The Death of Dag
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in the Sunday Island on September 3, 2011
We saw and felt the bare fangs of commercial interests cornered on a patch of gold.
The UN seems to have a lot of enemies in Sri Lanka. I find this sad because I have felt a sort of affinity for the organisation because we share the same birthday, although the UN is a year older than I. Also, Ireland has, over the years, lent its troops to many UN peace-keeping operations.
In the early sixties, I was staying at the Grand Union Hotel in Cobh, County Cork. The hotel was run and owned by the Allen family. Captain Allen of the Irish Army was home on leave from service with the UN force in the Congo. He gave us a slide show presentation about the Congo. He did not go into the atrocities that occurred during that time of the assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and the secession of Katanga province under Moise Tshombe.
The Grand Union Hotel long ago succumbed to recession and subsidence. It was located in Casement Square. The square was named after Sir Roger Casement who exposed Belgian atrocities in the Congo and was executed for his part in the Irish rebellion of 1916. (See: https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2011/08/31/sir-roger-casement/)
In the pages of the Island itself some criticism of the UN has centred on the incumbent Secretary General. K Godage on August 21 declared “Moon has prostituted himself and brought this great office, graced by the likes of Trygve Lee, Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant, Peres De Cuellar, Kurt Waldheim, Butros Ghali and Kofi Annan into disgrace and disgraced his country in the process”.
Ghali’s reputation became entangled in Yugoslavian horrors and larger controversies over the effectiveness of the UN and the role of the US; Waldheim concealed his complicity in Nazi war crimes at Banja Luka in Yugoslavia. Hammarskjöld had a good reputation. In these pages, Jayantha Dhanapala, a past potential Secretary General wrote: “By common consent no one has enlarged the scope and stature of the job as much as Dag Hammarskjold (1953-61) did. Was his exemplary character pre-judged?”
Only last week The Guardian claimed that “new evidence” had come to light that Hammarskjold’s plane had been shot down over Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and that British colonial authorities had arranged a cover-up of the assassination. Residents of Ndola said Hammarskjöld’s DC6 was shot down by a smaller aircraft and the crash site was sealed off by Northern Rhodesian security forces.
Unpublished telegrams show US and British anger at an abortive UN military operation that the secretary general ordered on behalf of the Congolese government against a rebellion in mineral-rich Katanga . Katanga’s secession, which had followed the Congo’s independence from Belgium in June 1960, was engineered by Belgium-based mining interests keen to continue mineral extraction in the province. Tshombe was, as Conor Cruise O’Brien said, their “black stooge”. Belgian settlers, white mercenaries and former Belgian Army officers provided military support. Hammarskjöld suspected British diplomats secretly supported the Katanga rebellion and had obstructed a bid to arrange a truce.
Hammarskjöld upset the major powers on the UN security council with his support for decolonisation, but his re-election was virtually guaranteed by support from developing nations. Days before his death, Hammarskjöld authorised a UN offensive on Katanga – codenamed Operation Morthor – despite reservations of the UN legal adviser (British) , and the fury of the US and Britain.
In 1992, George Ivan Smith and Conor Cruise O’Brien, who in 1961 were UN representatives in Katanga, wrote to The Guardian: “Vividly we were made aware of the brutal work of mercenaries, hired guns employed by European industrialists to prevent the UN from resolving a crisis at the heart of Africa …We saw and felt the bare fangs of commercial interests cornered on a patch of gold”. George Ivan Smith was himself beaten in a failed attempt to kidnap him. O’Brien was convinced that the industrialists sent two planes to intercept Hammarskjöld before he met Tshombe. O’Brien does not believe they meant to kill. Ivan Smith claimed to have evidence that the industrialist gave their agents permission to fire across the bows.
Matthew Hughes has examined Smith’s papers, including accounts of meetings with former mercenaries in the Congo, in the Bodleian and written about it in the London Review of Books (August 2001):
“According to Smith…‘The fear was that Tshombe, left free to negotiate with the United Nations, would understand the principles on which it was operating, i.e. non-interference in the domestic affairs of the Congo, but under obligation to encourage actions to integrate the country by the Congolese at the behest of the Security Council . . . The decision was taken by the control group at Kolwezi (the European industrialists) to attempt to reach Hammarskjöld before he could get to talk with Tshombe at Ndola.’ If Tshombe came to terms with the UN, he goes on, ‘it would put in jeopardy the position of Europeans not only in the Congo, but also in the Rhodesias and in all parts of Africa . . . where white minorities still held immense power.’ The objective thus was to kidnap Hammarskjöld.”
Harry Truman is reported to have said that “Dag Hammarskjöld was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said, ‘when they killed him’.”
Desmond Tutu wrote that the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission “discovered, during the course of other investigations, documents purporting to be from an institution called the SA Institute of Maritime Research discussing the sabotage of the aircraft in which the UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, died on the night of September 17/18, 1961.” One TRC letter said that a bomb in the aircraft’s wheel bay was set to detonate when the wheels came down for a landing.
A counter-view is that Hammarskjöld travelled from Léopoldville to Ndola in the middle of the night in order to prevent a full-scale war caused by the UN in the Congo, defying the Security Council and instigating a botched military coup in Katanga. Hammarskjöld was on his way to Ndola to apologize personally to Moise Tshombe at the insistence of the British government. Pilot error involved flying to Ndolo instead Ndola and misjudging the altitude. In this view, it was more convenient for the UN to have Hammarskjöld portrayed as a saint and instigate rumors about an assassination than to have the world know that he was to apologize for a military coup where 155 civilians, UN “peace-keepers” and Belgian soldiers were killed.
A book by Susan Williams is soon to be published, Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa. Williams recounts that: “British High Commissioner Lord Alport was waiting at the airport when the aircraft crashed nearby. He bizarrely insisted to the airport management that Hammarskjöld had flown elsewhere – even though his aircraft was reported overhead. This postponed a search for so long that the wreckage of the plane was not found for fifteen hours. White mercenaries were at the airport that night too, including the South African pilot Jerry Puren, whose bombing of Congolese villages led, in his own words, to ‘flaming huts …destruction and death’. These soldiers of fortune were backed by Sir Roy Welensky, Prime Minister of the Rhodesian Federation, who was ready to stop at nothing to maintain white rule and thought the United Nations was synonymous with the Nazis.”