The Hammarskjöld Commission was established in July 2012 as a voluntary body of four international jurists who were invited by an international Enabling Committee to report whether, in their view, the evidence now available would justify the United Nations in reopening its inquiry into the cause of death of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, pursuant to General Assembly resolution 1759 (XVII) of 26 October 1962.
The Hammarskjöld Commission's report, which was published on 9 September 2013, recommended that the United Nations should launch a new investigation into the crash, stating that the possibility that the plane was attacked from above, or that it was forced down due to threats, should be "taken seriously, despite everything".
The Commission, which was led by four senior lawyers including Swedish diplomat Hans Corell, appealed to the United States to declassify documents from the National Security Agency (NSA) including radio communications and intercepts of war planes in the area at the time. The Commission added that it was a "near certainty" that all air traffic information around the airport was "followed and recorded by the NSA and possibly even the CIA". Access to such files has been denied by the NSA due to the "top secret" classification, something the Commission wants to be lifted to further the investigation.
A recent book by the author Susan Williams entitled "Who Killed Hammarskjöld?" also argued that the plane was brought down, and prompted the diplomat's nephew Knut Hammarskjöld to call for the new inquiry.
- 1 Four Commissioners
- 2 Background
- 3 Previous inquiries
- 4 Hammarskjöld Commission Report
- 5 References
The Hammarskjöld Commission comprised a team of four international jurists:
Sir Stephen Sedley
The Rt Hon. Sir Stephen Sedley (Chair) became a Lord Justice of Appeal in 1999, and has sat on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and as a judge ad hoc of the European Court of Human Rights. He retired from the bench in March 2011 and has since been a Visiting Professor of Law at Oxford University.
Ambassador Hans Corell
Ambassador Hans Corell was Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and the Legal Counsel of the United Nations from March 1994 to March 2004. He was Ambassador and Under-Secretary for Legal and Consular Affairs in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Sweden from 1984 to 1994. From 1962 to 1984 he served in the Ministry of Justice and in the Swedish Judiciary, where he was appointed Judge of Appeal in 1980.
Judge Richard Goldstone
Judge Richard Goldstone served as a judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa from July 1994 to October 2003. From 1991 to 1994 he served as the chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry Regarding Public Violence and Intimidation (the Goldstone Commission). He was the first Chief Prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
Justice Wilhelmina Thomassen
Justice Wilhelmina Thomassen served as a judge of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg from 1998 to 2004 and as a judge of the Supreme Court of The Netherlands in the Court’s criminal section from 2004 to 2012. Before that she practised at the Bar and has been a professor of international human rights law, a judge and vice-president of The Hague Regional Court and a justice and vice-president of The Hague Court of Appeal.
Dag Hammarskjöld was Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961. On the night of 17-18 September 1961, in the course of a UN mission to try to bring peace to the Congo, Hammarskjöld’s Swedish-owned and -crewed plane crashed near Ndola airport in the British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). All the passengers and crew died.
The open verdict reached by a UN Commission of Inquiry in 1961-62 prompted resolution 1759 (XVII) of 26 October 1962, which requests the Secretary-General to inform the General Assembly of "any new evidence which may come to his attention." In the course of the intervening years a number of books, reports and papers have been published concerning the background, circumstances and cause of the crash.
In 2011, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the crash, Dr Susan Williams’ book "Who Killed Hammarskjöld?" was published. It offered no definite answer to its own question, but it marshalled a striking quantity of evidential material which had come to light in the intervening years.
In response to Dr Williams’ book, Lord Lea of Crondall assembled an international Enabling Committee which in 2012 set up the Hammarskjöld Inquiry Trust and invited Sir Stephen Sedley, a recently retired Lord Justice of Appeal for England and Wales, to chair a commission of jurists to inquire into the disaster. Justice Wilhelmina Thomassen of the Netherlands, Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa and Ambassador Hans Corell of Sweden agreed to serve with Sir Stephen as Commissioners. All have worked without remuneration.
The first inquiry into the death of Dag Hammarskjöld was conducted by a Board of Investigation which was set up immediately after the crash by the Rhodesian Department of Civil Aviation. It concluded in its report in January 1962 that "the evidence available does not enable them to determine a specific or definite cause." It regarded pilot error as one of several probable causes. It considered the "wilful act of some person or persons unknown which might have forced the aircraft to descend or collide with the trees" to be unlikely but was unable to rule it out completely, "taking into consideration the extent of the destruction of the aircraft and the lack of survivor’s evidence." 75 to 80 per cent of the fuselage had been burnt.
The second was the Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry, which held public hearings, and reported in February 1962. The Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry drew on the work of the Board of Investigation and identified pilot error as the cause of the crash, on the basis of elimination of the other suggested causes.
The third inquiry was set up by the United Nations and reported in March 1962. This reached an open verdict and did not rule out sabotage or attack. The UN Commission noted that: "the Rhodesian inquiry, by eliminating to its satisfaction other possible causes, had reached the conclusion that the probable cause of the crash was pilot error. The [UN] Commission, while it cannot exclude this possibility, has found no indication that this was the probable cause of the crash." The UN report led to General Assembly resolution 1759 (XVII) of 26 October 1962, which requests the Secretary-General to inform the General Assembly of "any new evidence which may come to his attention."
In 1993 a small-scale inquiry was conducted by Ambassador Bengt Rösiö for the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
In September 2012, however, Bengt Rösiö reversed his position following a report in the Aftonbladet newspaper detailing previously unreleased material and eye-witness testimony which had been ignored in previous investigations.
- "I am not sure of this anymore. There is so much that is unclear," he told the newspaper.
- "There are truly murky circumstances. You wonder whether the Rhodesian accident committee deliberately wanted to hide something."
The new evidence included an image of the corpse of Dag Hammarskjöld, which has caused some to question discrepencies between the image and the accident report. For example, Hammarskjöld’s body appears to be the only one in the crash that was not charred by the flames.
- "The whole case has become truly strange lately. No one wants to know about it and no one wants to talk about it. They’re keeping tight-lipped," Rösiö told the paper.
The plane crash, which occurred on the night of September 17-18, 1961, saw Hammarskjöld’s DC-6 come down near Ndola airport in the British colony Northern Rhodesia (modern-day Zambia) as he flew in to peace talks to end fighting in the mineral-rich Katanga province in neighbouring Congo.
A pilot error was initially blamed in the United Nations inquiry, effectively endorsing an initial investigation by the colonial authorities, however new witness reports suggest that the plane may have been shot down.
Furthermore, Rösiö’s new claims add to the widespread accusations of a cover-up and the suspicion that Hammarskjöld paid the price for supporting efforts by the newly independent Congolese government to crush an uprising in Katanga being funded by Western mining companies.
In 2011, The Guardian newspaper carried out an investigation based on research by Göran Björkdahl, a Swedish aid worker based in Africa, which pointed to evidence that the Albertina was shot down. That was followed later in the same year by a book, "Who Killed Hammarskjöld?", by British academic, Susan Williams, who argued that there was substantial evidence that hardline Belgian colonialists, outraged at UN support for the Congolese government in Kinshasa, were behind the death of the veteran Swedish diplomat, which was then covered up by the British colonial authorities.
According to The Guardian, two of Dag Hammarskjöld's top aides, Conor Cruise O'Brien and George Ivan Smith, both became convinced that the Secretary-General had been shot down by mercenaries working for European industrialists in Katanga. They also believed that the British helped cover up the shooting. In 1992, the two published a letter in The Guardian spelling out their theory. Suspicion of British intentions is a recurring theme of the correspondence that Björkdahl has examined from the days before Hammarskjöld's death. Formally, the UK backed the UN mission, but, privately, the Secretary-General and his aides believed British officials were obstructing peace moves, possibly as a result of mining interests and sympathies with the white colonists on the Katanga side.
On the morning of 13 September 1961, the separatist leader Moise Tshombe signalled that he was ready for a truce, but changed his mind after a one-hour meeting with the UK consul in Katanga, Denzil Dunnett. There is no doubt that at the time of his death Hammarskjöld‚ who had already alienated the Soviets, French and Belgians, had also angered the Americans and the British with his decision to launch 'Operation Morthor' against the rebel leaders and mercenaries in Katanga.
The US Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, told one of the Secretary-General's aides that President Kennedy was "extremely upset" and was threatening to withdraw support from the UN. The UK, Rusk said, was "equally upset".
At the end of his investigation, Björkdahl is still not sure who killed Hammarskjöld, but he is fairly certain why he was killed:
- "It's clear there were a lot of circumstances pointing to possible involvement by western powers. The motive was there – the threat to the west's interests in Congo's huge mineral deposits. And this was the time of black African liberation, and you had whites who were desperate to cling on.
- "Dag Hammarskjöld was trying to stick to the UN charter and the rules of international law. I have the impression from his telegrams and his private letters that he was disgusted by the behaviour of the big powers."
Historians at the Foreign Office said they could not comment. British officials believe that, at this late date, no amount of research would conclusively prove or disprove what they see as "conspiracy theories" that have always surrounded Hammarskjöld's death.
Downloadable inquiry reports
Hammarskjöld Commission Report
The 61-page Hammarskjöld Commission Report was presented on 9 September 2013 (from 13.30pm to 15.00pm) in the Historical Reading Room of the Peace Palace at The Hague in the Netherlands. The presentation meeting was chaired by the director of the Carnegie Foundation Steven van Hoogstraten. The report was introduced by the Chairman of the Commission (Sir Stephen Sedley) and presented to the Chairman of the Hammarskjöld Inquiry Trust (Lord Lea of Crondall).
This was followed by a media Q & A session with all four members of the Commission, who were present at the meeting:
- The Rt. Hon. Sir Stephen Sedley (Chairman)
- Ambassador Hans Corell
- Justice Richard Goldstone
- Justice Wilhelmina Thomassen
The report's conclusions at paragraph 15.1 stated:
- We reiterate that the foregoing report, albeit detailed, contains no more than a selection from what is now a very large body of evidence, all of which we have considered in the course of our work.
- Much of it has become known only in recent years, and it is still capable of being added to – indeed it has been augmented during the writing of this report.
- This alone, without embarking on the limitations of the three original inquiries, answers the initial question: does significant new evidence about Dag Hammarskjöld’s death exist?
- Undoubtedly it does.
In a press release on 9 September 2013, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would closely study the findings of an international commission linked to the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the former United Nations chief killed in a 1961 plane crash.
A report released today by a Commission of Jurists reportedly suggests that new evidence has emerged showing that the plane may have been shot down en route to peace negotiations in what is now Zambia.
The Commission, comprised of high-profile international judges and diplomats, has reportedly urged the UN to reopen a probe into the September 1961 plane crash.
In a note to correspondents, Mr Ban’s spokesperson said the UN is among those most concerned in arriving at the whole truth of the circumstances leading to Mr Hammarskjöld’s death.
"The UN Secretariat will closely study the findings of the Commission’s report," the spokesperson noted, adding that Mr Ban thanked the Commission for their work and the Enabling Committee for its initiative in setting up the Commission.
Mr Hammarskjöld led the UN from 1953 until his death in 1961, when he perished with 15 others in a plane crash in what was then known as Northern Rhodesia – now Zambia – while en route to Ndola to negotiate a ceasefire.
Dual UN Inquiry
In November 2013, former diplomat Patrick Haseldine created this e-petition calling upon HM Government (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) to:
- "Support a United Nations Inquiry into the deaths of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and UN Assistant Secretary-General Bernt Carlsson"
- On 9 September 2013, the London-based Hammarskjöld Commission reported that there was "significant new evidence" about the plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and recommended that the adjourned 1962 UN Inquiry should now be reopened.
- UN Assistant Secretary-General Bernt Carlsson was the highest profile victim on Pan Am Flight 103 which was sabotaged over Lockerbie on 21 December 1988.
- Since Bernt Carlsson's death has never been investigated, the British Government should propose extending the remit of the new UN Inquiry to cover the deaths of both senior diplomats: Dag Hammarskjöld and Bernt Carlsson.
- "Hammarskjöld Commission Mandate"
- "NSA may hold key to Dag Hammarskjöld mystery"
- "Four Commissioners"
- "Diplomat reversal on Dag Hammarskjöld death"
- "Dag Hammarskjöld: evidence suggests UN chief's plane was shot down"
- "Downloadable inquiry reports"
- "Report of the Hammarskjöld Commission"
- "Presentation Hammarskjöld Commission Report"
- "The Dag Hammarskjöld Commission report" The South African Foreign Policy Initiative (SAFPI)
- "Ban to study findings of commission linked to death of former UN chief Hammarskjöld"
- "Support a United Nations Inquiry into the deaths of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and UN Assistant Secretary-General Bernt Carlsson"