Security Council undermines UN Group of Experts

A disturbing precedent is being set in the UN Security Council with regards to UN expert panels. As a reminder, these panels have been a key tool in the international communities’ arsenal for dealing with conflict. They allow the Security Council to identify spoilers and impose targeted sanctions. Perhaps most valuably, they expose hidden business and political networks that contribute to the continuation of the conflict. In the case of the Congo, they have helped identify mineral traders, government officials and foreign businessmen who are profiting from the conflict. They have performed a similar function in Somalia, Liberia and Sudan.

The last Congo panel submitted its report in November 2009. A new panel was named early this year, led by Canadian Phil Lancaster. However, when Nick Vysny, a British human rights advocate, was put forward to join the team as the regional expert, he was blocked by the Chinese delegation to the UN. Each of the fifteen members of the Council can in principle block nominations, but this is rarely used when nominating members of expert panels. The only other time I can recall is when the Russian delegation opposed to nomination of Johan Peleman to the Somalia panel some years back due to his investigation of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. This time, however, the Congolese government vehemently opposed Nick, merely on the grounds for having previously worked for Human Rights Watch. The Congolese expressed their reservations to the Chinese, who then opposed his nomination.

The Chinese opposition was not categorical. They probably could have been swayed, especially if the US, UK and France had really pushed. But they didn’t. The Americans were involved in various quarrels with the Chinese over trade, the Dalai Lama, the environment and Iran. So it appears that they either didn’t want to spend their political capital on a marginal issue like the Congo or they just didn’t care. In any case, Nick was blocked from taking part.

Why did the Congolese feel so strongly about Nick? It wasn’t personal – it was about his affiliation with Human Rights Watch, for whom he had worked in Goma for several years. The Congolese have been on a war path with HRW since their publication of their report “We Will Crush You,” in November 2008. In particular, Kabila was incensed by the suggestion that he was personally responsible for ordering the killing of Bundu Dia Kongo members in Bas-Congo in March 2008, an accusation that could in theory could amount to charges of crimes against humanity.

All of this doesn’t make a lot of sense and it sets a bad precedent for future expert panels. The fact that the Chinese can block an investigator for his previous work for a reputable organization like Human Rights Watch is not good. It could undermine a key peace-building tool.