskjöld with Egidio Ortona in New York, 1959. Image via Immaginario Diplomatico (1861-1961) on Flickr CC.

It was the night of 17 to 18 September, 1961. A DC6 plane named Albertina (officially: SE-BDY) was approaching Ndola, the mining town in Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia) bordering with the Congo. On board was Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. 15 other people (crew and entourage) were in his company. Considered a risky mission, the aim was to meet Moïse Tshombe, leader of the secessionist Katanga province, to find a solution to the conflict in the Congo. The spontaneous intervention, decided only shortly before by Hammarskjöld after arriving in the Congo, was followed with suspicion by various Western diplomats and intelligence agencies. They were afraid that a deal bringing Katanga back into the Congolese state might threaten the vested Western interests. After all, this was at the height of the Cold War, who had started to leave its marks on the continent. Their worries were unnecessary: about to land, the plane crashed under hitherto unclarified circumstances. This meeting never took place.


Why Katanga?

Katanga had declared its break away after Congo’s Independence in June 1960. The mineral-rich province was of utmost geostrategic relevance and the world’s leading producer of uranium. US American nuclear armament in the 1950s was dependent upon the local Shinkolobwe mine, which had also delivered the nuclear material for the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The mine’s history has been captured by Susan Williams in the book Spies in the Congo. Katangese resources were mainly exploited by the Belgian Union Minière du Haut-Katanga and other Western mining companies, jealously guarded and protected by Western interests. The Katangese separatists had also direct military support from Belgium and mercenaries from all over the (Western) world. Afraid to lose control over Katanga with Congo’s Independence, the secession was encouraged, supported or at least tolerated by the Western states.


Enter Hammarskjöld

As Secretary-General of the United Nations since 1953, the Swedish diplomat succeeded the Norwegian Trygve Lie as the highest international civil servant. He is widely considered as having set norms as a role model for this job and received much praise since then, notably by Brian Urquhart, Manuel Fröhlich and Roger Lipsey. Others were less affirmative, expecting him to act as an instrument of Western imperialism. Ludo de Witte even accuses him for being personally responsible for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, who was brutally tortured and executed only nine months before Hammarskjöld died.

In a recent book, I have advocated a different perspective. It follows to some extent the belief that values and principles do matter even in asymmetric power relations. Individuals do have choices and options, despite all the limitations of an office in a global governance institution in which the powerful states have the say. They thereby can make a difference in leading positions with some influence over decision-making processes. As I try to show with reference to Hammarskjöld’s interpretation and application of the global normative frameworks, not least the UN Charter itself, he was guided by a firm belief in codified values. Promoting decolonization made him a Secretary-General, mainly of those new member states of the United Nations who had no voice at the table of the big powers. I maintain also, with reference to the mandates obtained and pursued with regard to the Suez crisis and in the Congo, that in today’s jargon his diplomacy would qualify as anti-hegemonic. Towards the end of his time in office, his critics were from both the Soviet and the Western world. In contrast, many among the new member states entering the United Nations, considered him—despite some failures—as “their” Secretary-General.

Hammarskjöld personifies by his approach, as I tried to explain in a recent conversation that even in an office limited by big power interests and politics, personal ethics, a moral compass, and solidarity do matter, and that individuals are not predetermined by a specific socialization. Individuals have choices: ethical leadership and conscience affects politics, as also argued by Roger Lipsey.


Death at Ndola

Dag Hammarskjöld, and with him all but one, died in the wreckage of the Albertina shortly after midnight on September 18, 1961. The bodyguard Harold Julien succumbed to his injuries six days later in a local hospital. Evidence suggests that he could have been saved if treated properly—and if taken care of earlier: While the plane had been in contact with the tower at the airport before disappearing, with a range of diplomats, secret agents, mercenaries, officials, journalists, and other people on the ground awaiting the arrival, a search mission was delayed until the next morning. The wreckage was officially discovered only in the afternoon. But several eyewitnesses testified later that the crash site was already cordoned off and access denied early in the morning. Suspicions were immediately nourished that there might have been foul play involved. Not only did investigative journalists then already point in this direction, even former US President Harry S. Truman was quoted in the New York Times on September 20, 1961 stating: “Dag Hammarskjöld was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said ‘When they killed him’.”

The inquiry by a United Nations Commission “noted that the Rhodesian inquiry, by eliminating to its satisfaction other possible causes, had reached the conclusion that the probable cause of the crash was pilot error. The Commission, while it cannot exclude this possibility, has found no indication that this was the probable cause of the crash.” With Resolution 1759 (XVII) of October 26, 1962, the General Assembly therefore requested the Secretary-General “to inform the General Assembly of any new evidence which may come to his attention.” But aside from some conspiracy theories and other speculations, as well as a half-hearted and inconclusive additional investigation initiated in Sweden dismissing some of these in the mid 1990s, the case was shelved for half a century.


New investigations

Fifty years later, Susan Williams—a historian with the Institute for Commonwealth Studies/School for Advanced Study at the University of London—presented a bombshell with Who Killed Hammarskjöld?. The new evidence, pointing to many flaws and failures of the earlier findings, triggered a new inquiry conducted by an independent, international commission of jurists, which produced a report in 2013. As a direct consequence, a series of official investigations mandated by the United Nations followed since then. The chronology of events is listed by the Dag Hammarskjöld Library at the United Nations in New York. The United Nations Association Westminster Branch in London provides continued updates on developments since 2014 on a dedicated website. It is striking to note, that all of this happens because of a scholarly book and a subsequent private initiative taken by a handful of individuals, who were able to convince the UN system that the open-ended resolution adopted in 1962 deserves new efforts to find out what really happened then.

A panel of three experts was set up by Ban-Ki Moon to verify the findings of the independent commission. Headed by the former Chief Justice of Tanzania, Mohamed Chande Othman, it presented a report in 2015, which considered the findings as credible. Following more explorations, Othman was appointed in 2017 as Eminent Person, tasked with further investigations. His report concluded “that there is likely to be much relevant material that remains undisclosed” and “that the continued non-disclosure of potentially relevant new information in the intelligence, security and defense archives of Member States constitutes the biggest barrier to understanding the full truth on the event.” Most importantly, based on the new evidence collected, “an aerial attack on SE-BDY would have been possible using resources existing in the area at the time.” As a result, and due to a resolution submitted again by the Swedish Permanent Mission (co-sponsored by another 70 states, notably including as the resolution before Belgium, France, Germany and Russia, but once again without support of the USA and the United Kingdom), the General Assembly extended Othman’s mandate.

He presented his second report in September 2019, summarizing the current knowledge. It based his conclusions on some reports of “independent high-ranking officials,” which several Member States were requested to appoint. This move was seeking to shift the responsibility to the Member States directly involved in the events then. These appointees were supposed to investigate local archives and other intelligence sources in search of additional information not yet accessible. However, those states where most of this information could be expected (the USA, the UK, and South Africa) were among those who made no efforts to comply. However, more evidence was gathered by other private individuals. These included the French journalist Maurin Picard who presented new insights mainly into the Belgian mercenary networks of the time, as well as the Katangese capacity to launch an aerial attack. Torben Gülstorff discovered a German link to Katanga.

“The new information received,” concluded Othman, “highlights the fact that there were many more foreign mercenaries in and around Katanga, including pilots, than had been considered by earlier inquiries.” These had the logistics and necessary conditions (suitable planes and airfields close enough for such operation) to intercept the approaching plane. New information also confirmed original eyewitness reports that the crash site was much earlier discovered than officially reported. Not only did this most likely contribute to the death of the only survivor, whose treatment was delayed for hours, it also, as Othman notes, “calls into question the acts of various Governments directly after the crash and leaves open the issue of why the earlier crash discovery time was not reported.”

Most importantly, for Othman “it remains plausible that an external attack or threat was a cause of the crash.” He therefore recommends:

  • that an independent person is appointed to continue the work;
  • that key Member States be again urged to (re)appoint independent high-ranking officials to determine whether relevant information exists within their security, intelligence and defense archives;
  • that a conclusion be reached if Member States have complied with this process;
  • that key documents are made publicly available online.

As a follow up, the Swedish Permanent Mission again submitted a draft resolution to the General Assembly, following to a large extent the recommendations by re-appointing Justice Othman as the Eminent Person to continue the investigation. In December 2019 it was adopted with a record number of 128 co-sponsoring countries—but again, and revealingly so, without the support of the United States and the United Kingdom.


Current challenges

It might be indicative of diplomatic constraints and reluctance that the resolution omitted the recommended commitment to take those member states to task, states who might not comply with the renewed appeal to identify and provide access to hitherto unknown or classified information. Naming and shaming are not in the diplomatic etiquette, though it would in this case be one of the very few (if not only) forms of leverage handed to the Eminent Person.

The other major constraint which continues to hinder the investigations is the limited budget, which tends to degrade the activities to mere tokenism. Reinforced by the liquidity problems the world organization is facing more than ever before, the amount allocated is about US$350,000 (roughly $150,000 for 2020 and $200,000 for 2021, including all costs for translating the report to be submitted into the official languages). While this limits the efforts considerably, the continued efforts authorized continue to have a significant symbolic meaning. As the Westminster Branch of the UK’s UN Association observes on its Hammarskjöld Inquiry site: “Noting the UN’s current funding shortfall … observers view this decision … and a record number of cosponsoring Member States to be a clear indication to those few states which have failed to cooperate.”

With all evidence gathered during the last few years, it is not premature to categorically dismiss the pilots’ error assumption as a convenient smokescreen and potential cover up. Considering what is known today, it is far more likely that the value-based policy of Dag Hammarskjöld came at the highest price, not only for him but also for the 15 others in his company. After all, he was trying to find a solution for the conflict in the Congo against the interests of the West. This casts doubts on the perception that the Swede was (despite his looks) the blue-eyed boy of the Western world. Rather, as I suggested in my recent book, “he seemed to believe that taking sides with the less influential members of the world community would be in many (if not most) cases the right thing to do.” Hammarskjöld can indeed be considered an example that neither pigmentation, nor nationality or cultural background, despite their socializing influences, necessarily define criteria for being aware of what is right and what is wrong—and how to act accordingly.


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