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A dramatic course change: the UN reopens its investigation

Many of you will already be aware of the truly remarkable news: in late December 2014, the UN General Assembly voted ‘by consensus’—meaning that all 193 member states agreed—to reopen investigation of the air crash that took the lives of Dag Hammarskjöld and the 15 members of his party en route to a peacemaking mission at Ndola, in today’s Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia).

The path toward this milestone began in fall 2011 with the publication of Susan Williams' brilliant and thorough book, Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa (London: Hurst, 2011). Uncovering new evidence pointing in many directions but pointing repeatedly toward the likelihood not of pilot error (the prevailing theory) but of conspiracy and assassination, Dr. Williams’s book led to the formation of the Hammarskjöld Commission, an independent body of senior international jurists charged with reviewing evidence, obtaining additional testimony insofar as possible, and making recommendations, if any, for further steps. The commission’s report was released on 9 September 2013, and placed in the hands of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon a month later. His office promptly announced that it would give the report serious study. The commission found that there is ample evidence—disregarded or unknown in the past, or in the still classified files of member states—to justify reopening the UN investigation.

On 21 March 2014, the Secretary-General sent a note to the General Assembly requesting inclusion of an item on its agenda for the fall 2014 session, entitled ‘Investigation into the conditions and circumstances resulting in the tragic death of Dag Hammarskjöld and of members of the party accompanying him’. Touchingly, and also correctly from a procedural standpoint, his language directly cites the language used decades earlier in the 1962 UN investigation of the air crash, which left the door open for renewed inquiry if new evidence came to light.

General Assembly resolutions need sponsors. If the UN was to reopen the investigation, at least one member state, and preferably numerous member states, had to get behind it. By mid-December 2014, with Sweden in the lead, 19 other nations stepped forward as co-sponsors of a resolution requesting the Secretary-General to appoint an independent panel of experts to examine all evidence and report to him. He in turn was requested to convey the panel’s findings and his recommendations to the next major session of the General Assembly, presumably in fall 2015. The composition of the co-sponsors tells its own story: not only all of the Scandinavian nations joined but also every nation that has now or has had a serving Secretary-General—therefore, the Republic of Korea, Ghana, Egypt, Peru, Austria, Myanmar, and Norway, in addition to Hammarskjöld’s Sweden. Other sponsors, from Argentina at one end of the alphabet to Zambia at the other, gave their weight to the resolution. By the time the resolution was approved on December 29, thirty-six additional member states had joined in sponsoring it.
On 15 December 2014, Ambassador Per Thöresson, representing Sweden, introduced the draft resolution to the General Assembly and spoke movingly [print version of his statement available at the Swedish Mission’s website]. ‘The words and deeds in pursuit of peace of Dag Hammarskjöld,’ he said, ‘are well known in this august assembly. His influence on the role and function of the UN was profound already in his lifetime. But his tenure, marked by vision and pragmatism, also paved the way for policy and practices that have been mainstreamed and consolidated in ways that we now take for granted. . . .  The Secretary-General has . . . underlined that the unparalleled service and sacrifice of Dag Hammarskjöld and his legacy compels us to seek the whole truth of the circumstances leading to his tragic death and that of the members of the party accompanying him. . . . Such actions should be carried out with due regard to the integrity of Dag Hammarskjöld and the other individuals who were killed, their families and memory. . . . It is the sincere hope of my government that we will . . . begin our final path to closure.’ The ambassador’s reference to the families of others accompanying Hammarskjöld is no mere courtesy: the families of pilot and air crew, of distinguished UN officials, of Hammarskjöld’s security guard, and surely of all on board have suffered and questioned for decades.

On 29 December the UN budget authority voted to fund the independent panel of experts, and the resolution became effective. Through the closing weeks of the year, articles appeared in worldwide media, notably the two English-language newspapers which in recent years have demonstrated sustained interest (the Wall Street Journal and Guardian) and in the New York Times, which in Hammarskjöld’s lifetime provided some of the best reporting on his approach to international affairs.

We can expect another quiet period as 2015 begins. An excellent blog by Ishaan Tharoor in the online edition of the Washington Post speaks of ‘one of the Cold War’s greatest unsolved mysteries — and the new effort to solve it’. This will take time but the will to know, to face facts however difficult, is radically new.


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