Dag Hammarskjöld was Secretary General of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961. On the night of 17-18 September 1961, in the course of a UN mission to try to bring peace to the Congo, Hammarskjöld’s Swedish-owned and -crewed plane crashed near Ndola airport in the British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). All the passengers and crew died.
The open verdict reached by a UN Commission of Inquiry in 1961-62 prompted resolution 1759 (XVII) of 26 October 1962, which requests the Secretary General to inform the General Assembly of ‘any new evidence which may come to his attention’.
A recent book, Who Killed Hammarskjöld? by Susan Williams, has assembled evidence about the crash which has emerged since 1962.
The Hammarskjöld Commission is a voluntary body of four international jurists who have been invited by an international Enabling Committee to report whether in their view the evidence now available would justify the United Nations in reopening its inquiry pursuant to the 1962 resolution of the General Assembly.
The Commission is sponsored by the Hammarskjöld Inquiry Trust, which was set up in 2012 by members of the Enabling Committee.
Previous inquiries into the death of Dag Hammarskjöld
The first inquiry into the death of Dag Hammarskjöld was conducted by a Board of Investigation which was set up immediately after the crash by the Rhodesian Department of Civil Aviation. It concluded in its report in January 1962 that ‘the evidence available does not enable them to determine a specific or definite cause.’ It regarded pilot error as one of several probable causes. It considered the ‘wilful act of some person or persons unknown which might have forced the aircraft to descend or collide with the trees’ to be unlikely but was unable to rule it out completely, ‘taking into consideration the extent of the destruction of the aircraft and the lack of survivor’s evidence.’ 75 to 80 per cent of the fuselage had been burnt.
The second was the Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry, which held public hearings, and reported in February 1962. The Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry drew on the work of the Board of Investigation and identified pilot error as the cause of the crash, on the basis of elimination of the other suggested causes.
The third inquiry was set up by the UN and reported in March 1962. This reached an open verdict and did not rule out sabotage or attack. The UN Commission noted that: ‘the Rhodesian inquiry, by eliminating to its satisfaction other possible causes, had reached the conclusion that the probable cause of the crash was pilot error. The [UN] Commission, while it cannot exclude this possibility, has found no indication that this was the probable cause of the crash.’ The UN report led to General Assembly resolution 1759 (XVII) of 26 October 1962, which requests the Secretary General to inform the General Assembly of ‘any new evidence which may come to his attention’.
In 1993 a small-scale inquiry was conducted by Ambassador Bengt Rösiö for the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Rösiö concluded that the pilot made an error of judgement regarding altitude.
Copies of the reports from the previous inquiries and General Assembly resolution 1759 (XVII) can be downloaded in the key documents section of the website.