PeB Journal | International Politics, Opinions, Peace Building, Sub-Saharan Africa

By Henning Melber

It was the night of 17 to 18 September, 1961. A DC6 plane named ‘Albertina’ (officially: SE-BDY) was approaching Ndola, the mining town in Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia) bordering to the Congo. On board was Dag Hammarskjöld, the then Secretary-General of the United Nations. Fifteen other people (crew and entourage) were in his company. Considered as a risky mission, the aim was to meet Moïse Tshombe, leader of the secessionist Katanga province, to find a solution to the conflict in the Congo. The spontaneous intervention, decided only shortly before by Hammarskjöld after arriving in the Congo, was followed with suspicion by various Western diplomats and intelligence agencies. They were afraid that a deal bringing Katanga back into the Congolese state might threaten the vested Western interests. After all, this was at the height of the Cold War, which  had started to leave its marks on the continent. Their worries were unnecessary: about to land, the plane crashed under hitherto unclarified circumstances. The planned meeting never took place. 

Why Katanga?

The province of Katanga had declared its break away following  the Congo’s Independence in June 1960. The mineral-rich province was of utmost geostrategic relevance and the world’s leading producer of uranium. US American nuclear armament in the 1950s was dependent upon the local Shinkolobwe mine, which had also delivered the nuclear material for the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The mine’s history has been captured by Susan Williams in the book Spies in the Congo (2016). .

Katangese resources were mainly exploited by the Belgian Union Minière du Haut-Katanga and other Western mining companies, jealously guarded and protected by Western interests. The Katangese separatists had also direct military support from Belgium and mercenaries from all over the (Western) world. Being afraid to lose control over Katanga with the Congo’s Independence, the secession was encouraged, even supported, or at least tolerated by the Western states.

Enter Hammarskjöld

As Secretary-General of the United Nations since 1953, the Swedish diplomat succeeded the Norwegian Trygve Lie as the highest international civil servant. He is widely considered as having set norms as a role model for this job and received much praise since then, notably by Brian Urquhart (1972), Manuel Fröhlich (2007) and Roger Lipsey (2013) . Others were less affirmative, accusing  him of acting as an instrument of Western imperialism. Ludo de Witte (2002) even blames him for being personally responsible for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, who was brutally tortured and executed only nine months before Hammarskjöld died.

In a recent book, I (2019) have advocated a different perspective. It follows to some extent the belief, that values and principles do matter even in asymmetric power relations. Individuals do have choices and options, although constrained by a system of global governance that is spearheaded by powerful states. They thereby can make a difference in leading positions with some influence over decision-making processes. As I try to show with reference to Hammarskjöld’s interpretation and application of the global normative frameworks, not least the UN Charter itself, he was guided by a firm belief in the codified values. Promoting decolonisation made him a Secretary-General mainly of those new member states of the United Nations, who had  no voice at the table dominated by the ‘big powers’. I maintain, also with reference to the mandates obtained and pursued with regard to the Suez Crisis and in the Congo, that in today’s jargon his diplomacy would qualify as anti-hegemonic (Larson, 2019). Towards the end of his time in office, his critics were from both the Soviet and the Western world. In contrast, many among the new member states entering the United Nations, considered him – despite some failures – as “their” Secretary-General.         

Hammarskjöld personifies by his approach, as I tried to explain in a recent conversation (see ITVNetworks, 2020)  that even in an office limited by big power interests and politics, personal ethics, a moral compass and solidarity do matter and that individuals are not predetermined by a specific socialisation. Individuals have choices: ethical leadership and conscience affects politics, as also argued by Roger Lipsey (2020).   

Death at Ndola

Dag Hammarskjöld, and with him all but one occupant of the plane, died in the wreckage of the ‘Albertina’ shortly after midnight on 18th of September 1961. The bodyguard Harold Julien succumbed to his injuries six days later in a local hospital. Evidence suggests that he could have been saved if treated properly – and if taken care of earlier: while the plane had been in contact with the tower at the airport before disappearing, with a range of diplomats, secret agents, mercenaries, officials, journalists and other people on the ground awaiting the arrival, a search mission was delayed until the next morning. The wreckage was officially discovered only in the afternoon. But several eyewitnesses testified later that the crash site was already cordoned off and access denied early in the morning. Suspicions that there might have been foul play involved were immediately nourished. Not only did investigative journalists already then point into this direction, but even former US President Harry S. Truman was quoted in the New York Times on the 20th of September 1961 as stating: “Dag Hammarskjöld was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said ‘When they killed him’” (New York Times, 1961). 

The inquiry by a United Nations Commission (United Nations General Assembly 1962) 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 Commission, while it cannot exclude this possibility, has found no indication that this was the probable cause of the crash” (1962, 66). With Resolution 1759(XVII) passed on the 26th of October 1962 the General Assembly therefore requested the Secretary-General “to inform the General Assembly of any new evidence which may come to his attention” (UN General Assembly, 1962). This in principle allowed it to remain occupied with the matter, if the Secretary-General and the General Assembly would have decided so. But aside from some conspiracy theories and other speculations, as well as a half-hearted and inconclusive additional investigation, initiated by Sweden, dismissing some of these in the mid 1990s, the case was shelved for half a century. 

New investigations

Fifty years later, Susan Williams (2011) – a historian with the Institute for Commonwealth Studies/School for Advanced Study at the University of London – presented Who Killed Hammarskjöld? –  a bombshell. The new evidence, pointing to many flaws and failures of earlier findings, triggered a new inquiry conducted by an independent, international commission of jurists, which produced a report in 2013 (Corell et al. 2013)]. As a direct consequence, a series of official investigations mandated by the United Nations have followed since then. The chronology of events is listed by the Dag Hammarskjöld Library (n.d.) at the United Nations in New York. The United Nations Association (2020) Westminster Branch in London provides continued updates on developments since 2014 on a dedicated website ]. It is striking to note, that all of this happens because of a scholarly book and a subsequent private initiative taken by a handful of individuals, who were able to convince the UN system that the open-ended resolution adopted in 1962 deserves new efforts to find out what really happened.

A panel of three experts was set up by Ban-Ki Moon to verify the findings of the independent commission. Headed by the former Chief Justice of Tanzania, Mohamed Chande Othman, it presented a report in 2015, which considered the findings as credible. Following more explorations, Othman was appointed in 2017 as Eminent Person, tasked with further investigations. His report concluded “that there is likely to be much relevant material that remains undisclosed” and “that the continued non-disclosure of potentially relevant new information in the intelligence, security and defence archives of Member States constitutes the biggest barrier to understanding the full truth on the event” (Othman 2017: 45, 56). Most importantly, based on the new evidence collected, “an aerial attack on SE-BDY would have been possible using resources existing in the area at the time” (Othman 2017, 52). As a result. and due to a resolution submitted again by the Swedish Permanent Mission (co-sponsored by another 70 states, notably including, as did the previous resolution, Belgium, France, Germany and Russia, however,  once again without the support of the United States America and the United Kingdom), the General Assembly extended Othman’s mandate. 

He presented his second report in September 2019, summarizing the current knowledge. In it, Othman (2019) bases  conclusions among others on some reports of “independent high-ranking officials”, which several Member States were requested to appoint. This move was seeking to shift the responsibility to the Member States directly involved in the events then. These appointees were supposed to investigate local archives and other intelligence sources in search of additional information not yet accessible. However, states where most could be expected (the USA, the UK and South Africa) were among those who made no efforts to comply. But more evidence was gathered by other private individuals. These included the French journalist Maurin Picard (2019), who presented new insights mainly into the Belgian mercenary networks of the time and the Katangese capacity to launch an aerial attack, while Torben Gülstorff (2018) discovered a German link to Katanga. “The new information received”, concluded Othman, “highlights the fact that there were many more foreign mercenaries in and around Katanga, including pilots, than had been considered by earlier inquiries” (2017, 5). These had the logistics and necessary conditions (suitable planes and airfields close enough for such operation) to intercept with the plane approaching. New information also confirmed original eyewitness reports that the crash site was much earlier discovered than officially reported. Not only did this most likely contribute to the death of the only survivor, whose treatment was delayed for hours. It also, as Othman (2019, 77) notes, “calls into question the acts of various Governments directly after the crash and leaves open the issue of why the earlier crash discovery time was not reported.”

Most importantly, for Othman (2019, 19) “it remains plausible that an external attack or threat was a cause of the crash”. Othman (2019, 7)  therefore recommends:

  • That an independent person is appointed to continue the work;
  • That key Member States be again urged to (re)appoint independent high-ranking officials to determine whether relevant information exists within their security, intelligence and defense archives;
  • That a conclusion be reached if Member States have complied with this process;
  • That key documents are made publicly available online.

As a follow up, the Swedish Permanent Mission to the UN again submitted a draft resolution to the General Assembly, following to a large extent the recommendations by re-appointing Justice Othman as the Eminent Person to continue the investigation. In December 2019 it was adopted with a record number of 128 co-sponsoring countries – but again and revealingly so without the support of the USA and the UK.

Current challenges

It might be indicative of the diplomatic constraints and reluctances, that the resolution did only omit the recommended commitment to take those Member States to task, who might not comply with the renewed appeal to identify and provide access to hitherto unknown or classified information. Naming and shaming is not in the nature of the diplomatic etiquette, though it would in this case be one of the very few (if not only) forms of leverage handed to the Eminent Person. 

The other major constraint which continues to hinder the investigations is the limited financial budget, which in tendency degrades the activities to mere tokenism. Reinforced by the liquidity problems the world organization is facing more than ever before, the amount allocated is about US$ 350,000 (roughly 150,000 for 2020 and 200,000 for 2021, including all costs for translating the report to be submitted into the official languages). While this limits the efforts considerably, the continued efforts authorized have nevertheless a significant symbolic meaning. As the Westminster Branch of the UK’s UN Association observes on its Hammarskjöld Inquiry site : “Noting the UN’s current funding shortfall …, observers view this decision … and a record number of cosponsoring Member States to be a clear indication to those few states which have failed to cooperate” (United Nations Association, 2020).

With all evidence gathered during the last few years, it seems not premature to categorically dismiss the pilots’ error assumption as a convenient smokescreen and potential cover up. By what is known today, it is far more likely, that the value-based policy of Dag Hammarskjöld finally came at the highest price not only for him but also the 15 others in his company. After all, he tried to find a solution for the conflict in the Congo against the interests of the West. This casts doubts on the perception that the Swede was (despite his looks) the blue-eyed boy of the Western world. Rather, as I suggested in my recent book, “he seemed to believe that taking sides with the less influential members of the world community would be in many (if not most) cases the right thing to do” (Henning, 2019). Hammarskjöld can indeed be considered as an example, that neither pigmentation nor nationality or cultural background are despite their socializing influences necessarily defining criteria for being aware what is right and what is wrong – and to act accordingly.

About the author

Henning Melber is Director emeritus of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and the former Research Director of the Nordic Africa Institute, both in Uppsala. He is Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, both in South Africa. This text has originally been published with Africa is a Country [].

Works Cited

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Dag Hammarskjöld Library. (n.d.). Where can I find information on the Independent Panel of Experts and investigations into the death of Dag Hammarskjöld? Online. Available from: [Accessed April 2020]

De Witte, L. (2002). The assassination of Lumumba. Verso.

Fröhlich, M. (2007). Political Ethics and the United Nations: Dag Hammarskjöld as Secretary-General. Routledge.

Gülstorff, T. (2018). German links to the Hammarskjöld case Making the case for another possible murder weapon. Online. Available from: [Accessed April 2020]. 

ITV Networks (2020). Finding Me; S05 EP31. Henning Melber. Online. Available from: [Accessed March 20202]. 

Larson, Z. (2019). Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations, and the Decolonisation of Africa. Online. Available from: [Accessed March 2020]. 

Lipsey, R. (2013). Hammarskjöld: a life. University of Michigan Press.

Lipsey, R. (2020). Politics and Conscience: Dag Hammarskjöld on the Art of Ethical Leadership. Shambhala Publications. 

Melber, H. (2019). Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations, and the decolonisation of Africa. Hurst & Company.

Othman, M.C. (2017). Investigation into the conditions and circumstances resulting in the tragic death of Dag Hammarskjöld and of the members of the party accompanying him. New York: United Nations, A/71/1042. 

Othman, M.C. (2019). Investigation into the conditions and circumstances resulting in the tragic death of Dag Hammarskjöld and of the members of the party accompanying him. New York: United Nations, A/73/973

Picard, M. (2019). Ils ont tué Monsieur H. Seuil. 

United Nations Association. (2020). News Updates. Online. Available from: [Accessed April 2020]. 

United Nations General Assembly. (1962). Report of the commission of investigation into the conditions and circumstances resulting in the tragic death of Mr. Dag Hammarskjold and of members of the party accompanying him. New York: A/5069. Available from:

Urquhart, B. (1972). Hammarskjold. Knopf.

Williams, S. (2011). Spies in the Congo: America’s Atomic Mission in World War II. Hurst.

Williams, S. (2014). Who Killed Hammarskjöld?: The UN, the Cold War, and White Supremacy in Africa. Hurst.