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Globalization

NSA could bring closure on UN chief's 1961 death

An independent commission has recommended reopening the investigation into the 1961 death of UN chief Dag Hammarskjöld. The NSA holds classified documents that could address lingering suspicions of foul play.

While on a United Nations mission to try to bring peace to the newly independent Congo in September 1961, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash. Hammarskjöld is widely considered the most effective chief the UN ever had. He was also the only person awarded a Nobel Peace Prize posthumously. It's long been rumored that his plane was shot down as it was approaching Ndola, a town across the Congolese border in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. An independent commission of international jurists examined new evidence that surfaced since the plane crash and has recommended reopening the investigation into Hammarskjöld's death.

DW: Professor Melber, you were involved in establishing the commission of inquiry. Why do you think the death of Dag Hammarskjöld should be investigated again, more than 50 years later?

Henning Melber: Like any other circumstances of death where the causes are suspicious, we owe it out of compassion and empathy to those directly involved - family members and relatives - to seek the truth. So far the dominant interpretation is that it was a pilot error that brought down the plane. If there is new evidence that the plane was brought down by external influence it would help those families. Secondly, on board the plane was the secretary general of the United Nations on a peace mission. If there were powers interested in bringing down the plane even at the risk of killing those on board, we owe it to history to establish the facts.

The commission has asked to see several classified files from the US National Security Archive, because the NSA recorded radio transmissions between the tower and the plane on the night of the crash. Those files are still classified as top secret on "national security grounds." Why are the files so crucial?

Henning Melber

Melber is a former director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation

These files seem to offer the only conclusive evidence [as to] what happened just minutes, or even seconds, before the plane crashed. And there is sufficient evidence that three files that record the radio [transmissions] exactly in that moment when the plane was approaching Ndola airport. Two of them are still classified as top secret by the NSA and an appeal [has been made] against the continuing classification of these documents under the [Freedom of] Information Act. As it stands now, the NSA … refuses to provide access to these files, which is not necessarily a clever move to reduce suspicion.

You've studied all of the evidence, old and new. There seem to be a number of suspicious circumstances surrounding the crash, and conspiracy theories sprung up quickly - could an attack on the plane really have been kept quiet for more than 50 years?

It was the time of the Cold War, and everyone played their cards very close to their chests. Moreover, previous commissions of inquiry did a very sloppy job. That was all part of fuelling these suspicions over half a century, because so much evidence was neglected or excluded from the commissions of inquiry. And some files have even vanished - that's the other remarkable thing. The UK [National] Archives managed to get hold of the Rhodesian files [from the first inquiry], and surprisingly - or not surprisingly - those files, containing a precise protocol [of what happened] written three days after the plane crash, disappeared. The files were removed on the order of the [British] prime minister in 1993. If there was foul play, then you had influential actors who had a keen interest to hide it - and they obviously managed. I'm pretty convinced that there have been many so-called "accidents" in history, which were not accidents and where those involved managed to hide the truth.

The US, Britain, former colonial power Belgium, South Africa and the Soviet Union have all been fingered as having had an interest in Hammarskjöld's death. Who would have benefited from his death - whether it was caused by accident or attack?

A lot of parties could have benefitted, first and foremost, the Western interests linked to the mining in the Katanga province, starting with the Belgians but including the French, the British and the Americans. We need to recall that the uranium which was used to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from Katanga province. From the 1940s, the natural resources in Katanga province were of utmost geostrategic importance [to the West].

Hammarskjöld is welcomed in Leopoldville

Hammarskjöld was on his way from Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) to Ndola when the plane crashed

What difference would it make now if the true cause of the plane crash were uncovered?

It would bring closure to 52 years of speculation. That was the main intention behind establishing the commission. Also, we owe it to Dag Hammarskjöld himself. If he gave his life in pursuance of peace as secretary general, we should make that known. Many of the United Nation's staff who are exposed to peace-building still have strong feelings of admiration and empathy for Dag Hammarskjöld and urge [us to find out] more about the suspicious circumstances of his death and those of 15 of his colleagues.

Three previous investigations have failed to determine the cause of the crash. Do you think the UN will actually follow the advice of the commission and open a new inquiry?

I personally felt encouraged by the [recent] statement that was issued by the United Nations on behalf of Ban Ki-moon, who congratulated the commission and welcomed the initiative. However, it will be up to the member countries of the United Nations whether they submit a proposal in the General Assembly for a new initiative of further inquiry into the plane crash. It will be very interesting to see which countries are willing to pursue matters further in the weeks to come.

Professor Henning Melber is a political scientist, the former director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Uppsala. He is also a professor at the University of Pretoria. Melber was one of the people involved in establishing the commission of inquiry.

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