UN leader's death still contentious 50 years on


UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjold, who died in unexplained circumstances, made Congo a global issue and spooked US and UK, writes ALANNA O'MALLEY

IT APPEARED as a burning wreckage in a small copse of trees near the airfield in Ndola, a town in what is now Zambia.

This was no ordinary debris, however, but the remains of the plane that had been carrying United Nations secretary general Dag Hammarskjold.

His death in the Congo would set alarm bells ringing in Washington, Moscow and London at the height of the Cold War.

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of Hammarskjold’s death. An official inquiry conducted by the United Nations concluded that the plane crashed en route to Ndola, where he was to negotiate a peace settlement between warring factions in the southeast of the country.

However, speculation abounds that the plane was in fact shot down, as Hammarskjold’s operation in the Congo had been a source of continual irritation for Britain and the United States.

While his passing has been shrouded in mystery and intrigue, it is important to mark the anniversary of one of the most interventionist and intrepid peacemakers of our time.

The crisis in the Congo, a country the size of western Europe, erupted in July 1960, less than a week after the country gained its independence from Belgium.

The lower ranks of the army, know as the Force Publique, rebelled against their Belgian officers and began rioting and attacking European targets.

In addition, the southeastern province of Katanga announced its secession, taking with it 60 per cent of Congolese revenue.

Crucially, it was the response of the Belgians in sending in their paratroopers, as though the Congo were still a colony, to this ambush of what they viewed as their stabilising influence over the burgeoning nation that induced the catastrophe and caused prime minister Patrice Lumumba to appeal to the United Nations for international assistance to protect the sovereignty of the Congo. This catapulted the Congo crisis onto the international stage.

From the outset, the secretary general adopted a hands-on approach to the crisis, evoking formally – and for the first time – article 99 of the UN Charter in response to Lumumba’s appeal on July 13th, 1960. Article 19 grants the secretary general the power to bring to the UN Security Council any issue that may threaten international peace and security.

By using it, Hammarskjold put the crisis in the Congo on the global security agenda.

In his opening statement to the security council on July 13th, 1960, he recommended that the United Nations accede to the request from the government of the Congo for military assistance in defending its independence following the dispatch of Belgian troops to quell the mutiny in the Force Publique.

This, as the Economistnoted at the time, was a task that had no precedent. Never before had the UN been asked to intervene in a sovereign country to protect its independence.

By invoking article 99, Hammarskjold marked his tenure as secretary general as being interventionist and activist.

In addition, the unanimous agreement of the members of the security council was extraordinary as it transcended the usual division between the West and the communists.

However, Hammarskjold’s interpretation of his position unsettled some. This level of activism was unprecedented and worried the United States and Britain, as the organisation they had created to serve their own aims began to slip from their control.

Hammarskjold’s interpretation of the UN Charter had the effect of upholding the status quo but through applying innovative procedures.

The growing prominence of the Afro-Asian bloc in the general assembly was a direct manifestation of a shifting world order.

For his part, Hammarskjold’s approach was to advocate the tenets of international law in all areas of multilateral action through the United Nations, in order to safeguard the sovereignty of these newly independent nations in particular.

Given the context of escalating danger to international peace posed by deteriorating stability in the heart of Africa, the notion of a moral guardian for the world held particular appeal for newly-independent nations, who soon began to look to Hammarskjold as the custodian of their independence, a counterweight to the world powers, many of which they viewed as former colonial oppressors.

The growing empathy with these ideals and the responsibility of the general assembly to execute them, led to a sense of brotherhood between the secretary general and the small nations of the general assembly.

Rather than being dictated to from an ivory tower, for the first time burgeoning countries had their voices heard on the world stage, producing an alternative to the rhetoric of the Cold War.

The effect of Hammarskjold’s stance was to bolster a change to the balance of power within the institution.

His efforts to ensure that the Congo did not become “a gaping wound in the side of every independent state on the continent” reflected his vision for the role of the UN, and his dynamic interpretation of the charter was to prove politically important in terms of the relationship between the UN and the West, and Britain and America in particular.

As the crisis evolved through 1961, tensions mounted. For Washington, the Congo was part of the wider Cold War with the Soviet Union, and keeping Russian communist influence out of Africa was a priority.

For Britain, the dissolution of her empire and her plan for decolonisation was threatened by UN policy.

In addition, her significant economic investments in Katanga were under threat from the UN operation there.

Events came to a head in September 1961 when the UN launched Operation Morthor, a military effort aimed at rounding up foreign mercenaries and arresting the leaders of breakaway Katanga.

Irish diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien was Hammarskjold’s special representative in Katanga. The operation descended into open warfare between UN troops and militia from Katanga.

Having come under considerable pressure from London and Washington, Hammarskjold flew to Africa to negotiate a peace settlement personally with the leader of the secessionist province.

Mystery surrounds exactly what happened next. New evidence suggests that his plane was shot down as it flew towards the airfield. Certainly, there is a contradiction in the official reports, the first recording one survivor and the second recording no survivors.

Suggestions that Britain and the United States may have orchestrated the death of the UN secretary-general may seem far-fetched now but suspicions remain.

The UN was the focal point for the clash of the superpowers in the Congo, and Hammarskjold’s role was centrally important in the struggle by Britain and the United States to retain control over what was transpiring.

The decades intervening since Hammarskjold’s death have not been kind to the Congo.

Had he succeeded, the last half-century might have been kinder to that country.

Alanna O’Malley is a doctoral researcher in the department of history and civilisation at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy