Human Rights: why we need both the Universal Declaration and the European Convention

The degree and wide-ranging scope of human creativity shown in the immediate post-war years can be too easily overlooked. Industrial capacity could now turn towards satisfying the demands of development, not destruction. Along with this, the single-minded intensity of war tribunals in Nuremburg and Tokyo led to new protocols for the exercise of international justice. And new mechanisms were devised to promote peace, encourage development and guarantee human security, essential to underpin and define the new world order.

These new mechanisms included the identification of those human rights relevant and accessible to all. At that time, there came into being two historic instruments defining human rights, the UN’s Universal Declaration (UDHR) and the Council of Europe’s Convention (ECHR). Both are landmark examples of joint effort, wrought in the face of cultural and ideological challenge. Both should be considered firmly established, immovable statements so why are both under attack as seldom before?

Each had a course to follow. The UN Human Rights Commission, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, was tasked to ‘draft an International Declaration, a draft covenant, and provisions for their implementation’. The Commission identified thirty Rights, roughly identified in three bundles:  fundamental; civil and political; and economic, cultural and social.

Differences of opinion, ideological and cultural, continually challenged the Commission but on 10 December 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the UDHR although the Soviet bloc, Saudi Arabia and South Africa abstained. Had the vote been deferred until the following year, as powerfully advocated by the Soviet delegate, many feel no agreement would have been reached as by then, the Soviet Union had detonated its first atomic bomb and Mao Tse Tung had entered the Chinese capital, all changing the global geopolitical landscape. The Declaration’s two supporting covenants, on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, both legally binding instruments, came into force in 1976. And to guarantee a more pro-active advocacy, the appointment of the first UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was confirmed in 1994. The current High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, declining to seek a second term, has prompted the search for her successor, due to take over in September 2022.

The UDHR, the most translated document in history, is also the world’s most widely recognised statement of intergovernmental intent, after the Preamble to the UN Charter. One might ask how well today’s 193 UN Member States would manage in seeking to agree on a similarly powerful statement? Now approaching its 75th anniversary, we cannot fail to recognise the UDHR’s importance, showing what can be achieved when nations work together for common good. It still strongly binds us together through its two covenants and the exercise of the role of the High Commissioner.  

Working at the same time as the UN Human Rights Commission, politicians, academics and civil society set about drafting a Convention for Europe with their mission driven by the influence of Stalinism in central and eastern Europe. The newly formed Council of Europe endorsed the Convention in 1953 and to ensure member nations complied with it, a Court of Human Rights located in Strasbourg came into being in 1959.

Today, the Council of Europe numbers forty-six member states, of whom only two have left it. Greece pulled out in 1969, to avoid expulsion, after a military coup but re-joined five years later. Earlier this year, Russia pulled out following its invasion of Ukraine, which would have seen it expelled anyway.

It is surely beyond comprehension that the UK might consider joining Russia in leaving the Council of Europe, as would necessarily follow if it disregarded the authority of the ECHR. However, the UK government’s proposals to drive through the UK-Rwanda Asylum Partnership Agreement (APA) have led some of its ideologues to argue that the ECHR can be ditched without loss.

This thinking is remarkably narrow-minded. After all, the UK has no record of being serially challenged by the ECHR. In 2021, the ECHR dealt with 215 applications from the UK, 205 of which were declared inadmissible. Only one violated the European Convention. This record should be put into the perspective of the Court’s enormous workload. In 2021, there were 72,000 pending applications including those targeting Russia (25%), Turkey (23%) and Ukraine (15%), collectively totalling two thirds of all applications even though only a tiny proportion of these reach legal process.

The APA is the latest in a line of cooperative asylum arrangements that seek to shift asylum responsibility from destination states in the Global North (pace Australia, Denmark) to countries in the developing world. However, opponents to the APA claim it will fail the test of Article 3 of the ECHR which states:

‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’

There are no exceptions or limitations on this right which, apart from torture, covers cases of severe police violence and poor conditions in detention. So, does the APA pass the test of Article 3 by ensuring that those transported to Rwanda will not be subjected to “inhuman and degrading” treatment? The Home Office argues that the APA is compliant, but it is less clear on whether it is also compliant with Article 26 of the Refugee Convention. This refers to those people who “cross the border illegally” and which makes it clear that people who cross a border to seek asylum are never illegal, even if they use smugglers.

Further uncertainty on the UK’s position relates to the APA’s provision for an independent Monitoring Committee which will have wide access to both individuals and facilities. However, its powers are not clear. For instance, it cannot demand the return of individuals to the UK or suspend transfers to Rwanda where breaches of international law are uncovered. Further, it has no mechanism to report its findings. It was this failure that led to the ECHR reaching its interim judgement in June this year in favour of the appellant due to be flown to Rwanda. (See Asylum seekers’ appeal to the European Court of Human Rights: clearing the fog of disinformation, Perspectives June 18). Even if the Judicial Review due in September considers this to be legally acceptable, surely it cannot be deemed as morally so. The UK cannot disclaim responsibility for those sent to Rwanda if the UK courts later decide against it.  

In summary, we need the ECHR as much as we need the UDHR. The UK should be proud of the leading role it played in the creation of both, and it should be the fiercest of those defending them.

David Wardrop July 2022

Sleep-walking into ‘Cold War Mark 2′

Cameron Duodu

This article was written on 15 April 2022 but we failed to publish it on our blog. Now three months has passed and the UN-brokered deal on the export of foodstuffs from Ukraine has been announced, we will invite Cameron Duodu to comment on how opinions in Africa have been influenced.

The escalation of the Ukrainian war that will be the inevitable consequence of the sinking of the Russian warship Moskva sends shivers down my spine.

Of course, Russia has not admitted that the ship was sunk by Ukrainian missiles. But one doesn’t need to be a military analyst to conclude that with the increased provision of arms to Ukraine by NATO, it’s more than likely that the warship was, indeed, the victim of a deadly Ukrainian pre-emptive strike.

Russia will no doubt seek to retaliate in a spectacular manner. For although the Russian people are denied a truthful account of how the Ukrainians have been courageously fighting back, many Russians will be intelligent enough to conclude that a warship that is supposed to be the “flagship” of a major Russian naval formation, does not just “sink” because of “a fire accident on board” (as the Russian military authorities have characterised the mishap.)

Simultaneously, the Ukrainians will be pressurising NATO – especially the US – to “give us the weapons and we shall do the job!” (as the UK war leader, Winston Churchill, put it to President Roosevelt during the darkest days of the Second World War, when Britain was suffering from a devastating blitzkrieg that was similar to the ceaseless pounding that Ukraine is currently receiving at the hands of Russian tanks and artillery.

The clear danger is that “hawks” in both the Russian and Ukrainian war machines will – whether with disapproval from the higher leadership or not – stage military offensives that will take the conflict to a more dangerous level.

The most obvious path for any “hawks” anxious to give the enemy “a bloody nose”, will be to shoot down a plane – preferably one carrying civilian passengers. The fallout from such an air attack would, inevitably, be an air confrontation between Russia and NATO.

Each side knows that such a confrontation will create a situation that would be just “one minute to midnight”, “midnight” being the deployment, initially, of “tactical” nuclear weapons, which could easily trigger an all-out nuclear holocaust.

The question the world should be asking the two sides is this: what gain would such a deadly outbreak of wart bring to either side? Already, enough devastation has been caused in Ukraine as must convince Ukrainian President Zelensky that he might have badly miscalculated the cost of loudly proclaiming Ukraine’s intention to join NATO.

Of what use will Ukraine be to himself and his followers if it wins NATO membership for a country half of whose dwelling places and factories have been burnt to ashes? Indeed, of what use would a Ukraine with a “moon-like” terrain be to NATO? Yes, bravery and tenacity of purpose are worthy virtues in a nation’s leadership. But so is political cunning that does not go to the extreme length of pitting national survival itself against the achievement of a desired political goal, however worthy such a goal might be.

Russia too would be wise to pull back from the brink. The course of the war against Ukraine, so far, has demonstrated that the Russian military machine might have ignored its “clay feet” in certain areas of operation, when it moved, head-first into Ukraine. Trying to regain national pride by committing atrocities (whilst seeking to punish Ukraine for showing up Russian military weaknesses) may well be a case of using good money to chase after bad.

Certainly, by any calculation, Russian gains from a victory over Ukraine cannot make up for the economic sanctions – ever being ramped up – that the Western nations are imposing on Russia. The disquiet over relations with Russia that non-NATO Western nations are currently displaying, should tell Russia that there could be an oversize political price to pay in Europe, for the Ukrainian misadventure.

The fact that both Russia and Ukraine are victims of military and political weaknesses they did not anticipate before the outbreak of war between them, gives hope that if world leaders who seriously treasure the peace which the world has enjoyed since the end of “Cold War Mark One” were to step forward and jointly put unbearable pressure on the two sides, the war might end with a negotiated settlement that saves the faces of both countries.

At the moment, though, it is difficult to identify world leaders who could summon the moral authority to knock heads together in a bid to end this meaningless war. But with the United Nations General Assembly divided and the Security Council crippled – as ever – by the veto system, it is difficult to see who could step forward and fulfil a role which, if cleverly executed, could bring new hope to the world – especially to the young citizens of the world, to whom the sight of so much destruction caused by armed warfare, must bring great depression.

The Ghanaian journalist Cameron Duodu has followed African and international affairs since the late 1950s. He is a regular contributor to the UK and Ghanaian media, and his writings are widely syndicated.

Responding to the BBC programme ‘The Whistle-blowers: Inside the UN’

The BBC programme The Whistle-blowers: Inside the UN’ will have shocked UNA members. It reported on scandalous cases of wrongdoing, corruption and especially sexual harassment of junior UN staff by their line managers or superiors. Several UN agencies were cited including the Human Rights Council, UN Development Programme, the World Food Programme and UNAIDS. Professor Purna Sen of the London Metropolitan University’s Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit anchored the programme. Ms Sen worked at UN Women (2015-2020) and in November 2021 was appointed as Special Advisor to the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court.

It is widely agreed that the United Nations has an ‘Impunity Problem’ but this has not come about by oversight or malice, rather by design. The Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations (1946) and another similar relating to the specialised agencies (1947), both agreed in London, set out to develop further the protocols first established by the League of Nations. The United Nations needed to be able to work in all Member States without hindrance and Article 104 of the Charter states that it ‘shall enjoy in the territory of each of its Members such legal capacity as may be necessary for the exercise of its functions and the fulfilment of its purposes.”

The Convention’s core provision with regard to immunity from jurisdiction states “The UN and assets wherever located and by whomsoever held, shall enjoy immunity from every form of legal process except when it has expressly waived its immunity.” However, staff disputes within the UN would be settled by its Administrative Tribunal. This structure was reformed in 2008 at the time that many of the incidents reported in the BBC TV programme took place. Clearly, senior staff members have hidden behind a wide interpretation of the Convention and the reforms have not been effective.  

A useful case study of such organisational failures can be read in THE UNITED NATIONS’ IMPUNITY PROBLEM, published by Code Blue. This examined a pattern of sexual abuse committed by WHO personnel against women and girls in the DRC during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak.WHO set up a so-called “Independent Commission” to “investigate” the allegations but this was far from independent, reporting to WHO leadership with WHO staff determining what evidence the commissioners could access. The case study examined alternative routes to justice for a victim, concluding that her ability to access any legal remedy is contingent upon the UN choosing to clarify the immunity of its personnel and choosing to allow its employees to be held criminally accountable. Its closing observation is sobering, “If the Organization continues to misuse immunity to shield its personnel from all systems of criminal justice, those working under the UN flag will continue to commit rape and other sex crimes with impunity.” The BBC programme has clearly shown that the UN continues to fail in addressing issues which seventy-five years ago might have remained hidden but now, in the era of MeToo, can no longer be ignored.

Since this programme was broadcast, the BBC has interviewed UN spokesperson Stephen Dujarric. The programme can be watched here.

UNA members must be in the forefront in challenging this outdated institutional mindset. Public support for the UN is vital and we must press for change.

Asylum seekers’ appeal to the European Court of Human Rights: clearing the fog of disinformation

“Opaque….scandalous….politically motivated” are the UK Home Secretary’s choice observations on the recent judgements of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The ‘Rwanda removals’ incident has certainly lit up media interest, leading to predictable, partisan opinion but little explanation. The appeal to the European Court of Human Rights by those due to be flown to Rwanda sought an ‘interim measure’, not a lasting judgement. The government’s case for its planned action is well-documented elsewhere so this summary sets out to clarify what happened in Strasbourg, no more.

In agreeing to grant the interim measure, the ECHR noted that the asylum partnership arrangement between the governments of the UK and Rwanda provided for asylum seekers to have their claims considered after relocation to Rwanda but also that a UK Court would be ruling on the issue in July.

The ECHR ruled that the removal of the initial applicant should not take place until three weeks after the final decision of the UK court. However, on the same day as its ruling, five others also due to be flown to Rwanda, lodged applications with the Court, requesting similar interim measures to halt their own removal. In two of these, the Court decided to stay the applicants’ removal until 20 June so their requests could be considered in greater detail. Two others had their appeals rejected and the final request was withdrawn as the UK Home Office had by then ‘capitulated’.

The Court is empowered by the Convention to rule in such cases without prejudging the subsequent decision on the case by a UK court. Such requests to the ECHR are rare but apply when the applicants would otherwise face a real risk of irreversible harm. That irreversible harm was clear in this case because, if the UK Courts decide in July that the Home Office’s case falls, to whom should those already deported apply for return to the UK? The Home Office’s failure to respond satisfactorily led the ECHR to reach the only possible decision, whatever partisan media uproar this provoked.

A brief guide to the European Court of Human Rights

The Court was a creation of the Council of Europe, following the adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1953. Only a few years before, the machinery of the United Nations had failed to agree a Convention, that is a binding instrument that signatory states cannot cherry pick. Instead, the UN’s Members States had to settle for the non-binding Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), although this is widely agreed as the most important international statement after the UN Charter itself. Rene Cassin of France and other European human rights activists who had worked on the UDHR knew that a Convention for Europe was both within their grasp and sorely needed as its member states were emerging from such a wounding war. The Court was set up in Strasbourg in 1959.

Today, the Council or Europe numbers forty-six member states. Only two member states have left it.  Greece pulled out in 1969, to avoid expulsion, after a military coup but re-joined five years later. Earlier this year, Russia pulled out following its invasion of Ukraine, which would have seen it expelled anyway. Few can imagine the UK following these.

The workload of the ECHR is enormous. In 2021, there were 72,000 pending applications including those targeting Russia (25%), Turkey (23%) and Ukraine (15%), collectively totalling two thirds of all applications. Only a tiny proportion of these reach legal process but each can create a storm in the accused Member State. In 2021, the Court dealt with 215 applications from the UK, 205 of which were declared inadmissible. Only one violated the European Convention on Human Rights but this failed to generate indignant outrage.

David Wardrop, Chair Westminster UNA

Celebrating Indigenous Languages – Defending Endangered Languages

In April 2022, Westminster UNA, the Foundation for Endangered Languages and the Institute of Ismaili Studies hosted a conference to mark the start of the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IDIL, 2022-2031). This is a short version of the opening address given by David Wardrop, Chair of Westminster UNA.

IDIL (2022-2031) aims to draw global attention on the critical situation of many indigenous languages and to mobilize all of us for their preservation, revitalization and promotion.

This is the 46th UN International Decade but it joins seven other UN decades currently seeking attention. Why a Decade rather than a Day or Year? Firstly, changes take much longer than first imagined. Secondly, each of the UN’s 193 member states have their own priorities. Days and Years can be dodged but Decades cannot. Time will come when a reluctant state sees peers taking the Decade seriously, participating in international initiatives. Peer pressure works.

So, what is behind IDIL? The clue is in the title of this article. All states show pride in their indigenous languages but too many of these are also endangered, their native speakers are disadvantaged by their governments. However, ‘endangered’ is a word that UN circles are loathe to use because it implies that a member state is endangering that language. While not every indigenous language is endangered, every endangered language is indigenous. The link is there. 

Many of these languages are spoken by minorities. But what rights are provided to minorities? We rejoice in the ubiquity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the most translated document in history but on the day it was finally agreed in Paris, 10 December 1948, the clock passed midnight and scheduled discussion on the fate of Minorities was deferred. That ‘fate’ remained unfinished business until December 1992 when the UN agreed to the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities. Yes, only a Declaration, not a Convention, but then so was the UDHR.

For indigenous languages, how do we measure progress? Why not by using the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG, 2015-2030)? Take the case of Nigeria, which somewhat failed in achieving its Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) mainly through communication barriers as many Nigerians cannot speak English, relying on indigenous languages. To achieve its SDGs, its strategy must be people-centred, recognising it is a multilingual nation. Unfortunately, there appears no language plan in its government’s transition strategy. In India, NGOs are translating the SDGs into its many languages.

But are the SDGs referencing indigenous languages? Alas, there are only four references to indigenous peoples, describing them as populations of special interest because they are ‘vulnerable’. Is that good enough? No, but we can flag this shortfall early on in the decade but still need allies.

Cristiana Palmer, Secretariat chief of the Convention on Biological Diversity, highlighted that although they constitute a relatively small part of the world’s population, indigenous people represent “the largest portion of linguistic and cultural diversity on Earth and their traditional lands and waters overwhelmingly contain the greatest remaining reserves of biodiversity”.

Linking biological and cultural diversity, she pointed to the grave threat to the resilience of human communities and ecosystems. She also pointed to the centrality of traditional and indigenous languages in strengthening the links between biological and cultural diversity for attaining the global 2050 vision of humanity living in harmony with nature”.

Recognition of the links between biological and cultural diversity brings to IDIL a potentially powerful partner, one with little Human Rights ‘ideological baggage’ but a great deal of human goodwill.

In conclusion, we have a decade in which to be creative, to be bold, adventurous, to work with allies, to preserve what might otherwise be lost for ever. Let’s ensure we utilise the Decade to the full. 

I watch fleeing mothers and children, remembering I was once one of them

written by Perri Mahmood, Westminster UNA member

Migration has been happening from the beginning of humankind and will continue. The numbers will rise because of global pandemics, climate change, wars and other conflicts.

We all have the right to look for better lives: whether we have entrepreneurial minds and are looking for places in which to build our prosperity and bring our dreams to reality; or if we want to find freedom from fear and to live in dignity. The latter might occur when we are living in regions of war and conflict or under dictatorships and other suppressive societies’; it might also occur when there is no rule of law, democracy, or human rights.

We live in an unequal world: economically, financially, politically and in opportunities such as education.

To decide to leave your home – especially when this might be permanent and you will have no homeland to go back to – can be very difficult: leaving everything you know and with which you are familiar, to go to an unknown land, culture and life.

When there is a war and conflicts, regions become destabilised. For example, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria war has destabilised entire countries around them. Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon and Jordan have large numbers of refugees – for some, more than one million. This is huge compared to the totals who come to the UK, which is also much richer than those countries.

But unfortunately, Priti Patel’s landmark Nationality and Borders Bill will criminalise entering the UK to claim asylum through unofficial routes. When someone is desperately fleeing persecution or war and crossing half the world on foot or through dangerous waters in unsafe boats in the hope of a better life, should this be a crime? This goes against British values.

In addition, when migrants arrive in the UK and are allowed to enter society to build new lives and interact with their adopted home, there should be a law in place to protect them from any abuse against them and their children, such as in school and in opportunities to work. It should be part of the education curriculum to teach the new generation about good citizenship and kindness to migrants.

Migrants should be perceived as bringing wealth and prosperity to their new country, not as criminals. Migrants are courageous individuals who have risked their lives to change them for the better. The next generation after the initial unwanted generation of migrants is the future generation of this society. So it is so important to invest in their well-being.

Sixty years on: the unanswered questions about the death of Dag Hammarskjöld 

Susan Williams 

Sixty years ago today, the world was shocked to learn of the sudden death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second UN Secretary General. In the middle of the night of 17-18th September 1961, a plane carrying Hammarskjöld and his fellow passengers and crew had plunged into thick forest near Ndola in the British colonial territory of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). The UN team had been on a mission to seek to bring peace to the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), which had become independent from Belgian rule in 1960. Officially there was one survivor of the crash, but he died a few days later. All 16 passengers and crew – from Sweden, Ireland, the USA, Haiti and Canada – perished. 

Questions were asked as strange details of the crash swiftly emerged. Hammarskjöld had “fallen victim”, lamented Cyrille Adoula, the Prime Minister of the Congo, “to the shameless intrigues of the great financial Powers of the West” and had been murdered. “How ignoble is this assassination, not the first of its kind perpetrated by the moneyed powers,” he said bitterly. “Mr Hammarskjöld was the victim of certain financial circles for whom a human life is not equal to a gram of copper or uranium.” 

Three inquiries into the cause of the crash were conducted in 1961-62:  two by the Rhodesian government and one by the UN. All were conducted under the conditions of British colonialism and white minority rule, which were little different from apartheid in South Africa.The Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry identified pilot error as the cause, but without any actual evidence. This explanation of pilot error became widely accepted but has been strongly challenged in recent years by the emergence of fresh evidence and new analysis. 

The racism underpinning the inquiries of 1961-62 was noted by Timothy Jiranda Kankasa, who became a government minister after Zambia’s independence. In 1961, he was the board secretary of Twapia Township, which was adjacent to the crash site. It was “incredible,” objected Kankasa, “that all the black witnesses were supposed to be unreliable. And the white witnesses, those who gave evidence, if they gave evidence in favour of the fact that there was nothing fishy, that it was pure accident, were reliable.” Also rejected were the recollections of the single survivor of the crash, who spoke of “sparks in the sky” and said that the plane “blew up”. 

Timothy Kankasa testified that he saw a small aircraft closing in from behind and flying almost above Hammarskjöld’s plane, and that it was “beaming lights on the bigger plane.” Kankasa’s evidence was roundly rejected by the Rhodesian government attorney. “What you have told us about the two planes,” he told Kankasa, “is completely unacceptable … you made a mistake.” But Kankasa was a reliable witness: he had served in the Allied armed forces during the Second World War as a signalman and had seen aircraft flying in formation at night. 

Some charcoal burners from Twapia who were working in the forest on the night of the crash gave testimony that was similar to that of Kankasa. At about midnight, said Davidson Simango, he saw two aeroplanes flying closer together than was usual. The noise faded but after a few minutes it grew louder again, when he saw one aeroplane coming back—after which there was a flash, and the plane went down. Then there was a very loud explosion, followed by smaller ones. 

Dickson Buleni, another witness, was afraid to give evidence at first but was persuaded to do so by a Swedish trade union official working near Ndola. Buleni explained that he was sitting outside his home in the charcoal burners’ compound that night with his wife, when they were surprised to see a large plane with a small plane flying above it. He saw and heard a “fire” coming from the small plane to the roof of the big plane and then he heard the sound of an explosion. Then the big plane fell down and crashed. After circling once, he said, the small plane flew off in the direction of Kitwe to the west. There were a number of groups in the compound, added Buleni, and nearly everyone was shouting that a plane had come down. People were frightened and many ran into the bush. 

The charcoal burners D. Moyo, L. Daka and P. Banda gave witness statements in which they reported hearing an explosion in the middle of the night. Daka said “he then saw a lot of fire . . . he also saw something coming down and breaking the trees”. At dawn, they discovered the crash, as did many others – belying the official statement that the crash site was not discovered until 3.10 pm. Their testimonies were dismissed as unreliable by the Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry and they were accused of stealing a cipher machine from the crash site, on highly questionable evidence. They were imprisoned for eighteen months with hard labour. 

Other witnesses, too, described strange happenings in the sky that night. But these witnesses were not confined to Zambia. In Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, 3,000 miles away, the events in Ndola’s airspace were brought to the attention of Charles M. Southall, a young US naval pilot working for the American National Security Agency (NSA), the cryptologic intelligence agency of the US government. 

Southall was stationed at the NSA listening station near Nicosia and was unexpectedly called into work on the night of 17-18th September 1961. He heard the recording of a pilot’s commentary as he shot down Hammarskjöld’s plane: “I see a transport plane coming in low, I’m going to go down and look at it”, and then he said ‘”Yes, it’s the transport”. Southall added, “Now whether he said ‘Yes it’s the Trans Air’, ‘DC6’, or it’s just, ‘Yes, it’s the plane’, I don’t remember, but he said ‘I’m going to make a run on it’.” 

Southall continued, “It’s quite chilling. You can hear the gun cannon firing and he said ‘Flames coming out of it, I’ve hit it! Great’, or ‘Good’ or something like that, ‘it’s crashed’. And that was the end of the recording. I remember the watch supervisors commenting that this recording was only 7 minutes old at the time.” 

Not only from Cyprus but from Ethiopia, too, nearly 2,000 miles north of Northern Rhodesia, some of the airwaves used in Ndola could be heard. In the middle of the night of 17–18th September, a few miles outside Addis Ababa, a Swedish flying instructor heard a conversation over short-wave radio between flight controllers, one of whom was at Ndola airport and expressed surprise that, as far as he could tell, one plane was being unexpectedly followed by another. 

In 2015 the UN Secretary General appointed the former Chief Justice of Tanzania, Mohamed Chande Othman, to lead a renewed UN investigation into the tragic deaths of Hammarskjöld and his fellow passengers and crew, who gave their lives in the cause of peace. The judge took seriously the testimony of the Zambian witnesses and other evidence that had been rejected by the inquiries of 1961-62, as well as a vast range of new information that had emerged over the years. “It appears plausible,” observed the judge in his report of 2017, “that an external attack or threat may have been a cause of the crash, whether by way of a direct attack … or by causing a momentary distraction of the pilots.” 

Judge Othman has sought assistance from UN member states to supply the documents he needs relating to this tragic episode. His most recent report in 2019 exposes the wholly inadequate and evasive responses by the UK, the US and South Africa and their failures to cooperate fully with the UN. The US sent the UN one single document; the UK sent nothing at all. The UK and the US stated that their previous searches had already been comprehensive and were complete; but, as the report shows, that is clearly not the case, particularly in relation to their security and intelligence agencies. 

 In the case of the UK, such obfuscation is not new. Ever since 1961, the UK government’s conduct in relation to the crash of Hammarskjöld’s plane has aroused suspicion. And it is noteworthy that whereas the UK did not cooperate properly in preparation for the judge’s report of 2019, two former British colonies – Zambia and Zimbabwe – sought energetically to assist the UN in the search for relevant documentation. 

Judge Othman’s search for the truth is ongoing and he will produce a final report in 2022. His efforts are followed and deeply appreciated across the world and in Zambia itself. Hammarskjöld was from Sweden. But when he died on Zambian soil, explains the Rt Rev Dr Trevor Musonda Mwamba, a Zambian politician who is the former Bishop of Botswana, “his soul became a part of Zambia and Zambia a part of him. As Zambians we are therefore desirous to know the truth of why Dag Hammarskjöld was killed.” With Dag Hammarskjöld’s death, maintains the Bishop, “the world lost one of its greatest servants – a brilliant mind, a brave and compassionate spirit, a peacemaker, a mystic. He pointed us to strive diligently for a world in which people solve their problems by peaceful means and not by force.” 


Dr Susan Williams is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is the author of Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa (Hurst,2011). The crash of Hammarskjold’s plane also features in her new book White Malice: The CIA and the Neocolonisation of Africa (Hurst,2021). 

Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa  by Susan Williams

For all updates on this issue, see here 

Multilateralism a year on

Sir Peter Marshall reviews the year now passed since the ‘Declaration on the Commemoration of the Seventy-Fifth anniversary of the United Nations’

As world leaders gather in New York, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reminds us that Cop26 is now less than 1000 hours away, we recall that year ago today, September 21, Heads of State and Government of all 193 members of the United Nations, “representing the peoples of the world”, adopted without reservation or amendment the “Declaration on the Commemoration of the Seventy-Fifth anniversary of the United Nations“. The full text follows beneath.

True to form, the event passed all but unnoticed by those in the UK, as elsewhere, whose responsibility it is to keep abreast of developments, by virtue either of the posts they hold, or of their desire to shape the opinions of their compatriots.

Yet the significance, and the potential, of the Declaration can scarcely be over-estimated. First, whereas the United Nations Charter launched the greatest experiment in the management of international relations ever undertaken, the Declaration unequivocally endorses the outcome of that experiment, and sees it as the template for the future.

Never before have the world’s statesmen and stateswomen collectively and unanimously paid such a tribute to the inspiration and the aspiration of their predecessors or reached such a fundamental and wide-ranging judgment about how interdependence should be managed.

Secondly, neither “multilateral”, nor “interdependent” occurs in the UN Charter. But the Declaration confidently asserts, without defining the term, that “multilateralism is not an option, but a necessity”. It can do so on the basis of the demonstrated validity of the propositions set forth in the Preamble to the UN Charter.  

In that sublime 200-word text, “We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”, firstly reaffirm their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small; and secondly declare their intention to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples”.         

Thirdly, while they were remarkably prescient in emphasising the close inter-relationship between what are now called the “three pillars” of co-operation and endeavour – peace and security, human rights and development – the Founders of the United Nations cannot be expected to have foreseen either the near-exponential ramifications of that relationship, as it has developed over the last seventy-five years, or the extent of the benefits which it has conferred on humankind.

Even more noteworthy, perhaps, has been the depth of humanitarian concern, manifested worldwide, not only by governments, but also by non-governmental organisations and agencies of every kind, at every level and in every sphere – the product of civil society at its best. That concern is the greatest feature of governance, as the complement of government, rather than its rival or opponent.   

We are all conscious of the needs of those who are most at a disadvantage of one sort or another. One of the great slogans of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals is “we will leave no-one behind”. That says a great deal. A key test of civilisation is the treatment accorded to the least fortunate members of the community.

*     *     *

What multilateralism is about in practice – repeat practice – can be summed up in a single prescription: our ready acceptance of responsibility, not only for doling well what may be required of us specifically, but also for having an eye out, and mind open, as to what more needs to be done.

Edmund Burke famously said – or did not say: the experts are divided on the matter – that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good people should do nothing. In the age of interdependence, we have to go further than that: unless we all do our bit, we all suffer.

Multilateralism is thus concerned both with every element of the substance of international relations, and with every aspect of the processes by which they are conducted, at both macro and micro level, and in every time frame. It is objective in that its foundation is accurate analysis of the relevant factors, and efficient and effective implementation of the policies adopted. 

It is simultaneously subjective because it is qualitative as well as quantitative. It is directed by moral principles and priorities held in common. It is a matter of the heart as well as of the head. Itis driven byaninstinctforwhatis fair. It underlines the truth that a profound understanding, collective and individual, of the past is a prerequisite for wise management of the present and provision for the future.

Pie in the sky? Pabulum for the naive? Open house for freeloaders, shirkers, cheats and bullies? Undesirables there will be under any arrangement: but they can be shown up for what they are by having a prominent code of conduct which everyone professes to respect, and publicising situations in which it is obviously being ignored.  Bullies, of whatever size, are not totally insensitive to attention, especially when they may be endeavouring to appear as paragons of virtue. Peer pressure can work wonders.

And what is the alternative? Hard-bitten, no-nonsense persons speak glibly of a “rules-based international order” an obfuscation which cannot survive a moment’s rigorous analysis. But it is meat and drink to those who behave with total irresponsibility, and to those who are too scared to speak up or out.    

*     *     *

What, then, have we to show as the harvest of this great Commemorative Declaration? The answer is “far more than almost everyone realises”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s General Assembly speech of September 26, 2020 heralded the intention to take a lead, and looked forward to January 10, 2021, the 75th anniversary of the symbolic opening of the inaugural session of the General Assembly in Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, an internationally renowned place of worship at the heart of London, facing Westminster Abbey across historic Broad Sanctuary Green.

The Presidential Election of November 2020 brought us the most welcome prospect of relief from President Trump, whose behaviour in the ensuing two months has marked him out as the most ungracious loser in American political history.         

The planned visit to the UK by the UN Secretary-General to mark the General Assembly anniversary occasion had to be cancelled for Covid 19 reasons. A number of virtual visits and events replaced it. 

Of these, none was as significant as the virtual service organised on the morning of January 10 by Tony Miles, the Superintendent of Methodist Central Hall and broadcast worldwide. At its outset, David Wardrop, the Chairman of the Westminster United Nations Association, was authorised to announce that Broad Sanctuary Green had been renamed “United Nations Green”. 

The photograph below shows the modest welcoming party for United Nations Green held on August 21. “We the peoples”, of every age and nationality, gathered round a display of the flags of the United Nations. They realised that, in the wording of the discreet reminder in the text of the Commemorative Declaration that “there is no other global organisation with the legitimacy, convening power and normative impact as (sic) the United Nations”. Its spirit will outlive the mindless and heartless activities of any terrorist movement.

UNA members and diplomats and their families join refugees and asylum seekers temporarily staying in local hotels in welcoming United Nations Green. Photo: Javier Mandirola

*     *     * 

Although the Commemorative Declaration may have left the vast majority of UK cerebrals unmoved, it did not fail to resonate with the UK Government. The latter in its turn did not fail to pass on the message. It was in a unique position to do so. As 2021 dawned, the Prime Minister was host to the UN Secretary-General’s virtual visit; was “Chair-in-Office” of the Commonwealth, by virtue of the last meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government having taken place in London in 2018; assumed the presidency of the G7; and was the leader of the government which would host COP26 in Glasgow in November. 

It soon showed. At the close of their virtual meeting on February 19, chaired by the Prime Minister, the G7 leaders “resolved to work together to beat Covid 19 and to build back better….  Drawing on our strengths and values as democratic, open economies and societies, we will work together and with others to make 2021 a turning point for multilateralism”. 

The UK Government’s “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” (CP 406, March 16)) testifies to awesome powers of joined-up thinking. In Section 2 of “The Strategic Framework”, entitled “Shaping the open international order of the future”, it says “the UK remains deeply committed to multilateralism”. 

Most recently, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons has published the detailed and absorbing response of the UK Government (HC 618) to the Committee’s own wide-ranging report on the UK’s role in multilateral diplomacy (HC 199). 

*     *     * 

Multilateralism could be said to have achieved lift-off during the course of President Biden’s visit to Europe in June. We are entitled to draw from the five texts agreed during the course of it – in chronological order, the New Atlantic Charter; the US/UK statement; the G7 Summit communique; the NATO Summit communique, and the US/EU Declaration – the encouraging conclusion that there is near- unanimous agreement throughout the international community as to our multifarious common agenda, and a near-miraculous consensus on the best way of tackling it: namely multilateralism.  

*     *     * 

“And how”, the cynics and the “realists” and the woebegone might ask, “do you reconcile all those fine words and sentiments with the debacle in Afghanistan?”  There is much to be said for starting to answer a difficult question by asking another of the same.  

“Given”, my question would run, “that the US rightly invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty in the light of the Nine/Eleven attacks; given further that the watchword was that if those responsible were not brought to justice, justice would be brought to them; given yet further that the latter procedure was accompanied by a inevitably controversial foreign-financed-and-led policy of “nation building”, was it not apparent that a viable exit strategy would be a matter of extreme delicacy?” 

The “agreement” reached between the United States and the Taliban (the Afghan Government not being involved) on February 29, 2020 would seem to raise as many questions as it was intended to answer as its title is supremely uninviting:   Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognised by the United States as a state and the United States”. Alarm bells should surely have been ringing all around. 

Nowhere does the writ of the Law of Unintended Consequences run more freely than in the field of international relations. The unexpected provides opportunities, as well as challenges, to those sufficiently up to speed, and nimble enough, to grasp them. Afghanistan, seemingly doomed to be the cockpit of Asia, is a spectacular case in point.   

Security Council Resolution 2593 of August 30 is an excellent start to the process of furnishing Afghanistan with a secure place within the international community, together with the provision of the assistance it so desperately needs, on condition that its government respects the obligations of UN membership.  

Peter Marshall, 

September 21, 2021 

With CHOGM further postponed, to whom do small Commonwealth States turn for support at COP26?

article by David Wardrop

Preparations for COP26, now only six months ahead, are well underway but what form will it take? Siren voices warn that COVID19’s ravage will still roam a world still too sparsely vaccinated to dare to travel to Glasgow. However, if the conference is to avoid a second postponement, its host, the UK should prepare for a virtual event. That would be a disaster for smaller countries, argues Damian Carrington, writing in The Guardian. “Because the UNFCCC requires consensus, a handful of wrecking nations can wreak havoc. At the last Cop, in Madrid in 2019, Brazil held the rest of the world to ransom, refusing to sign up to new carbon rules.”

Carrington recalls that it was on the floor of the Durban conference, the pathway to the successful Paris Summit of 2015, that the EU outfaced both India and China, securing promises of emissions reduction. Nobody likes being humiliated with the entire world watching on but that would not have worked in a virtual environment.

COP26 Glasgow 2021 - Iberdrola

But the Summit is not only for large states, those charged with emitting the greenhouse gasses blamed for our crisis. Also present, in-person or virtual, will be a host of others, the smallest one hundred of which between them contribute only one percent of those damaging emissions but who suffer most from the impact of climate change. Their fate depends on recognition of their plight by the large countries. In a virtual community, as Carrington points out, they can be easily ignored. Not so in-person.

“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”. To prevent this old African proverb putting its signature on COP26, we must ensure that the voices of Less Developed Countries (LDC) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are properly heard. It is important that joint strategies are agreed, and binding alliances formed.

The challenges and dangers caused by climate change facing LDC and SIDS, especially those in the Commonwealth, were tackled in a recent conference in London co-hosted by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS) and Westminster UNA. Speakers urged Commonwealth members to ensure that their biennial meeting (CHOGM) scheduled to be held in Kigali in June would lead to a strong and united message addressing the climate change crisis. They and the conference organisers left the event hopeful that at CHOGM, the ‘elephants’ of the Commonwealth and their smaller partners in the forest could thrash out a win-win shared policy to be advanced in Glasgow with confidence and with a sense of equity. But now those hopes are dashed as we learn that CHOGM will not now take place in Kigali in June.

So, without CHOGM to generate that needed sense of focus and strategy for member states, large and small, which they could deploy at COP26, where now do the LDC and SIDS turn for support as they prepare to enter the COP26 arena? Two speakers at the recent London conference, both experienced diplomats representing SIDS, shared their fears that large Commonwealth members, prolific greenhouse gas emitters like India, Australia, Canada and the UK would discount the fears of their smaller cousins when arriving at deals in Glasgow. And if they did not meet up in Glasgow but online instead, then their fears of being discounted altogether would be only strengthened. Either way, the Commonwealth must act now to allay the fears of its smaller members.

So, what should be its plan, one that can allay those fears and also to prepare for COP26 with the confidence worthy of an alliance of fifty-four countries, however loosely linked, and with a total population of 2.4 billion? The Commonwealth must prepare at the soonest moment its policy, one that is radical, inclusive and self-confident. Its commitment to all its members must honour the powerful leitmotif of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – ‘leave no-one behind’.  

What should be the Commonwealth’s next steps? Justin Mundy, its recently appointed Special Envoy on Climate Change, must set up a platform for an online event which sets out the necessary parameters to satisfy small and large member alike. The balance between mitigation (for large members) and funding for resilience and adaptation (for small ones) must satisfy both groups. Only if this is achieved will the Commonwealth be recognised in Glasgow as exercising the power it should and to best effect. Those next steps should be taken now.     

[The House of Lords has debated this issue on Monday 17 May]

Multilateralism is back in vogue but how do we convince people it’s a good thing?

article by David Wardrop

“We are all multilateralists now!” so reported the Financial Times after this week’s G7 Foreign Ministers’ Summit. The event’s conviviality was welcome following Trump’s cold years but ‘making multilateralism work’ is not the snappiest of slogans. Nevertheless, upholding global norms and values, while lacking the ring of a heroic endeavour, both mark out the essential fault line with Beijing and, for that matter, with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. So how do we move forward?

For the 2021 G20 summit, the Italian Presidency has chosen to focus on three broad, interconnected pillars of action: People, Planet, Prosperity. In underpinning its programme, it holds the view that in an increasingly interconnected world, ‘multilateralism is far more than an abstract concept. It is the key to responding to these challenges, and the G20, bringing together much of the world’s population and of the global economy, must live up to its role’.

In the same spirit, in December 2018, the UN General Assembly announced a new International Day, for Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, reaffirming inter alia ‘the importance and relevance of multilateralism and international law and to advance the common goal of lasting and sustained peace through diplomacy’. On 5 May 2021, the President of the UN General Assembly will hold an Interactive Dialogue on the “Achievements of Multilateralism and the Future of the United Nations”, inviting the UN’s principal organs, intergovernmental bodies and the civil society to participate.

In pointing towards how the global community can emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with confidence, the strategies of both initiatives commit to multilateralism. But as ‘relevant’ and ‘non-abstract’ as they may see it as a platform, how will they utilise it in generating the support of a civil society which has been so badly bruised and become fearful of what might come next? If the COVID-19 pandemic and the potentially devastating climate change crisis have taught us anything  ̶  witness their disproportionate impact on those living in poverty  ̶   this time we must ensure ‘we leave no-one behind’.

national flags of countries all over the world

In its programme marking its 75th year, the UN has learned much here despite logistical limitations posed by the pandemic. Its ‘global conversation on building a better future for all’ reached millions of people. Towards the same goal, the Italian G20 Presidency has identified ‘key engagement groups’ it titles Business, Think, Women, Youth, Labour, Urban, Civil, Science, each assured opportunity to contribute input to the G20 Summit. These initiatives, both advancing multilateralism and seeking to engage civil society, are also key to success at COP26 where planners are well-advanced in scheduling a matrix of events, each one recognising that not only governments but also ‘we the peoples’ need to sign off what is agreed in Glasgow in November.     

These three initiatives depend upon a healthy commitment to multilateralism so what can be learned from these, and what can profitably be shared?

To take this forward, Westminster UNA hopes to organise a hybrid meeting in June in London before an invited, live audience, also live-streamed. The speakers would identify with these key fields of expertise: the Italian G20 Presidency; the United Nations; UK COP26; and Africa and Least Developed Countries (LDC).