UK and US accused of obstructing inquiry into 1961 death of UN chief

<span>Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash on the way to negotiate a ceasefire in the Congo in 1961.</span><span>Photograph: AFP/Getty Images</span>
Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash on the way to negotiate a ceasefire in the Congo in 1961.Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The US and UK have been accused by university researchers of obstructing a United Nations inquiry into the 1961 plane crash that killed the UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld.

A conference in London heard an update from the UN assistant secretary general for legal affairs, Stephen Mathias, on progress in the inquiry, which is seeking archive documentation from member states.

The participants said the US and UK had been dragging their feet in handing over potentially vital information.

Hammarskjöld, a Swede, died on 18 September 1961 on the way to negotiate a ceasefire between UN peacekeepers in the Congo and separatists from the breakaway Congolese region of Katanga.

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His Douglas DC-6 airliner crashed near Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), killing Hammarskjöld and the 15 other passengers. The first inquiry carried out by Rhodesian authorities returned a verdict of pilot error, but the finding was controversial.

People on the ground said they saw another plane and flashes in the sky. Belgian mercenary pilots were reported to be in the area at the time as well as French and British intelligence officers. US intelligence officers were monitoring communications from Cyprus and reported hearing communications consistent with the UN plane coming under fire.

The case was reopened by the UN in 2017 under Mohamed Chande Othman, a Tanzanian judge, who called for the appointment of independent officials to oversee the combing of archives in countries that might have relevant information.

“While Belgium, Sweden and Zimbabwe demonstrated serious efforts, the US and UK responses were wholly inadequate and showed contempt for the UN inquiry,” said the organisers of Thursday’s conference, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and the Westminster United Nations Association.

Susan Williams, a researcher whose 2011 book Who Killed Hammarskjöld contributed to the reopening of the UN inquiry, said the US and UK were “global outliers”.

“The most recent general assembly resolution to renew the investigation was co-sponsored by 142 UN member states out of 193 – but not by the US and the UK,” Williams said.

Both the US and UK insisted they were providing full cooperation to the Othman inquiry.

A US state department spokesperson said: “The United States always considers Judge Othman’s inquiries with the utmost seriousness and has previously provided him with declassified documents.”

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “The UK has fully cooperated with the Dag Hammarskjöld inquiry and will continue to do so. We have provided all the relevant information we hold.”

Paul Boateng, the former UK high commissioner to South Africa, said: “The work must continue because it is part of a wider struggle to support democracy, the international rule of law, and the UN, all under increasing threat.

“There must be no stone unturned to get at the truth. The suspected murder of a UN secretary general is a crime too grave to be obliterated by time.”