International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Summer 2013 Issue



Hammarskjold Commission Presents Report on Secretary-General’s Death to the United Nations

Richard J. GoldstoneBy: Richard J. Goldstone, Hammarskjold Commission Member, Former Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, First Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, and Regular Columnist, International Judicial Monitor

Dag Hammarskjold is said by many to have been the best Secretary-General in the history of the United Nations. He died on 18 September 1961 when the plane in which he was flying crashed some nine miles from Ndola Airport in what was then Northern Rhodesia and is now Zambia. In Ndola Hammarskjold was set to meet with Moise Tshombe, the leader of the then breakaway province of Katanga. A war was under way between United Nations Forces who had been authorized to end the unilateral independence of Katanga and ensure its reincorporation into the Congo that had then recently been granted independence.

During 1961 and 1962 there were three inquiries into the cause of the crash. Two days after the crash, the Rhodesian Federal Department of Civil Aviation set up an air accident investigation as required by the international civil aviation authorities. Its conclusion was that “the aircraft’s approach to the airport had been normal and correct, except that it was about 1,700 feet lower than it should have been.” It concluded that the evidence did not allow for a ‘specific’ or ‘definitive’ cause for the crash. The second inquiry was launched by the Government of the Rhodesian Federation. It ascribed the crash to pilot error. The third inquiry was set up by the United Nations itself. Like the first inquiry it was unable to ascribe a cause for the crash but could not exclude sabotage or attack.

On 26 October 1962, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution in which it instructed the Secretary-General to bring to its attention any evidence that might come to light justifying the reopening of the inquiry.

In 1961 there were  a number of interests that would have been served by the death of the Secretary-General. In particular there were white supremacists who, for good reason, feared that the independence of the Congo would be the beginning of the end of colonialism in southern Africa. There were also the financial interests of major mining companies who benefited from the mineral riches of Katanga. Some European powers and the United States feared that independence for the Congo would provide an entry point for the Soviet Union to gain a foothold in Southern Africa.

Interest in the death of Dag Hammarskjold was rekindled in 2011, when Dr. Susan Williams, of London University, published a book entitled Who Killed Hammarskjold? Her wide and careful researches brought to light evidence that tended to support the conclusion that the crash was no accident but rather the result of foul play.  However, much of that evidence was contradictory and some was suspect and unreliable. Dr. Williams was unable to ascribe any one cause as more probable than another. Her book, however, moved private individuals from a number of countries to establish an independent, unofficial commission of inquiry to provide an opinion on whether there was new evidence that would justify the United Nations reopening its 1962 inquiry.


The Commission of Inquiry was chaired by Sir Stephen Sedley, a recently retired member of the Court of Appeal for the United Kingdom and Wales. Its members were Ambassador Hans Corell of Sweden, a former legal counsel to the United Nations, Justice Wilhemina Thomassen, a former member of the Supreme Court of The Netherlands and the writer. The members of the Commission acted pro bono publico.

Our report was presented on 9 September 2013, at the Peace Palace in The Hague. The major finding was that “there is persuasive evidence that the aircraft was subjected to some form of attack or threat as it circled to land at Ndola, which was by then widely known to be its destination.” In the report we went on to say that: “The aerial attack claim . . .whether it is considered to have caused the descent of the plane by direct damage or by harassment, or to have triggered some form of disabling harm to the plane, is in our judgment capable of proof or disproof. Both from the specific evidence of a physical US presence at Ndola airport with radio monitoring equipment, and from the broader evidence of the US National Security Agency’s worldwide monitoring activities in and about 1961, it is highly likely that the entirety of the local and regional Ndola radio traffic on the night of 17-18 September 1961 was tracked and recorded by the NSA, and possibly also by the CIA. . . . Thus any archived recording covering the last minutes of the Albertina, whether or not it corroborates a particular account or allegation, is likely to assist in explaining why the aircraft crashed. If, by contrast, an otherwise comprehensive log or archive contains no such recording and can be established never to have contained it, it will go a long way to answer the claim that the plane was attacked or threatened from the air.”

The Commission came to the conclusion that the United Nations would be justified in reopening its inquiry for the initial purpose of using its authority to seek intercept records that might be held in the United States or elsewhere. Whether a more extensive inquiry would be justified would depend on what the initial inquiry might bring to light.

Some have questioned the relevance of continuing to seek the truth concerning the death of Dag Hammarskjold more than five decades after the event. There are several responses. The first is that the truth is preferable to ignorance and especially in a case such as this where important world history is in question. Secondly, the inquiry is of importance to the family of the late Secretary-General. Any doubt on this score was removed by a moving statement at the presentation of the report by a member of the Hammarskjold family who stressed the importance and meaningfulness of the report to her family. Thirdly, there are the families of the crew of the ill-fated flight who were found by the Rhodesian inquiry to have been culpable. If that conclusion was unjustified they are entitled to be exculpated.

Within days of issuing its report, the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon issued a statement to the effect that the finding of the report would be taken seriously and carefully analyzed. The ball is now in the court of the United Nations.


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© 2013 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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