In an Unusual Move, the UN Security Council Is Heading to Sweden for a Retreat

Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish secretary-general, with Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader, on April 22, 1959, at the UN. The Security Council is visiting Hammarskjold’s retreat in Sweden in April. UN PHOTO

The United Nations Security Council, perhaps needing a change of scenery from its chamber overlooking the East River in New York, is traveling to the southern Swedish coast in April for an annual retreat whose theme this year is “a new narrative on peace operations.” The retreat will be held in a newly renovated farmhouse that belonged to Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish secretary-general who died in 1961.

It is unusual for the Council to hold its yearly retreat with the UN secretary-general — currently, António Guterres — so far from home, as such meetings generally occur at a conference center in Manhasset on the North Shore of Long Island. That spot is one town over from the Russian-owned estate in Oyster Bay that the United States seized in late 2016. But the Council has also met in various capitals worldwide.

According to a document obtained by PassBlue, the trip to Skane County in Sweden, from April 21-22, was proposed by Sweden and Peru, two of the 10 elected members on the Council. Peru was enlisted because it holds the rotating presidency in April, and Sweden may have wanted to show off Backakra, the renovated private estate of Hammarskjold, who at age 47 became the second UN secretary-general, from 1953 to his sudden death in 1961.

Sweden is responsible for the Council’s travel plans to Skane, but its mission to the UN did not provide information to PassBlue on who is paying for it.

Hammarskjold, a diplomat, economist and lawyer, bought the farm in 1957 as a summer escape, but he died, with 15 others, in a DC-6 airplane crash in September 1961, near Ndola (now Zambia), en route to the newly liberated Congo to seal a cease-fire.

As if sensing his early death, Hammarskjold wrote as a young man in his journal, “Markings”: “Tomorrow we shall meet/Death and I -./And he shall thrust his sword/Into one who is wide awake.”

The circumstances of the crash have never been satisfactorily explained, and a report in 2017, commissioned by the UN, said that “it appears plausible that external attack or threat may have been a cause of the crash, whether by way of direct attack causing SE-BDY [the plane’s ID] to crash, or by causing a momentary distraction of the pilots,” the author of the report, Mohamed Chande Othman, wrote.

Othman, a former Tanzanian chief justice, said that additional combing of United States and British government archives could reveal more evidence behind the cause of the crash. Whether those governments will ever fully comply has been a question for ages.

Hammarskjold’s summer home, Backakra, is situated in a fishing village called Ystad, on Sweden’s southern coast, across the sea from Germany and Poland.  

Hammarskjold was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize posthumously (his father, Hjalmar Hammarskjold, was chairman of the Nobel Foundation board) and was considered to be the epitome of a diplomat — striving for peace and not for personal ambition. A cerebral man, he could be acutely aware of others, as if suppressing his family’s noble pedigree, and he reportedly ate in the UN cafeteria — a leap for a secretary-general nowadays.

But in one recounting of Hammarskjold’s personality, he was dismissed as hardly being a man of the people.

Sir Brian Urquhart, an eminent UN official, is quoted in the book “The United Nations’ Top Job: A Close Look at the Work of Eight Secretaries General,” by Lucia Mouat, as saying that Hammarskjold was a “shy, quite awkward intellectual who was spectacularly bad at dealing with people.

“But the most amazing thing about him was that you could go to Rio, New Delhi, or Cape Town, and the taxi driver would have heard of him and have an astonishingly clear idea of what he was trying to do.”

Sir Brian was unstinting in his characterization of Hammarskjold in a write-up of him for the UN: “Hammarskjold ruthlessly protected his privacy and his personal routine. If, on tour in some distant place, he was for an hour or two relaxed, forthcoming and friendly, the mood would quickly pass. Those who tried to claim some special relationship were rebuffed. He often seemed to be indifferent to ordinary human feelings or weaknesses. Perhaps because he lacked experience of close personal relationships, he could make serious misjudgments of character, resulting in appointments that he later regretted.”

Yet, Hammarskjold commanded awe. “When he died in a plane crash in Africa, we grieved for him as for the most intimate of friends because we realized that working with Hammarskjold was a privilege and an experience that would never come our way again,” Sir Brian wrote.

Hammarskjold’s farm, Backakra, is a museum and conference center in a fishing village named Ystad. The theme of the Council retreat this year is “a new narrative for peace operations in the context of partnerships with regional and subregional organizations.” The daily daytime temperature for mid-April — in case Council members want an invigorating run to the beach nearby — averages about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

The farm was left to the Swedish Tourist Association when Hammarskjold died and turned into a sanctuary and nature reserve, with about 74 acres and open to the public. The farmhouse, which features artifacts Hammarskjold collected on his travels as secretary-general as well as furniture and art from his office in New York, is reopening after years of renovations.

The setting could inspire a new narrative for peace operations, including for the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which came into being in 1999 to hold together a fragile peace in a long-battered country and has cost the UN nearly $9 billion to run.

“Where do you take someone who has never been to southern Sweden before and wants to get away from it all? My recommendation is to visit a stone in a field in Dag Hammarskjold’s Backakra and enjoy some calming views of the Osterlen coast,” wrote a blogger on the site.

“This is not just any old stone,” the writer added. “Engraved into the surface is the word PAX. In case you did not have the benefit of studying Latin at school, PAX means PEACE.”

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