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Dag Hammarskjold

The youngest and best UN Secretary General, 60 years after his assassination.

By Chay Bowes

Dag Hammarskjold was the second ever, and some say the greatest, Secretary General of the UN. When he died sixty years ago this year, President John F Kennedy suggested that Hammarskjold had been “the greatest statesman of our century”. At 47 years of age on his appointment, Hammarskjold was the youngest ever secretary-general of the United Nations and one of only two people to ever be awarded the Nobel prize posthumously.

Are his life, innovations and untimely death relevant in 2021?

Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjold was born in 1905 to a wealthy Swedish ‘noble’ family, the son of a future Swedish prime minister and politician Hjalmar Hammarskjold, who would serve during the first part of the first world war.

Dag Hammarskjold had a relatively privileged early life at the family home at Uppsala castle. Despite his materially comfortable surroundings, Hammarskjold experienced much personal difficulty within his conservative and emotionally rigid family. Roger Lipsey, in his work ‘Hammarskjöld: a Life’ (2016) suggests: “There were enough confusing psychological crosscurrents to generate sterile excellence and recurrent personal misery”. Essentially Lipsey posits that Hammarskjold was given ample opportunity to achieve a life of “high-level mediocrity” but despite the restrictions and emotional limitations of his upbringing he would achieve great things.

Hammarskjöld has been credited with coining the term “planned economy”. He co-drafted the legislation that opened the way to the creation of Sweden’s welfare state

Hammarskjold attended the “Katedralskolan” one of the oldest educational establishments in Sweden (Est 1236 ) and went on to take law and philosophy degrees in 1930 at the University of Uppsala. He had by then already been appointed to the post of assistant secretary of the “committee on employment” in the Swedish government. Hammarskjold excelled as a civil servant and by 1936 had been appointed to the Swedish central bank serving as secretary of its general council between 1941 and 1948. Hammarskjöld has been credited with coining the term“planned economy”. He co-drafted the legislation that opened the way to the creation of Sweden’s welfare state.

In 1947 Hammarskjold was made Sweden’s delegate to the organisation for European Economic Co-operation where he assisted in the implementation of the Marshall plan to resurrect Western Europe economically. Despite being appointed by a government of Social Democrats, Hammarskjold never actually joined any political party himself.

The United Nations

By 1951 Hammarskjold joined Sweden’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in Paris.

Hammarskjold’s conviction that smaller, less powerful nations should be protected was central to his vision for the UN as a peacekeeping entity. He quickly became Chairman of the Swedish delegation. Hammarskjold wanted the United Nations to be a dynamic tool for its members with pragmatism at its core.

The Suez Crisis, Innovation and Pragmatism

Hammarskjold exercised his own personal diplomacy to get the UN to nullify the use of force by Israel, France, and Great Britain following Nasser’s commandeering of the Canal;

At the outbreak of the Suez crisis in 1956, the United Nations had never deployed peacekeeping forces.

rticle 43 of the UN Charter provides that All Members of the United Nations, in order to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security, undertake to make available to the Security Council, on its call armed forces, assistance, and facilities, including rights of passage, necessary for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security.

Working alongside Canada’s foreign Minister Lester Pearson who had initially sown the seeds of the concept in Hammarskjold’s mind, the concept of peacekeeping as we know it today was formulated. Hammarskjold pulled together enough support and commitment from member states to establish the United Nations Emergency Force or UNEF which stood ready for deployment in weeks. The essential tenets of that initial UNEF mission remain at the core of all UN missions to this day.

The Congo, Context and Global Relevance

The decolonisation of Africa had reached a pivotal moment by mid-1961. Neither the Soviets nor the Americans supported colonialism. They nevertheless saw the relinquishing of colonial possessions by Britain, Belgium, France and Portugal as an opportunity to expand their influence in newly independent states.

Certainly the remaining minority-white governments of the region such as South Africa and Rhodesia had significant concerns about the decolonisation process. In 1960 the Belgian government officially relinquished its sovereignty in the Congo and a nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba was elected Prime Minister. In a vain attempt to appease his rivals and preserve unity, he appointed the opposition leader Joseph Kasavubu as president. However, days later the army mutinied. In the midst of this turmoil, large umbers of white Belgian settlers began to leave the Congo with Belgian forces intervening on the grounds of protecting its citizens.

In May 1960 Moise Tshombe announced that the province of Katanga, which held most of Congo’s mineral wealth, was declaring independence. Among the valuable minerals and deposits Katanga held were uranium and cobalt. A Belgian commercial entity called the “Katanga mining union” immediately began to support the breakaway government based in Elisabethville. The immediate effect of such financial support for Katanga was that it was wealthy enough to stand alone against Congo proper, with the Belgian mining interests ensuring that their assets in the region would remain under their control.

In September 1961 Hammarskjold was on a mission to facilitate an end to this evolving conflict in Katanga.

Hammarskjold firmly believed that the post-colonial growth and liberty of the newly independent Congo should not be influenced or restricted by its old colonial ruler, Belgium. The defence and preservation of the infant independent Congo became a personal priority. He along with 15 others died in a plane crash on 18 September 1961 in what is now Zambia. He was on his way to negotiate a  cease-fire between UN forces and Katangese troops under Moise Tshombe.

In her definitive work, which served to stimulate renewed UN investigation into Hammarskjold’s death, British academic Susan Williams, (‘Who killed Hammarskjold?’, Oxford University Press 2014) contends that his death was linked to the foreign security services of the United States, Great Britain and white supremacist influences on the African continent.

In February 2017 the United Nations re-opened investigations into the death of Hammarskjold.

Former Tanzanian chief justice Mohamed Chande Othman’s report in 2019 concluded that Hammarskjold’s plane may have been attacked and that the United States, Russia and Britain are withholding evidence that may be conclusive in confirming this.

None of the countries criticised in the report have commented on the report.

Hammarskjold’s conviction that smaller, less powerful nations should be protected was central to his vision for the UN as a peacekeeping entity

More than 30 years after the death of Hammarskjold, George Smith and Conor Cruise O Brien, both former senior United Nations officials in the Congo, contacted the Guardian newspaper suggesting that they had direct evidence that an accidental interaction with a rebel fighter had caused the plane to crash. O’ Brien suggested that a “warning burst” from a Fouga Magister jet had accidentally hit the plane”. In 1998 the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Desmond Tutu published numerous documents that implicated the British, American and South African intelligence services in an attempted sabotage of the plane though the British government maintained that the documents were Soviet forgeries. In late 2005 Bjorn Egge, the former head of the United Nations military “intelligence” group in the Congo, recalled that he had seen an execution-style bullet hole in the forehead of Dag Hammarskjold when he identified his body in the mortuary.

Later forensic and official photographs did not record this injury. In more recent years the Swedish journalist and filmmaker Goran Bjorkdahl has collaborated with Susan Williams, concluding that Hammarskjold’s plane was indeed shot down.

All witnesses reported seeing: bright lights in the sky and hearing loud noises before the crash; seeing another “smaller” aircraft fly alongside or “over” Hammarskjold’s plane; and Hammarskjold’s DC9 circling “several times” before the crash. Bjorkdahl also interviewed six previously unknown witnesses who clearly state they saw uniformed men at the crash site soon after the event, even though the official record suggests that the crash site was not identified until later that afternoon. Bjorkdahl suggests that these witnesses were murdered too but there was, at the very least, serious intimidation.

Susan Williams’ book challenges the credibility of the Rhodesian authorities that carried out the initial investigation. Williams points out that pictures that were taken of Dag Hammarskjold post-mortem conceal an area of his face, in particular, his right eye – the area of Hammarskjold’s face where United Nations official Bjorn Egge had allegedly seen a bullet hole. The photographs have been professionally assessed as being “touched up”.

Williams also suggests that evidence relating to the only man to live through the incident (only to die several days later), Harold Julien, had said there had been an explosion before the plane crashed. Rhodesian investigators had initially discounted his evidence on the basis that he was heavily sedated; however, Williams discovered medical records that state clearly that he was entirely lucid.

Lipsey suggests that the death of Hammarskjold ended any hopes for lasting peace in the Congo and notes that the Congo is still unstable and violent.

On September 20th 1961, merely days after Hammarskjold’s death US President Harry Truman told a New York Times reporter that: “He was right on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said ‘when they killed him’”. Truman never clarified his comments.

His death was linked to the
foreign security services of the
United States, Great Britain and
white supremacist influences
on the African continent

Dag Hammarskjold’s conviction that small countries should be allowed the freedom to express their sovereignty freely would have had particular resonance in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Baltic and Balkan states have struggled to find their feet in the vacuum between Russian and NATO influence but, had Hammarskjold survived and succeeded in the Congo, the United Nations might have evolved into a more formidable, nonpartisan defender of these small states.

Hammarskjold was a supremely ethical visionary and a Renaissance Man. Deeply religious and driven by an overwhelming personal duty, his legacy is one of pragmatism in the circumstances. He noted that “The UN wasn’t created to take man into paradise, but rather to save mankind from hell”.

After his death, the publication in 1963 of his diary,  Markings,  revealed his “negotiations with myself – and with God”. The entries themselves are spiritual truths given artistic form. Markings contains many references to death, including this one from the opening entries, written when he was a young man and cited when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize:

“Tomorrow we shall meet,
Death and I –
And he shall thrust his sword
Into one who is wide awake”

He died in his prime leaving a legacy forged in duty of pragmatic anti-colonialism, international solidarity and in particular a solid, interventionist and respected UN.

As Ireland advances its so-far rather understated strategy on the Security Council, it could do worse than adopt the Hammarskjold template.