Speaking truth to power: The killing of Dag Hammarskjöld and the cover-up

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has courageously pursued an enquiry into the mysterious death of Dag Hammarskjöld. Reuters/Tiksa Negeri

Fifty-five years ago, shortly after midnight on 18 September 1961, an aircraft crashed on its approach to Ndola airport in the British colony of Northern Rhodesia, which is now Zambia. On board were 16 people: the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, the members of his mission, and the Swedish crew. The sole survivor, who spoke of “sparks in the sky” and said the plane “blew up”, died six days later.

Suspicions were voiced about the crash because of the strange details that quickly emerged. For instance, the British high commissioner, who was at Ndola, showed no concern that Hammarskjöld failed to land and insisted that he must have decided “to go elsewhere”.

It took four hours after daybreak to start an official search. This in spite of local residents, policemen and soldiers reporting a great flash in the sky shortly after midnight. There were also witness accounts of a second, smaller plane trailing and then dropping something that “looked like fire' upon the larger one”.

The Prime Minister of the Congo, Cyrille Adoula, who had met with the Secretary-General just hours before the crash, believed he had been murdered. According to the 1961 Montreal Gazette he had commented:

How ignoble is this assassination, not the first of its kind perpetrated by the moneyed powers. Mr Hammarskjöld was the victim of certain financial circles for whom a human life is not equal to a gram of copper or uranium.

There were several inquiries into the crash in 1961-2, all of which failed to take seriously the testimonies of Zambian witnesses. A Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry identified pilot error as the cause of the crash. This was solely on the basis of an elimination of the other suggested causes.

A UN inquiry, however, reached an open verdict and stated that it could not rule out sabotage or attack. This led the UN General Assembly to pass a Resolution requesting the Secretary-General

to inform the General Assembly of any new evidence which may come to his attention.

More than half a century and many inquiries later, the search for the truth about what happened that September night continues. On 17 August 2016, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the 71st UN General Assembly to appoint an “eminent person or persons” to review the new information on the crash. He urged member states to release relevant records for review.

Ban Ki-moon’s statement ended on a moving and powerful note:

This may be our last chance to find the truth. Seeking a complete understanding of the circumstances is our solemn duty to my illustrious and distinguished predecessor, Dag Hammarskjöld, to the other members of the party accompanying him, and to their families.’

Hammarskjöld, as second Secretary-General, sought to shape the UN as an organisation devoted to peace. He developed the strategy of “preventive diplomacy”, which defused the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. His prevailing commitment was to the UN Charter and he refused to act in the interest of any particular state.

In 1961, the UN was only 15 years old and was undergoing a dramatic shift as European decolonisation gathered pace. The Afro-Asian bloc now provided 47 UN members out of 100. For these new states, said Hammarskjöld, the UN was their “main platform” and protector.

For decades, the former colonial powers have written the history of the night in which Hammarskjöld and his companions died. But a new history is about to be written if the recent momentum to find the full truth is anything to go by.

New quest for the truth

Hammarskjöld was on the way to meet Moise Tshombe, leader of the Belgian-backed secession of Katanga province from the newly-independent Congo. Mineral rich Katanga was of geostrategic importance, not least because of a mine in Katanga which produced the richest uranium in the world.

The UN’s declaration that it could not rule out sabotage or attack and the request for any new evidence emerged in 2011 as a crucial point of reference in the book Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa. The book drew on a mass of evidence that had been available for many years but had been dismissed by the early inquiries, and presented many new findings.

The disturbing compilation of evidence includes the testimony of Commander Charles Southall, a naval officer working for the US National Security Agency listening station in Cyprus in 1961. Southall heard the recording of a pilot shooting down Hammarskjöld’s plane.

British peer Lord Lea of Crondall read the book and resolved to set up a new inquiry. Interest was growing. Professor K.G. Hammar, former Archbishop of the Church of Sweden, went to Zambia with Hans Kristian Simensen, a Norwegian researcher, and called on Sweden to get the case reopened. In 2012 the Hammarskjöld Inquiry Trust was formed, including Chief Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria.

The Trust set up the Hammarskjöld Commission, an international group of four distinguished jurists, chaired by a former British Lord Justice of Appeal.

After a rigorous examination of the available evidence and interviews in Ndola with witnesses who were still alive, the commission concluded:

There is persuasive evidence that the aircraft was subjected to some form of attack or threat as it circled to land at Ndola … (and) was in fact forced into its descent by some form of hostile action.

It recommended that the UN conduct a further investigation and seek access to relevant records held by member states. The commission’s report was made public on 9 September 2013. On the same day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that he would closely study the findings.

Ban Ki-moon takes the lead

In March 2014, the Secretary-General asked the General Assembly to pursue the matter further. This was welcomed by the growing worldwide campaign that had by now developed, which urged the creation of a new inquiry. The movement was supported by sympathetic journalists, social media campaigners, individuals, and organisations, largely coordinated by the United Nations Association Westminster Branch in London.

The Swedish government submitted a draft Resolution to the UN General Assembly in October 2014, calling for a new investigation. This was strongly supported by Zambia.

On 29 December 2014, the UN General Assembly adopted the Resolution, authorising the Secretary-General to appoint an independent Panel of Experts to examine the evidence. Fifty-five nations joined Sweden to co-sponsor the resolution, which was adopted by the consensus of all 193 Member States.

On 16 March 2015, Ban Ki-moon appointed a Panel of Experts, which was headed by Mohamed Chande Othman, Chief Justice of Tanzania. Its report concluded that there was, indeed, significant information to warrant further inquiry into a possible aerial attack or other interference as a cause of the crash. It also introduced new areas to investigate, such as the possibility that Hammarskjöld’s communications were intercepted.

On 2 July 2015, Ban Ki-moon circulated the report among member states and expressed the view that “a further inquiry or investigation would be necessary to finally establish the facts.” He urged member states

to disclose, declassify or otherwise allow privileged access to information that they may have in their possession’.

Following Ban Ki-moon’s recommendations, the Swedish Permanent Mission to the UN circulated a draft Resolution urging all member states to release any relevant records in their possession. The draft Resolution was supported by 74 other states – but not the UK or the US.

When the Secretary-General in August 2016 called on the forthcoming General Assembly to appoint an eminent person or persons to take the inquiry forward, he attached as annexes to his statement the responses by several member states to the UN’s earlier call for documentation. These show a readiness by South Africa to search for lost records relating to an alleged plot by mercenaries. They also reveal the uncooperative nature of the responses by the US and the UK.

Ban’s courage, dignity and humanity in this matter have been followed with heartfelt appreciation by those who care about justice and about the principles enshrined in the UN Charter, which were advocated so vigorously by Hammarskjöld. It is to be hoped that Ban’s successor will follow the same path, and with the same integrity and determination.

The Conversation

Henning Melber is affiliated with The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. He and co-author Susan Williams would like to acknowledge the assistance provided by David Wardrop, Chairman of the United Nations Association Westminster Branch, UK

Susan Williams does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.