6 December 2016: The General Assembly is asking that an “eminent person” be appointed to continue digging into the unexplained aspects of the 1961 death of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold.
Hammarskjold was killed on a mission to end the secession of the mineral-rich Katanga province of the Congo (which gained independence from Belgium in 1960). His chartered aircraft crashed near the airport at Ndola in Rhodesia (now Zambia). Allegations that the aircraft was shot down have been unresolved for five decades. The United Nations reopened the investigation after a Swedish aid worker published an interview with several Zambians who said they had witnessed the attack on the Secretary-General’s aircraft. (Details in left column.)
Under the terms of the Assembly resolution the eminent appointee is to “review the potential new information … including that which may be available from Member States, to assess its probative value, to determine the scope that any further inquiry or investigation should take, and, if possible, to draw conclusions from the investigations already conducted.”
Specifically, the eminent person has been asked:
"(a) To review the report of the Commission of Jurists on the Inquiry into the Death of Dag Hammarskjöld (see A/68/800) and the information relied on by the Commission in its report, together with any relevant records and information that may be provided by Member States;
(b) To review the report of the Independent Panel of Experts concerning the investigation into the conditions and circumstances resulting in the tragic death of Dag Hammarskjöld and of the members of the party accompanying him (see A/70/132) and the information relied on by the Independent Panel of Experts in its report, as well as the information subsequently obtained from Member States and individuals, as referred to in the note by the Secretary-General of 17 August 2016 (A/70/1017);
(c) If necessary and appropriate, to interview witnesses, including expert witnesses."
If the eminent person deems appropriate, S/he may also seek new statements from witnesses who were previously interviewed. The appointee is asked to produce a report which is to include a summary of and any findings on new information obtained since the conclusion of the work of the Independent Panel of Experts. S/he is to asses its value in identifying the “cause or causes … and determining its attribution to any individual or entity.”
Finally, S/he is asked “to make a determination of the scope that any further inquiry or investigation should take, or, if the eminent person is of the opinion that a further inquiry or investigation may not be beneficial, to draw conclusions from the investigations already conducted.”
25 August 2016: In a Note to the General Assembly (A/70/1017 ), the Secretary-General says that new information continues to be received on the 1961 air crash that killed Dag Hammarskjold and other UN staff. He urges that an eminent person or persons be appointed to evaluate it. The Note also tells how the central information archive recommended by an Expert Panel in June 2015 could be created; the General Assembly in resolution A/70/11 had asked him to report on its feasibility.
The Expert Panel concluded last June that there was significant new information with “sufficient probative value on an aerial attack or other interference as a hypothesis of the cause of the crash.” The Secretary-General’s Note updates information received from four countries to which the Expert Panel had addressed specific questions, Belgium, Britain, South Africa and the United States. He says further that “communications have also been received from various individuals, and continue to be received even up to the date of the present note.” The communications are “not comprehensive to the extent that I can conclude whether they may ultimately affect the probative value of the information considered by the Panel” but they “appear to represent lines of enquiry that are not yet fully explored.”
The UN Legal Counsel queried the representatives of Belgium, Britain, South Africa and the United States regarding information requested by the Expert Panel. The Secretary-General’s Note provides the following updates:
South Africa: The government reported the discovery that the country’s post-apartheid “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” hearings had revealed “the possible involvement of an ‘SA Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR)’ in the death of Mr. Hammarskjöld.” In bringing that information to the UN’s attention, the South African authorities said nothing about the query by the Expert Panel about “the possible identity of a South African national named ‘Swanepoel’.” The Secretary-General’s Note says that the Expert Panel only had poor quality copies of documents from South Africa and thus could not judge their authenticity. If original documents are now available from South Africa, “it may be possible to conduct forensic or other analyses to make a determination of their authenticity. Whether the documents are authentic or not would allow the hypothesis relating to “Operation Celeste” to be either supported or dispelled, either of which would be a contribution to the historical record.”
Belgium: The expert panel had asked Brussels if among its files and records material there was reference to a pilot by the name “Beukels;” it has answered in the negative.
Britain: The expert panel had asked the government to consider “releasing certain materials to which unrestricted access had not been given, without any redactions:’ and to “confirm that its search of ‘all relevant UK departments’ included ‘all security and intelligence agencies’.” The reply indicated that the government’s “position on release of information had not changed.”
United States: The expert panel had asked if the government’s records included references “concerning the possible service of a Mr. Southall, a Mr. Abram and a Mr. Doyle, as well as the possible presence of and transmissions from two United States Air Force aircraft in Ndola on 17 and 18 September 1961.” The response provided information on Southall and Doyle. The former had been in the United States Navy from 1955 to 1969, and in the Naval Reserve until 1978 at the rank of commander. Doyle had worked for the Central Intelligence Agency “in the Congo region.“ The United States Air Force had found no information on Abram. Nor had it “found any documents or information regarding the presence of any United States Air Force aircraft on the tarmac at Ndola airport in September of 1961.”
About the “central archival holding or other holistic arrangement” to enable access to relevant records, the Note says “a list of institutions and individuals that may hold records or archives relevant to the matter has been compiled." The United Nations has "commenced the collection of inventories of relevant records and archives. Once a sufficient number of responses have been received to create an initial catalog of the totality of relevant records and archives, and notwithstanding that by its nature such a catalog is likely to continue to grow over time, appropriate arrangements will need to be made for the management of and access to this catalog, which could form the basis for a central archival holding."
The Note says that an "initial assessment suggests that there is likely to be a significant amount of material, with much of it available in electronic form. Therefore, a feasible approach may be for a single entity to be provided electronic copies of all relevant records and archives, and to maintain an electronic database of these records, as a central archival holding.”
The Security Council waited till March 1953 (two-thirds of the way into Lie’s three-year extension), before meeting to pick a successor. At meetings on 13 and 14 March, the Council voted informally on four candidates. Lester B. Pearson of Canada, proposed by Denmark, got nine votes in the then 11-member Council, but the Soviet Union vetoed him. Vijayalakshmi Pandit of India (Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister), the first and, until 2016, the only woman to be considered for the post of Secretary-General, received two votes in favor, one against and eight abstentions. Carlos Romulo of the Philippines, proposed by the United States, got one vote in favor, three against and seven abstentions. The Soviet candidate, Stanislaw Skrzeszewski of Poland, got one in favor, three against and seven abstentions. The Council met twice more and discussed a number of other names without voting on them. Then, on 31 March, acting on a French proposal which the Soviet Union had signaled was acceptable, it picked Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden by a vote of 10 in favor and one abstention. China, represented then by the government in Taiwan, abstained because Sweden had recognized the People’s Republic in Peking (not yet called Beijing).
Hammarskjöld was Minister of State in his country’s Foreign Office and had attended a number of meetings at the UN, including the General Assembly as Head of Delegation. But he was not picked because his quiet brilliance was widely known. On the contrary, as Ambassador Carl Schurmann of the Netherlands noted in a foreword to Hammarskjöld’s posthumous book, Markings, his election reflected the hope of “the Big Powers to see É at the head of the Secretariat someone who would concentrate mainly on the administrative problems and who would abstain from public statements on the political conduct of the Organization.” Other assessments were less kind. Trygve Lie, who remained in a 38th floor office at the UN for several weeks after relinquishing his duties, told Lester Pearson that Hammarskjöld would be no more than a clerk. He also gossiped about Hammarskjöld being homosexual, a charge repeated by others in subsequent years. Brian Urquhart in his 1972 biography of Hammarskjöld had this to say on the topic: “Stupid or malicious people sometimes made the vulgar assumption that, being unmarried, he must be homosexual, although no one who knew him well or worked closely with him thought so. When he was confronted, in the first month of his Secretary-Generalship, with the rumors to this effect then being put about by his predecessor, Hammarskjöld remarked that if there had been any element of truth in the story he would not and could not in the prevalent state of public opinion on the question of homosexuality, have accepted the office.”
Low expectations of Hammarskjöld proved to be spectacularly off the mark. He did focus on administrative issues to begin with, and his public persona was indeed flat and unexciting, but when political challenges arose, a formidable combination of integrity, idealism, intelligence and diplomatic skill came into play. And luck was with him in the early years. Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 augured the end of the first virulent stage of the “Cold War”. In Korea, an armistice was agreed in July. In Washington, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s star was fading, and after the Senate condemned him in 1954, his power was broken. The gloom that had settled on the UN Secretariat in Lie’s final years began to lift as Hammarskjöld’s steady leadership took hold. He pressed for and got from the Eisenhower Administration an amendment to Truman’s January 1953 Executive Order under which the FBI had identified staff for the UN to fire. While refusing to reinstate a number of the discharged staff members who had appealed to the UN administrative Tribunal and won, he did sidestep American opposition to paying them compensation. (The US Congress had decreed that no part of Washington’s dues to the UN budget could be used to compensate people it viewed as traitors; Hammarskjöld used the taxes collected by the Organization from staff, funds normally used to offset national dues.) In November 1953, he asked for the removal of the FBI office in the UN. However, the “loyalty” screening of American staff members continued for decades, with the UN receiving factual “advisory” dossiers from the FBI.
Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash in Africa, while on a mission to negotiate an end to the secession of Katanga province from the Congo. A former Belgian colony enormously rich in natural resources, the Congo had become independent in June 1960 and with considerable help from its former rulers, immediately plunged into conflict and political chaos. The secession of Katanga was the work mainly of Moise Tshombe, supported by white mercenaries in the pay of Union Miniere du Haut Katanga, a politically well connected Belgian company with major investments in the province. Hammarskjöld’s meeting with Tshombe had been arranged by the British Consul in Katanga, who, the Secretary-General had been informed by his representative there, was sympathetic to the secessionists and might even be sheltering the separatist leader from UN peacekeeping forces. The meeting with Tshombe was set for 18 September, in Ndola, in Rhodesia, a country then in the control of a rabidly anti-UN white-supremacist leader, Sir Roy Welensky.
There was much speculation after Hammarskjöld’s death about a conspiracy involving Tshombe, the British and Rhodesian authorities, but nothing was ever proved. The official United Nations inquiry found “no evidence to support any of the particular theories that have been advanced.” But it was also unable to exclude any of the possible causes it had considered, including “sabotage and attack from the ground or air.” The inquiry commission raised a number of questions which remain unanswered to this day, and it was particularly critical of Rhodesian authorities for their inexplicable delay in searching for the Secretary-General’s aircraft, which was last seen about 10 minutes past midnight (i.e. early on 18 September). The pilot had told Ndola air control he could see their lights, and the DC-6 passed over the airport at 2000 feet with its landing beacon on. Ignoring a police report of a large explosion nearby, the Rhodesian authorities did not begin an immediate search. The wreckage of the plane was found some nine miles from the airport, 15 hours after the crash. Hammarskjöld had survived the impact but died of massive injuries, including a broken spine. There was only one badly burned survivor, who died five days later.
Talk of a conspiracy to assassinate Hammarskjöld has endured into the 21st Century. In 2011, Göran Björkdahl, a Swedish aid worker based in Africa, found eyewitnesses to the events in Ndola on that fateful night in 1961. Men in their 80s who still lived in and around the area where the crash occurred, they remembered a second aircraft and an explosion in the air before the aircraft came down. Some of the witnesses said they had been told to go away from the site by local police. That evidence and allegations that permanent members of the Security Council had pertinent information in their archives has led the General Assembly to reopen the investigation.
The Guardian in Britain sent reporters to Ndola to verify Björkdahl’s report and published their findings in August 2011:
“Dickson Mbewe, now aged 84, was sitting outside his house in Chifubu compound west of Ndola with a group of friends on the night of the crash. ‘We saw a plane fly over Chifubu but did not pay any attention to it the first time,’ Mbewe told the Guardian. ‘When we saw it a second and third time, we thought that this plane was denied landing permission at the airport. Suddenly, we saw another aircraft approach the bigger aircraft at greater speed and release fire which appeared as a bright light.’
‘The plane on the top turned and went in another direction. We sensed the change in sound of the bigger plane. It went down and disappeared.’
“In the morning at about 5am, Mbewe went to his charcoal kiln close to the crash site, where he found soldiers and policemen already dispersing people from the area. According to the official report the wreckage was only discovered at 3pm that afternoon.
“‘There was a group of white soldiers carrying a body, two in front and two behind,’ he said. ‘I heard people saying there was a man who was found alive and should be taken to hospital. Nobody was allowed to stay there.’
“Mbewe never came forward with that information earlier because he was never asked to, he said. ‘The atmosphere was not peaceful, we were chased away. I was afraid to go to the police because they might put me in prison.’
“Another witness, Custon Chipoya, a 75-year-old charcoal maker, also claims to have seen a second plane in the sky that night. ‘I saw a plane turning, it had clear lights and I could hear the roaring sound of the engine,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t very high. In my opinion, it was at the height that planes are when they are going to land.
“’It came back a second time which made us look and the third time, when it was turning towards the airport, I saw a smaller plane approaching behind the bigger one. The lighter aircraft, a smaller jet type of plane, was trailing behind and had a flash light. Then it released some fire onto the bigger plane below and went in the opposite direction.
“’The bigger aircraft caught fire and started exploding, crashing towards us. We thought it was following us as it chopped off branches and tree trunks. We thought it was war so we ran away.’
“Chipoya said he returned to the site the next morning at about 6am and found the area cordoned off by police and army officers. He didn’t mention what he had seen because: ‘It was impossible to talk to a police officer then. We just understood that we had to go away,’ he said.
“Safeli Mulenga, 83, also in Chifubu on the night of the crash, did not see a second plane but witnessed an explosion.
“’I saw the plane circle twice,’ he said. ‘The third time fire came from somewhere above the plane, it glowed so bright. It couldn’t have been the plane exploding because the fire was coming onto it,’ he said.
“There was no announcement for people to come forward with information following the crash, and the federal government didn’t want people to talk about it, he said. ‘There were some who witnessed the crash and they were taken away and imprisoned.’
“John Ngongo, now 75, out in the bush with a friend to learn how to make charcoal on the night of the crash, did not see another plane but he definitely heard one, he said.
“’Suddenly, we saw a plane with fire on one side coming towards us. It was on fire before it hit the trees. The plane was not alone. I heard another plane at high speed disappearing into the distance but I didn’t see it,’ he said.”
A conspiracy to kill Hammarskjöld is credible in the political context of the 1960s. European colonialism was dying hard at the time and major imperial Powers tried to protect their strategic and economic assets in developing countries with a great deal of violence. In a number of such cases, including the 1956 British-French attempt to retain control of the Suez Canal, the United Nations, with strong support from the United States, stood in the way. In the Congo, that pattern was repeated, but with one vital difference: Washington’s support of the UN, carefully calibrated so as not to give aid and comfort to the local allies of the Soviet Union, did not extend to confronting the mining interests in the region. Those interests were protected by brutal white supremacist regimes that considered Hammarskjöld a serious threat, especially after the Security Council asked him to report on the situation in South Africa in the wake of the March 1960 Sharpeville massacre. Hammarskjöld was too good a diplomat not to know the danger he was in or realize the no-win prospect of his bid for peace: he told a colleague in New York before leaving on his last trip that if it failed he would resign.
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