Report to UN may shed new light on Hammarskjöld crash

7:35 min

New evidence could help solve one of the enduring mysteries of the twentieth century: whether the plane crash that killed the Swedish UN secretary-general was an accident or an act of murder.

It was in 2013 that legal experts called on the United Nations to re-open an inquiry into the 1961 plane crash that killed Dag Hammarskjöld. The Swedish diplomat was on a peace mission to newly independent Congo when he and 15 other passengers perished.

Addressing the UN, the legal experts argued that they had sufficient evidence to merit a further investigation into the incident, and this week marked the deadline for that investigation. The findings have now been delivered to the UN, and some hope that will put an end to 50 years of speculation and conspiracy theories.

Over the past five decades, there have been several inquiries, speculations and rumours about that fatal September night in 1961, when the plane carrying Hammarskjöld crashed over the African bush near Ndola in Northern Rhodesia, today's Zambia, killing him and 15 others.

Among those who have followed the case is Henning Melber, the former executive director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation.  He told Radio Sweden that the book Who Killed Hammarskjöld, by British researcher Susan Williams, marked a breaking point.

“She did not answer the question, but she presented, over more than 200 pages, disturbing and at times conflicting evidence, which remained inconclusive, but suggested that past commissions did not really carefully examine what might have happened,” said Melber.

Susan Williams' book described Hammarskjöld's death as "one of the outstanding mysteries of the twentieth century". Some believe his plane was shot down - a theory aired in Williams' book. And that helped prompt the formation of a new commission to review the evidence and - hopefully - to dig up fresh findings. The Hammarkjöld Commission was made up of four esteemed legal experts, including veteran Swedish diplomat Hans Corell.

Speaking to Radio Sweden soon after the commission was formed, Corell explained why he and his colleagues decided to take on the task of finding out the truth behind the Swedish diplomat's death:

“For the simple reason that we were asked to look into it,” said Corell, “and I must admit that, from the outset, I was rather hesitant. Was it really worthwhile working on this again? But the more I and the other lawyers worked on reading documents from the former investigations - in particular witness statements – the more involved I got in this. The trust that set us up had their interests, but we were completely independent.”

Henning Melber was part of that trust and says that, although more than five decades have passed since the plane crash, it is still important to try and find out what really happened.

“Coming as close as possible to establishing what might have been the truth is important in every event. If people die, one should ask the questions: why did they die and for what reasons and under what circumstances?” said Melber, adding that it becomes increasingly difficult to establish the truth as access to witnesses diminishes.

“But,” Melber insisted, “I don't think this is a general objection not to ask those questions and to find it out. After all, this was the secretary-general of the United Nations.”

Some witnesses are still around and the independent expert panel that delivered its findings to the UN in June did so after traveling to Zambia where they spoke to locals. Mohamed Chande Othman, the Chief Justice of Tanzania, led that inquiry, which was set up as a consequence of the work carried out by Corell and his three commission colleagues. Chande was assisted by an Australian air accident expert and a Danish ballistics expert. 

They were granted three months and a budget of USD 500,000 dollars to follow up on the Hammarksjöld Commission’s report

“They visited archives, they interviewed people, they went to Ndola and interviewed still alive local witnesses whose testimonies back then was dismissed because they were classified as illiterate, African charcoal burners who would not offer any reliable evidence,” said Melber.

The three experts handed over their findings to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on June 12th, almost three weeks before their deadline. Ban Ki-moon has said he will study the findings before releasing the report, along with his own assessment and suggestions for how to move forward.

One key issue, of course, is whether the plane was shot down. Corell and his colleagues had pointed out that there were no available recordings of the radio communication between the plane and the control tower in Ndola - and they said the logbooks were incomplete. They claimed that information stored by the US National Security Agency - the NSA - could provide clues as to why Hammarskjöld's plane crashed.

The investigators believed the NSA may have stored cockpit recordings and they wanted the UN to request access to that information, contained in three documents. Documents that the NSA says are top secret. It seems the agency has continued to refuse to release the information, as Henning Melber explained:

“When the secretary-general supported such an inquiry, he also made an appeal to all the countries - mainly the western countries - to open their archives and provide access to hitherto classified documents... Of special interest is the recorded air traffic, which is seemingly in the archives of the NSA. Now, according to the press statement of the office of the secretary-general, the experts were able to access national and private archives in Belgium, Sweden and the United Kingdom, but it doesn't list the United States of America.”

So, what should the next step be? Well, that depends on the experts' findings, said Melber, adding that he is “pretty convinced that the current Swedish government, which took the decisive initiative in the United Nations for this resolution to be adopted, will wait keenly and eagerly to see what the experts did come up with.”