The world’s best kept secret – who killed Hammarskjöld?

Published 24th October 2019

“It is of utmost importance to the victims’ families, as a matter of record, history, justice, and closure that the full truth be revealed and discovered.” —Mohamed Chande Othman

On Monday the 7th of October the UN published its report, compiled by former Chief Justice of Tanzania, Mohamed Chande Othman, on the investigation into the mysterious circumstances resulting in tragic death of Dag Hammarskjöld. Though it is very comprehensive, its findings still leave a lot of questions unanswered particularly due to a lack of full cooperation from South Africa, the USA, Britain and Russia.

Dag Hammarskjöld was the second Secretary General of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961. He is the only statesman to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously and it is widely believed that his stance as proponent of the decolonisation, may have led to his death.

Tragically on 17/18 September 1961, he was killed when his plane crashed near Ndola Airport in what was then known as Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).   14 other people , his crew and staff, also died in the crash and one American Security Officer by the name of Harold Julien succumbed to his injuries six days later. He reportedly told his doctors that there was a large explosion on the aircraft followed by a series of smaller ones before it crashed. 

There were two Rhodesian inquiries into  Hammarskjöld’s death in 1961 and 1962, and then a UN Commission of Investigation “determined that it was not able to find support for or exclude any of the various hypotheses that had been advanced to explain the crash.”

Later the Commission of Jurists on the Inquiry into the Death of Dag Hammarskjöld (the Hammarskjöld Commission), was formed. It comprised of four jurists who wrote a report in 2013 that prompted the UNGA to establish an Independent Panel of Experts in 2015 “to examine and assess the probative value of new information relating to the tragic incident.”

The Independent Panel of Experts, chaired by Chande Othman, was able to rule out a few theories about the crash but it too recommended that more investigations be conducted. Chande Othman was then appointed as “Eminent Person” in 2017 and continued to review new information producing a 2017 report. His mandate was extended in 2018 resulting in this 2019 report. 

So what really happened? Theories range from: an attack by another plane,to sabotage via a bomb that was onboard, to engine malfunction right up to pilot error. But the real answer to that question seems to start with why Hammarskjöld was on his way to Ndola in the first place. 

Hammarskjöld, who has been referred to by the New York Times as one of the most “successful leaders of the UN” was on his way to talks in Ndola aimed to resolve a secessionist conflict that had broken out  in what was formerly known as the Republic of Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). 

Congo had just gained its independence from Belgium on 30 June 1960. In the meantime, ideas of self-governance were blossoming in the mineral rich region of Katanga.  Led by Moise Tshombe‘, the leader of the Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT) allegedly backed by a few Belgian “military advisers” and Belgian mining company Union Minière du Haut Katanga, the region of Katanga fought for its separation from the rest of newly liberated Congo.

Hammarskjöld believed that African countries should be independent and allowed to run their own affairs without the intervention of colonial powers. This resulted in Hammarskjöld’s mission being perceived as a threat to the “powerful mining interests in Belgium, South Africa as well as permanent members of the Security Council, including the United States and Britain” according to the New York Times.  

The intriguing and provocative title of Susan Williams 2011 book, Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, The Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa speaks to broader context and the complexities of surrounding the work of the UN, the effects of the Cold War in Africa and the struggle for independence from white minority rule.  

The information the South African government may have could be particularly interesting as a paramilitary organisation known as the  “South African Institute for Maritime Research” (SAIMR) is believed to have claimed responsibility for the assassination in what they called “Operation Celeste,” as deciphered from a memoir believed to belong to the so called “Commodore” of SAIMR, Keith Maxwell. Maxwell died in 2006 but according to his handwritten memoir, it was an act of sabotage involving a bomb that had been placed in Hammarskjöld’s plane. The handwritten memoir was brought to the attention of Chande Othman by the team behind the recently released documentary, Cold Case Hammarskjöld.

In his report Othman Chande mentions that SAIMR may indeed have existed in the 1980s and 1990s but due to inadequate cooperation from South Africa, “it is not possible to confirm whether SAIMR existed in 1961 or whether it may have been involved in so-called “Operation Celeste”, the objective of which was said to be to “remove” Hammarskjöld.”

Typed documents bearing the SAIMR logo relating to the alleged bomb on the plane came to the public’s attention in 1998 during the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The 2019 report recalls that the 2017 report states, “the probative value of the documentation could not be finally assessed, as access to the documentation or other assistance with searches was not provided by South Africa.” 

Othman Chande writes in the 2019 report that, 

“It has not been possible to conclude whether sabotage may have been a cause of the crash, owing in part to difficulties in obtaining access to relevant documentation in South Africa.” 

Cold Case Hammarskjöld, adds a great deal of suspicion to South African apartheid government involvement, information that the current South African government seems reluctant to share.   

What is South Africa hiding?

In July this year, South Africa was accussed by the UN International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals Prosecutor, of not cooperating with the arrest of a fugitive wanted in connection with the Rwandan Genocide who is believed to be in South Africa. 

That same month the Minister of Justice announced his intention to reintroduce the International Crimes Bill which would clear the way for withdrawal from the Rome Statute and provide immunity for sitting heads of state for core international crimes. The current government clearly has a lot of questions to answer on many fronts.  

The same can be said for the US and the UK, according to the report, they “received intercepts of communications of the United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC) throughout 1961, including those that had been encoded relating to sensitive military matters.” 

The 2019 report also questions the Rhodesian 1961/62 inquiries because, “it appears established that British and Northern Rhodesian officials attempted to influence the findings of those inquiries to conclude that the crash was the result of pilot error, rather than any type of external interference.” The same authorities also tried to suppress Harold Julien’s testimony about the explosions.  One cannot help but wonder what they have to hide and what their true involvement was.

As for the Russians, Chande Othman wrote that, “Regarding the Russian Federation, I was grateful to be advised that it had performed searches within intelligence, security and defence archives; however, an Independent Appointee was not appointed and the details of the searches for information were not particularized. Although there is no precise information before me that identifies specific awareness by the former USSR of the events in question, as an important actor in the region at the time, for completeness and uniformity, it would be of great utility to engage with the Russian Federation in a full and thorough review, in accordance with the requested framework.”

He goes on to state that “from the totality of the information at hand, it appears plausible that an external attack or threat may have been a cause of the crash…” The cloud of mystery that surrounds his death has endured for almost 58 years and until there is full cooperation from states, it may prevail. As noted in the 95-page, 2019 report, “Although substantive cooperation was broadly received, it was withheld by certain key Member States… Without ensuring that all information relevant to reaching a conclusion regarding the ultimate cause or causes of the crash has been reviewed, no such conclusion may firmly be reached.”

*This article first appeared on Opinio Juris on 23 October 2019.

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