‘Who Killed Hammarskjöld?’ and the UN in Zambia

Who Killed HammarskjoldWhile serving as United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative to Zambia from 1998-2005, Margaret O’Callaghan spoke at a memorial service upon the anniversary of UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold’s death. In an article originally published by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and reprinted on the Hurst Blog, O’Callaghan writes about how she might have felt at the memorial had she read Who Killed Hammarskjöld?: The UN, the Cold War, and White Supremacy in Africa, by Susan Williams, at that time.

In Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, Susan Williams re-examines the plane crash that took Hammarskjold’s life as he traveled to the Congo, a hot spot during the Cold War. O’Callaghan writes:

Williams is not just raking over old ashes but shining a bright light into the dark recesses of government archives and other sources, and revealing new information which clearly indicates that the crash was no accident. She produces evidence which shows that a number of governments, themselves member organisations of the fledgling UN, along with powerful business interests, played crucial roles in the event. This is perhaps why the book is causing such a stir – despite the half century which has passed.

In reconsidering how the information unearthed in Who Killed Hammarskjöld? might have affected her remarks at the memorial and her views of Hammarskjold’s dedication to the principles of the United Nations, O’Callaghan explains:

What I would now add? I would have reminded perhaps, that support for the [secretary-general’s] highly principled approach in the Congo came from Resolution 161 which was passed because of the newly acquired power of the many nations which had recently achieved self-determination. Countries like India and Egypt, and many smaller ones, were now empowered, making for a significant change in global balance of power.

I would have also reminded that with any such radical change to a power base there is bound to be some backlash, including fear and resistance – and of the need to plan for the prevention or reduction of such responses. Certainly this was the experience of the Congo as international interests, both government and business, fought viciously to keep control over the valuable Katanga resources, to prevent communism from taking over and to maintain a perceived ‘white’ bulwark in Rhodesia and southern Congo against ‘black’ Africa.

I might have reflected on the point that in 1961 the UN family was still developing its capacity to live up to the principles of the Charter and challenged those present to consider how well it was doing fifty years on and what role they were playing in achieving this – and whether the lessons of the Congo experience had been learnt. After-all, Hammarskjöld died for these principles. Thank you Dr Williams for bringing this important story back onto the agenda – it certainly provides strong justification for a new inquiry.

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