Dag Hammarskjöld

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The Hammarskjöld Commission

Dag Hammarskjöld was on a mission to try to broker peace in Congo when he died in 1961. Photograph: REX

26 September
Plane crash that killed UN boss ‘may have been caused by aircraft attack’
Exclusive: US and UK intercepts could hold answer to 1961 accident in Africa that killed Dag Hammarskjöld and 15 others
(The Guardian) A UN report into the death of its former secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld in a 1961 plane crash in central Africa has found that there is a “significant amount of evidence” that his flight was brought down by another aircraft.
The report, delivered to the current secretary general, António Guterres, last month, took into account previously undisclosed information provided by the US, UK, Belgian, Canadian and German governments.
Its author, Mohamed Chande Othman, a former Tanzanian chief justice, found that the US and UK governments had intercepted radio traffic in the area at the time and suggested that the 56-year-old mystery could be solved if the contents of those classified recordings were produced.
“I am indebted for the assistance that I received, which uncovered a large amount of valuable new information,” Othman said in an executive summary of his report, seen by the Guardian. “I can confidently state that the deeper we have gone into the searches, the more relevant information has been found.”
Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat who became the UN secretary general in 1953, was on a mission in September 1961 to try to broker peace in Congo, where the Katanga region had staged a rebellion, backed by mining interests and European mercenaries, against the newly independent government in Kinshasa.
His plane, a Douglas DC-6, was on the way from Kinshasa to the town of Ndola in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where the British colonial authorities were due to host talks with the Katanga rebels. It was approaching the airstrip at about midnight on 17 September when it crashed, killing Hammarskjöld and 15 others on board.
Two inquiries run by the British pointed to pilot error as the cause, while a UN commission in 1962 reached an open verdict. In recent years, independent research by Göran Björkdahl, a Swedish aid worker, and Susan Williams, a senior fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London and author of a 2011 book Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, persuaded the UN to reopen the case. A panel convened in 2015 found there was enough new material to warrant the appointment of an “eminent person” to assess it. Othman was given the job in February this year.
Among Othman’s new findings are:

  • In February 1961, the French secretly supplied three Fouga warplanes to the Katanga rebels, “against the objections of the US government”. Contrary to previous findings, they were used in air-to-air attacks, flown at night and from unpaved airstrips in Katanga.
  • Fresh evidence bolsters an account by a French diplomat, Claude de Kemoularia, that he had been told in 1967 by a Belgian pilot known as Beukels, who had been flying for the rebels as a mercenary, that he had fired warning shots to try to divert the plane away from Ndola and accidentally clipped its wing. Othman said he was unable establish Beukels’ identity in the time available for his inquiry.
  • The UK and Rhodesian authorities were intercepting UN communications at the time of the crash and had intelligence operatives in the area. The UK should therefore have potentially crucial evidence in its classified archives
  • The US had sophisticated electronic surveillance aircraft “in and around Ndola” as well as spies, and defence officials, on the night of the crash, and Washington should be able to provide more detailed information.

Othman found that earlier inquiries had disregarded the testimony of local witnesses who said they saw another plane and flashes in the sky on the night of Hammarskjold’s crash. They had also “undervalued” the testimony of Harold Julien, a security officer who survived for several days who told medical staff he had seen “sparks in the sky” shortly before the DC-6, known by its registration number SE-BDY, fell out of the sky.
“Based on the totality of the information we have at hand, it appears plausible that external attack or threat may have been a cause of the crash, whether by way of direct attack causing SE-BDY to crash, or by causing a momentary distraction of the pilots,” Othman concludes.
“There is a significant amount of evidence from eyewitnesses that they observed more than one aircraft in the air, that the other aircraft may have been a jet, that SE-BDY was on fire before it crashed, and/or that SE-BDY was fired upon or otherwise actively engaged by another aircraft. In its totality, this evidence is not easily dismissed.”
Othman argues that the “burden of proof” was now on member states “to show that they have conducted a full review of records and archives in their custody or possession, including those that remain classified, for potentially relevant information”.
The Tanzanian judge said that the most relevant pieces of information were radio intercepts and called for countries likely to have relevant information, such as the UK and US, to appoint an “independent and high-ranking official” to comb the archives.
“Any such information regarding what occurred during the last minutes of SE-BDY, if verifiable, will be likely to either prove or disprove one or more of the existing hypotheses, bringing us more proximate to closure,” Othman writes.
“This is a step that must be taken before this matter, and the memories of those who perished on flight SE-BDY in the service of the organisation, may rest.”

2016

The wreckage of the plane after the crash in which Dag Hammarskjöld died near Ndola, Zambia, in 1961. Photograph: AP

3 December
UN to pursue further inquiry into death of Dag Hammarskjöld
General Assembly to pass resolution recognising need to investigate death of former general secretary who died in 1961 plane crash
Few who have studied the crash will be confident that anyone can ever know what really happened. But a plausible theory is starting to emerge.
A report from a panel of distinguished international jurists, commissioned by the Hammarskjöld Inquiry Trust chaired by Lord Lea of Crondall and submitted to the UN last year, heard suggestions “that a group representing a number of European political and business interests … wanted the secretary general’s plane diverted from Ndola [city in Zambia] … in order to persuade him of the case for Katanga’s continued independence”.
The group feared what would happen to their mining concessions if Katanga was reabsorbed into Soviet-backed Congo.

2 September
Letter to The Guardian
Richard J Goldstone: Hammarskjöld case is not yet closed
The 2013 report of an independent international commission of jurists, of which I was a member, concluded that, pilot error, though unproven, was the default explanation of the 1961 crash at Ndola in which Dag Hammarskjöld died. However, there was at least one other well-supported explanation, namely that the UN chartered airliner had been fired on by a jet fighter – probably a Katangan plane piloted by a Belgian or South African mercenary – as it came in over the forest to land.

28 August
Letters to The Guardian
UK’s lack of transparency over plane crash that killed Dag Hammarskjöld

25 August
Dag Hammarskjöld: Ban Ki-moon seeks to appoint investigator for fatal crash
The UN secretary-general said ‘this may be our last chance to find the truth’ behind 1961 death of his predecessor as UK insists it has no further information

2015

Dag Hammarskjölds museum i Backåkra på Österlen. Han var FN:s generalsekreterare från 1953 tills han omkom i en flygkrasch i Zambia 1961.

TMS: Dag Hammarskjold (29 Jul 1905 – 18 Sep 1961): Crisis Manager and Longer-Range World Community Builder
Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service
Hammarskjold came to the United Nations just as socio-economic development was being considered as a permanent mandate for the UN Secretariat. At the time of the creation of the United Nations in 1945, economic and social issues were considered as the functions of specialized agencies formally related to the UN through the Economic and Social Council but in effect, independent with their own governing boards, budgets and administrative procedures: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington, and UNESCO, FAO, ILO, WHO, all located in Europe. By 1949, influenced by the “Point Four” idea of US President Harry Truman, there started to grow the idea that the UN itself should become operative in providing economic, administrative, and technical assistance. A modest “Expanded Program of Technical Assistance to Underdeveloped Countries” was created in 1949, and through different incarnations has become the UN Development Program (UNDP)’s, complex and multi layered activities.
Hammarskjold was a strong supporter of economic and social programs. He appointed well-known and active economists to guide these programs. By training and temperament, he would have wanted to follow economic and social issues as he saw such programs as important building-blocs of the world community.
However, it was as a crisis manager that he filled his days. These were often long days, and he was able to work for 18 hours a day for long stretches of time. He started as Secretary-General when the war in Korea was ending, but peace had not been established. Korea was still divided into two hostile States, a large number of people had been uprooted and much of the economic infrastructure destroyed. The French war in Indochina was still going on, and many observers feared that there could be a generalized Asian conflict. In 1952, the UN General Assembly created the “Commission on the Racial Situation in South Africa” – the start of a decades-long concern. The French war in Indochina was followed by the start of the war in Algeria. In April 1955, the “Asian-Africa Conference” was held in Bandung, Indonesia, a sign that decolonization would stay on the agenda of world issues for a long time. In November 1956, the first session of a UN Special General Assembly condemned the military aggression of the UK, France and Israel against Egypt, which later led to the use of UN Peacekeeping forces.

2014

4 April
Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane may have been shot down, ambassador warned
Newly declassified 1961 cable called for grounding of Belgian mercenary hours after UN secretary general crashed in Africa
(The Guardian) Hours after a plane carrying the UN secretary general, Dag Hammarskjöld, crashed over central Africa in September 1961, the US ambassador to Congo sent a cable to Washington claiming that the aircraft could have been shot down by a Belgian mercenary pilot.
In the newly declassified document, the ambassador, Ed Gullion, does not directly implicate the Belgian or Rhodesian governments in what he calls “this operation”, but calls for US pressure on them to ground the mercenary, adding it was “obviously [a] matter of highest importance”. He said the pilot had been hampering UN operations and warned that if not stopped “he may paralyse air-rescue operations”.
The document was released after an international panel of retired judges called last year for a fresh inquiry into the Hammarskjöld crash, saying that new evidence “undoubtedly” existed. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, decided in February to put the panel’s findings on the agenda of the UN general assembly.
The Gullion cable was not seen by previous official inquiries. A commission formed by the Rhodesian colonial authorities blamed the crash on pilot error, while a later UN investigation recorded an open verdict.
A Guardian investigation in 2011 found surviving witnesses near the crash site outside Ndola, in what is now Zambia, saying they saw a second plane shooting at the DC-6 aeroplane carrying Hammarskjöld and his aides. A book published later that year, Who Killed Hammarskjöld? by Susan Williams, a University of London researcher, found further evidence of foul play.
Williams’s book pointed to the existence of US National Security Agency (NSA) radio intercepts of warplanes in the area, which are still top secret after 52 years. Hammarskjöld’s death came at the height of a conflict between the UN-backed Congolese government in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, and secessionists from the mineral-rich province of Katanga, supported by Belgian colonialists.
The US and British were angry at an abortive UN military operation that the secretary general had ordered days before his death on behalf of the Congolese government against the rebellion in Katanga, which was backed by western mining companies and mercenaries.
The Hammarskjöld commission, chaired by a former British court of appeal judge, Sir Stephen Sedley, called for the NSA intercepts to be released.
The commission highlighted several key pieces of evidence, including the testimony of two policemen of seeing sparks and a flash in the sky, and the account of a local official who said he saw a smaller aeroplane flying above and then alongside the DC-6, known as the Albertina.
In his cable, sent at 11am on 18 September, Gullion correctly identifies the Ndola area as the crash site. He also names the suspected Belgian pilot as “Vak Riesseghel”, almost certainly a mis-spelling of Jan van Risseghem, who had served in the South African and Rhodesian air forces, and commanded the small Katanga air force.
In another cable sent two days before the crash, Gullion passed on a commercial pilot’s report that the Belgian mercenary, flying a Katangese jet, “flew wing to wing” with him – a highly dangerous manoeuvre.
Gullion’s two telegrams call into question Van Risseghem’s insistence that he had not been in Katanga in September 1961. Van Risseghem was never questioned by any of the official inquiries.
“The telegram reveals that on the morning after the crash, the ambassador thought it credible that the plane had been shot down by a mercenary pilot – so credible, in fact, as to justify asking US diplomats in Brussels and Salisbury [now Harare] to put pressure on the Belgian and Rhodesian governments to ground the pilot,” said Williams, a senior researcher at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies.
In her book, Williams provides the account of an American naval pilot, Commander Charles Southall, who was working at the NSA listening station in Cyprus in 1961. Shortly after midnight on the night of the crash, Southall and other officers heard an intercept of a pilot’s commentary in the air over Ndola – 3,000 miles away.
Southall recalled the pilot saying: “I see a transport plane coming low. All the lights are on. I’m going down to make a run on it. Yes, it is the Transair DC-6. It’s the plane,” adding that his voice was “cool and professional”. Then he heard the sound of gunfire and the pilot exclaiming: “I’ve hit it. There are flames! It’s going down. It’s crashing!”
Williams said: “We need to know if the US state department holds the raw intelligence that led Gullion to think [the plane could have been shot down] and  … if there is other intelligence, notably in the form of intercepts, that is held by the NSA in relation to Hammarskjöld’s flight on the night of 17-18 September 1961.
“This newly released document reinforces the argument that the UN general assembly should ask US agencies, including the NSA, to produce the evidence they hold.”

2013

9 September
Judges call for reopening of inquiry into 1961 death of UN chief
Commission appeals to US to declassify NSA radio intercepts of warplanes in area where Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed

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