Dag Hammarskjöld’s Legacy Endures 60 Years on from Ndola

This month marked 60 years since Dag Hammarskjöld’s death, but he remains both remembered and relevant to the world today.

On 18 September 1961, Dag Hammarskjöld and the persons accompanying him died tragically in a plane crash in Ndola, Zambia. Although his life was abruptly cut short, his legacy and ideals live on as a source of inspiration, as evidenced by the events held in his honour this month.

Enabling the International Civil Service

In the United Nations General Assembly Hall on 9 September, an informal commemoration was hosted by the President of the General Assembly who noted that ‘Dag Hammarskjöld’s legacy does not end with the buildings named in his honour’. President Volkan Bozkir went on to explain that ‘His legacy lies in the Charter of the United Nations, in the ideals instilled within the United Nations family, in the lives saved by our ‘blue helmet’ UN peacekeepers.’

The event, supported by the Foundation and the Permanent Missions of Sweden and Tunisia, paid tribute to Hammarskjöld but also highlighted, in a panel discussion, the opportunities and challenges that must be addressed to empower international civil servants today and in the future. ‘There is no international civil service, there is no United Nations, without independence and integrity,’ stated Fatoumata Ndiaye, Under-Secretary-General for Internal Oversight Services at the UN.

Fatoumata Ndiaye, Under-Secretary-General for Internal Oversight Services at the UN speaking during the panel discussion

The following discussion underscored that to enable the international civil service at the UN there is a need to increase diversity and representation at the UN, particularly of women, youth and other underrepresented groups; protect and expand the space for engagement non-state stakeholders, especially civil society; secure adequate financing for the UN’s operations;  build trust; and enhance accountability measures and their implementation.

During the interactive segment of the panel, UN Member States elaborated on the panellists’ remarks and pointed to examples of Hammarskjöld’s leadership and vision and their continued relevance today.

Ambassador Mathu Joyini, Permanent Representative of South Africa to the United Nations, noted ‘During his tenure, the process of decolonisation in Africa was also dominating the agenda. His active involvement, leadership and personal sacrifices in favour of national self-determination and peace remains a key aspect of his legacy.

Realising Multilateralism

Hammarskjöld’s role as a skilled mediator and diplomat who advocated for decolonisation and international cooperation was also emphasised by Henrik Hammargren, Executive Director of the Foundation during a talk organised by Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs on 16 September.

During the event, Hammargren spoke to students on the need to reflect on the status of multilateralism today, on the relevance of the UN and on the legacy of Hammarskjöld’s leadership, which was dedicated to serving the UN Charter. He noted that the UN has evolved within a changing world, and it is up to UN Member States to keep strengthening the organisation’s capabilities and recommit to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. He argued that the vision and values articulated by Hammarskjöld are still relevant for this purpose.

Taking responsibility for our future

The commemorations reached Sweden on 17 September when the 2019 and 2021 Dag Hammarskjöld Lectures  were given in Uppsala University Hall. Christiana Figueres, who delivered the 2019 lecture virtually, spoke about reasons for optimism that human beings will take the actions necessary to mitigate climate change. Her lecture, titled Leadership for the Decisive Decade, reflected on Hammarskjöld’s faith in humanity’s ability to determine and follow a moral path toward a better future, as well as how his example reminds us of the human capacity for vision, solidarity and creativity in the face of crises. She noted,

‘Drawing great strength from Hammarskjöld’s spirit, we must stand tall in his humanism and unwavering faith in human ingenuity, reminding ourselves of the individual and collective agency of human beings, because carving a better future does not happen on its own.’

In the 2021 Dag Hammarskjöld lecture, A Global Compact for a World beyond COVID, Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International, spoke about how necropolitics perpetuate inequalities. She pointed to the preventable deaths resulting from vaccine nationalism as a precursor to future suffering should normative leadership and global solidarity continue to be sidelined by power and profit. Despite many differences, both lecturers emphasised that the disruption caused by today’s multiple, intersecting global crises requires a paradigm shift, one which humanity is both capable of and responsible for facilitating. ‘It is time to recommit. It is time to reset. It is time to reboot. It is time for a new and global compact; a compact for a post-pandemic world that is grounded in equality, human rights, founded on our common humanity,’ said Callamard.

Agnès Callamard delivering the Dag Hammarskjöld lecture in Uppsala. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

During the dialogue that followed the lecture, Figueres and Callamard expanded on this thinking and discussed the extent to which existing multilateral tools and institutions will be sufficient in addressing climate change, inequalities and human rights abuses, as well as who should drive complementary innovations. Finally, both lecturers expressed concern with the disconnect between the performance of democratic regimes and the ideals for which they stand, referring to stagnation in the implementation of climate agreements and inequitable state responses to COVID-19.

The annual lecture, which is co-hosted by Uppsala University and the Foundation, was preceded by a memorial ceremony at Hammarskjöld’s grave and by a roundtable discussion titled A ‘Pandemic of Human Rights Abuses’ and How to Tackle It Together’.

Back where it ended

On the day itself, 18 September, commemorations were held at the crash site in Ndola, Zambia and at Hammarskjöld’s summer home, Backåkra, in the south of Sweden. In Ndola, high level representatives from 19 countries, as well as national and local governments and several civil society organisations, gathered to pay their respects.

’Let us continue to pave the way forward in Dag Hammarskjöld’s spirit, toward a peaceful and sustainable future. Let us tirelessly prove that through international cooperation and working together as equals, we can achieve more,’ said Janine Alm Ericson, Swedish State Secretary for International Development Cooperation.

At the ceremony in Backåkra, the Archbishop of the Swedish Church, Antje Jackelén, spoke of the importance of not only remembering and honouring Hammarskjöld but also being inspired and learning from him. ‘When we look back at his life and death it is not only out of nostalgia, but to gain perspective and guidance as we find chart our course forwards,’ she explained.

The role of the civil servant in the national and international contexts

The final commemorative event was hosted on 22 September by Andreas Norlén, Speaker of the Swedish Parliament. Ambassador Elinor Hammarskjöld, speaking on behalf of the Hammarskjöld family at the seminar, noted that few have given as much thought to civil service and leadership as Hammarskjöld.

Her speech was followed by a panel discussion that explored the role of the modern Swedish civil servant and the challenges and opportunities facing Swedish bureaucrats today. Historian Gunnar Wetterberg reminded the audience that Hammarskjöld’s deft understanding of politics enabled him to innovate while maintaining his own integrity and independence, while Thomas Bull, Justice of Sweden’s Supreme Administrative Court, spoke of a need for further accountability in Swedish public administration.

Historian Gunnar Wetterberg speaks during the panel session in the Swedish Parliament

The second panel examined the role of the international civil servant and the responsibilities of UN Member States in strengthening the capacity and independence of the international civil service. Sweden’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Anna-Karin Eneström, stated that Member States need to advocate for transparency and accountability measures within the international civil service, as well as gender parity. Meanwhile, Robert Rydberg, Swedish State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, stressed that unearmarked, reliable financing to multilateral institutions is critical to defending their independence. Hammarskjöld exemplified, Rydberg went on to note, that there is no contradiction between being a global citizen and protecting and valuing one’s country.

After the event Speaker Norlén dedicated a Parliamentary meeting room to Dag Hammarskjöld, bringing to an end a series of events that stretched not only much of the globe but brought to light the power of Hammarskjöld’s legacy today.

Written by Annika Östman, Kate Sullivan also contributed to this article