Crash investigations and the death of Dag Hammarskjöld

On the night of 17-18 September 1961, during a UN mediation mission in the Congo, Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). All of the 16 passengers and crew perished.

Dag Hammarskjöld sought to shape the United Nations as an organisation devoted to peace and he lost his life in this pursuit. In September 1961, during a mission to the newly-independent Congo, Hammarskjöld was on his way to meet Moïse Tshombe, leader of secessionist Katanga province, when tragedy struck.

Shortly after midnight on 18 September, the DC-6B aircraft “Albertina”, owned by the Swedish company Transair and flown by a Swedish crew, crashed on its approach to Ndola airport in Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia). All 16 people on board, including Dag Hammarskjöld, the members of his mission and the Swedish crew, perished in the crash.

There have been numerous investigations and UN resolutions surrounding the crash conditions, which are outlined below.

Read about the latest developments here

Timeline of developments

1960s – Initial inquiries

There were several inquiries into the crash in 1961-2 (i.e. by the Board of Investigation, The Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry), which ultimately identified pilot error as the likely cause of the crash. The conclusions were made based on elimination of other suggested causes. Criticism was raised over the failure of the inquiries to take the testimonies of Zambian witnesses seriously.

A UN inquiry in 1962, however, reached an open verdict and stated that it could not rule out sabotage or attack. This led the UN General Assembly to pass a resolution on 26 October 1962 (GA/RES 1759), requesting the Secretary-General “to inform the General Assembly of any new evidence which may come to his attention.”

1993 – Rösiö Inquiry

In 1993, an inquiry was made by Ambassador Bengt Rösiö for the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. In the report, Rösiö comments on the theory that circulated in British media at that time that suggested a Belgian pilot shoot down the plane. Though pointing to several uncertainties in previous reports, Rösiö rules out the British media’s account and concludes that upon approach to Ndola airport, the pilot made a judgement error regarding altitude.

The official position of the Swedish government on the matter has been based on this report. However, in an interview in 2012, Rösiö admitted that the many unclear circumstances surrounding the crash have made him question his own conclusions.

2012 – Establishment of the Hammarskjöld Inquiry Trust & the Hammarskjöld Commission

In 2011 a new book Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa, by Susan Williams was released, raising new awareness around the crash. The book presented new findings, leading to the establishment of the Hammarskjöld Inquiry Trust in 2012, chaired by Lord Lea of Crondall, a former British Lord Justice of Appeal. The trustees of the inquiry included H.E. Chief Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria, Archbishop Emeritus K.G. Hammar, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Q. C., Prof. Henning Melber, Prof. Naison Ngoma, Hans Kristian Simensen, and Dr. Susan Williams.

The Trust set up the Hammarskjöld Commission, an international group of four distinguished jurists, Sir Steven Sedley (Chair), Ambassador Hans Corell, Justice Richard Goldstone and Justice Wilhelmina Thomassen. After an examination of the available evidence and interviews in Ndola with witnesses who were still alive, the commission concluded: “There is persuasive evidence that the aircraft was subjected to some form of attack or threat as it circled to land at Ndola … (and) was in fact forced into its descent by some form of hostile action.”

It recommended that the UN conduct a further investigation and seek access to relevant records held by member states. The commission’s report was made public on 9 September 2013. On the same day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that he would closely study the findings.

2014 – Resolution calling for a new investigation

In March 2014, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked the General Assembly to pursue the matter further. In response, the Swedish government, supported by Zambia, submitted a draft resolution to the UN General Assembly in December 2014, calling for a new investigation.

On 29 December 2014, the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution (GA/RES/69/246) by the consensus of all 193 member states, authorising the Secretary-General to appoint an independent Panel of Experts to examine the evidence.

2015 – Appointment of UN Panel of Experts

On 16 March 2015, Ban Ki-moon appointed a Panel of Experts, headed by Mohamed Chande Othman, Chief Justice of Tanzania. The other panellists were Kerryn Macaulay, Australia’s Representative on the Council of the International Civil Aviation (ICAO), and Henrik Ejrup Larsen, a ballistics expert at the National Center of Forensic Services in the Danish National Police. Its report concluded that there was information to warrant further inquiry into a possible aerial attack or other interference as a cause of the crash. It also introduced new areas to investigate, such as the possibility that radio communications were intercepted.

On 2 July 2015, Ban Ki-moon circulated the report among member states, summarising the findings of the Panel and expressed the view that “a further inquiry or investigation would be necessary to finally establish the facts.” He urged member states “to disclose, declassify or otherwise allow privileged access to information that they may have in their possession”. He also proposed setting up a central archive of documentation that would enable access by the UN and other authorised parties to ensure their continued and enhanced preservation and access.

2015 – Resolution calling on member states to release relevant records

Following Ban Ki-moon’s recommendations, the Swedish Permanent Mission to the UN circulated a draft resolution – Investigation into the conditions and circumstances resulting in the tragic death of Dag Hammarskjöld and of the members of the party accompanying him – urging all member states to release any relevant records in their possession. The draft resolution was supported by 74 other states – but not by the UK or the US.

The resolution (GA/RES/70/11) was adopted on 19 November 2015, following a statement by Ambassador Olof Skoog, Permanent Representative of Sweden to the United Nations.

2016 – Resolution supporting appointment of ‘Eminent Person’

On 17 August 2016, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the 71st UN General Assembly to appoint an “eminent person or persons” to review the new information on the crash, and attached as annexes to his statement the responses by several member states to the UN’s earlier call for documentation. The Secretary-General urged member states to release relevant records for review. The eminent person would be in a position to determine the scope that any further inquiry or investigation should take.

Ban Ki-moon’s statement ended with the note: “This may be our last chance to find the truth. Seeking a complete understanding of the circumstances is our solemn duty to my illustrious and distinguished predecessor, Dag Hammarskjöld, to the other members of the party accompanying him, and to their families.”

In late December 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a Swedish resolution (GA/RES/71/26), requesting the appointment of an eminent person to review and assess any new information that might shed light on the circumstances of the plane crash.

2017 – Eminent Person appointed and report

In February 2017, UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Mohamed Chande Othman, Tanzania’s former chief justice, previously member of the UN Panel of Experts (see above) to review potential new information, on the circumstances of the crash.

The Secretary-General reaffirmed his commitment pursue the full truth of this matter in a statement on May 2, 2017. The statement coincided with a note to correspondents, which provided a short update on Mr. Othman’s progress in his role as Eminent Person.

In September 2017, UN Secretary-General António Guterres presented a letter to the President of the UN General Assembly along with the new report by the Eminent Person. The Secretary-General called upon the “General Assembly to remain seized of the matter and to endorse the report of the Eminent Person and his recommendations, with a view to ensuring comprehensive access to relevant information and to establishing the truth.”

2017 – Resolution calling on reappointment of Eminent Person

In late December 2017, the UN General Assembly adopted the Swedish resolution (A/RES/72/252), requesting the Secretary-General to reappoint the Eminent Person to continue the review of any potential new information and to determine the scope that any further inquiry or investigation should take.

2018 – Reappointment of Eminent Person

In March 2018, UN Secretary-General António Guterres reappointed Mohamed Chande Othman, Tanzania’s former chief justice, to continue his investigation into the circumstances of the crash.

The Secretary-General also urged Member States to actively assist the Eminent Person in the performance of his mandate, and called on Member States “that may hold information relevant to the Dag Hammarskjöld investigation to appoint an independent and high-ranking official to conduct a dedicated internal review of their intelligence, security and defence archives to determine whether relevant information exists”.

2019 – Report of Eminent Person

On October 7 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres released the 2019 report by the Eminent Person, Mohamed Chande Othman.

In the report the Eminent Person notes, ‘Advancements have been made in the body of relevant knowledge, most notably in the areas of the probable intercepts by Member States of relevant communications; the capacity of the armed forces of Katanga to have staged a possible attack against the Secretary-General’s plane; the presence in the area of foreign paramilitary and intelligence personnel; and other information relevant to the context and surrounding events of 1961.’ (Full report)

UN Secretary-General António Guterres notes in a letter accompanying the report that he supports the recommendation of the Eminent Person that the ‘UN appoint an independent person to continue the work undertaken pursuant to the current mandate of the Eminent Person’.

2019 – Resolution extending the Dag Hammarskjöld investigation

In late December 2019, the UN General Assembly adopted the Swedish resolution (A/RES/74/248), requesting the Secretary-General reappoint the Eminent Person to continue to review the information received and any possible new information made available by UN Member States.