In December last year Donald Trump took to twitter to lambast the United Nations calling it “a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time”. 

Susan Williams

Hurst & Company, €17.65

He is, of course, entitled to his own opinion but the work done by the UN across the globe suggests that it has far more serious intentions involving international peace, the eradication of extreme poverty and the challenge of climate change being among its current concerns.

Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa is a timely reminder that suspicions regarding the UN have a long and deadly history.

The author, Susan Williams, originally published this book in 2011 and her findings resulted in a fresh inquiry into the events described and this is covered in a new chapter at the end of this updated edition.

Dag Hammarskjold was the second secretary-general of the UN having been appointed in 1953 when the organisation was eight years old.

He was highly regarded for his integrity and his firm belief that, as the Cold War worsened, the neutrality of the UN was essential to its role in the modern world.

The British prime minister, Harold Macmillan was as Williams notes, deeply suspicious of this stance and Hammarskjold’s Swedish nationality was held against him as Macmillan wrote of their “long history of skilful abstention from the great causes which had torn the world apart”.

The poet WH Auden, on the other hand, knew the secretary-general and “loved the man from the moment I saw him”, recognising a loneliness in his self-discipline and determination to do the right thing.

Hammarskjold’s death in an aeroplane crash in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, is a story of international intrigue which even now 56 years later is shrouded in mystery and controversy.

Williams’s work in attempting to track down the truth is immensely impressive.

She uncovers a wide range of secret documents and witness testimonies all of which point to a massive cover-up.

She notes that many of the local witnesses to the crash were dismissed as unreliable or had not given statements “because they distrusted the white-ruled government of the Federation”.

One witness, MK Kazembe, admitted to a UN inquiry he had not previously come forward because he “was afraid I would be killed the same way”.

The shocking episode described by Williams is entirely symptomatic of the early 1960s and in particular the problems associated with the decolonisation of large parts of Africa.

As the colonisers drew back, various parties fought to fill the ensuing power vacuum and wars raged in the struggles not only for political control but also for the mineral resources.

The Congo at this time had only achieved independence from Belgium the previous year but by January of 1961 the first prime minister of the new state, Patrice Lumumba, had been assassinated and the country was spiralling towards civil war.

Conor Cruise O’Brien, the head of the Irish delegation to the UN, was sent to Katanga, the southern province of the Congo which had seceded in the very early days of independence.

Irish involvement was furthered in September 1961 when ‘A’ Company the 35th Battalion of the Irish Army ONUC was trapped in Katanga during what was to become known as the Siege of Jadotville.

It was during this time that Hammarskjold flew from Leopoldville to Ndola with the intention of negotiating a ceasefire.

Williams writes with clarity and knowledge, demonstrating a depth of understanding of this crucial period in the history of the UN.

The death of the secretary-general was a truly appalling moment but the fact that the perpetrators are still unknown makes it even more disturbing.

The initial inquiry claimed the crash was due to pilot error but Williams largely debunks this and explores several other convincing possibilities.

It is telling that both the US and UK governments remain less than helpful with the UK national archives, for example, still refusing to release files nearly 60 years after the event.

It is sad that the probable murder of Dag Hammarskjold is still unsolved and disappointing that the UN for whom he worked so passionately is still viewed with suspicion and disdain in certain quarters.

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