The mystery surrounding the death of United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in a plane crash refuses to die 52 years later, with the latest investigation pointing to “some form of hostile action.”
Hammarskjold, a Swede who held the top UN job from 1953 to 1961, was on a peace mission to Congo at the time his DC-6 aircraft went down on the night of September 17-18, 1961, a few kilometres from the runway at Ndola in Zambia (then white-minority-ruled Northern Rhodesia).
“There is persuasive evidence that the aircraft was subjected to some form of attack or threat as it circled to land at Ndola,” concludes an inquiry conducted by an independent commission comprising four international jurists.
“The possibility that the plane was in fact forced into its descent by some form of hostile action is supported by sufficient evidence to merit further inquiry.”
While it offers no conclusive evidence, the commission’s report suggests that the US National Security Agency may possess information, in the form of intercepted radio transmissions.
The UN “would be justified in reopening its 1961-62 inquiry for the initial purpose of confirming or refuting, from intercept records, the evidence indicating that the descent of the secretary-general’s plane was brought about by some form of attack or threat,” the commission suggests.
Noting that Hammarskjold had given “unparalleled service to the UN and paid the ultimate price,” the UN said last week that it would study the commission’s findings.
The jurists said that Mr Hammarskjold’s death was “an event of global significance that deserves the attention both of history and of justice.”
Last week’s commission report examines several theories concerning the cause of the crash that killed all crew members and passengers, although one UN security officer remained alive for six days before succumbing to burns.
The report weighs allegations that a bomb exploded on board the aircraft; that it was either deliberately or accidentally shot down; that it was attacked by another aircraft; and that the crash was the result of pilot error or equipment malfunction.
Consideration is also given to claims that Hammarskjold and possibly other passengers were killed by gunfire after the plane went down.
Information unavailable to previous investigations has emerged and warrants further analysis, the commission said.
One “major element” cited by the report is a 2011 book by British academic Susan Williams titled Who Killed Hammarskjold? In an interview for the BBC’s story two years ago, Ms Williams is quoted as saying, “There is no smoking gun, but there is a mass of evidence that points in the direction that the plane was shot down by a second plane. That is a far more convincing and supported explanation than any other.”
Who may have wanted to kill the UN secretary-general, and why?
White Rhodesians and the Belgian and British mining companies in Katanga (Congo) had “a sense of being at war with the UN and with African nationalism,” Ms Williams told the BBC. Those interests would have had a motive for preventing Hammarskjold and Congolese leader Moise Tshombe from reaching a negotiated settlement.
The commission points out that the UN was not a neutral party in these matters. The UN supported decolonisation in Africa — in part because the world body’s two dominant members, the United States and the Soviet Union, had no colonial interests in Africa and viewed the withdrawal of European powers as opening up new markets and new spheres of influence.
“The surviving white minority regimes of the Rhodesian Federation and South Africa, by contrast, had everything to fear from the process,” the commission observed.
The US National Security Agency, a worldwide espionage organisation, could have evidence that may determine the cause of the crash, the commission said.
“It is highly likely that the entirety of the local and regional Ndola radio traffic on the night of September 17-18, 1961 was tracked and recorded by the NSA, and possibly also by the CIA,” the jurists wrote in their 61-page report.
Requests for NSA records, made in accordance with the US Freedom of Information Act, were rejected on national-security grounds, the commission said. That decision is being appealed.
In addition to specific factors that raise suspicions, the commission cites comments made by former US president Harry Truman shortly after the crash. According to an account in the New York Times of September 20, 1961, Truman told reporters: “Dag Hammarskjold was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said ‘When they killed him.’”
Truman added in response to a follow-up question, “That’s all I’ve got to say on the matter. Draw your own conclusions.”
At the time of his death, Hammarskjold was trying to negotiate peace between Congo’s government and the mineral-rich province of Katanga, which had broken away under Moise Tshombe.
The charismatic UN chief was flying to Ndola to meet Tshombe, who was supported by Belgium, Congo’s former colonial power, and by some Western mining companies. Katanga was the site of the world’s richest uranium deposits and the source of four-fifth’s of the West’s cobalt supply.
Nine months before Hammarskjold’s peace mission, Congo president Patrice Lumumba had been kidnapped by coup leader Joseph Mobutu, allegedly with the connivance of Belgian, British and US security services, and taken to Katanga. Lumumba was tortured and killed there in January 1961.
The commission was chaired by Sir Stephen Sedley, retired Lord Justice of Appeal for England and Wales. Its other members were Justice Wilhelmina Thomassen of the Netherlands, Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa and ambassador Hans Corell of Sweden.