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The UN Board of Inquiry and the Politics of Blame

This week, a Board of Inquiry commissioned by the United Nations Secretary-General submitted its final report into the murder of Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán, two members of the UN Group of Experts who were assassinated in the Kasai region on March 12, 2017.

The report, which is confidential but immediately leaked, is favorable to UN headquarters and to the UN peacekeeping mission, but much less so the UN Group of Experts. While being careful to state that “it does not believe that the actions of either Mr. Sharp or Ms. Catalan should be labeled as contributing to the outcome,” it says that they did not follow the proper procedures during their trip to the Kasais, did not inform and seek out the advice of the relevant UN security officials, and used motorcycles (which is against official UN policy). It argues that this behavior was not unique to the assassinated experts, but that there are systemic problems of this kind among Groups of Experts to the DRC, in part because confuse their political independence––the ability to be able to write what they want without interference by MONUSCO and UN HQ––and the ability to ignore UN security guidelines.

If you are beginning to wonder why is sounds as if the Board of Inquiry was more invested in figuring out whether UN rules and regulations were followed than in finding those responsible for Michael and Zaida’s deaths, that’s because they were. From the beginning of its brief mandate, the board stated clearly (at least in private) that they were not going to focus on finding out who killed the experts. If they happened to obtain that information, then all the better, but that was not going to be their main objective. This is understandable: a murder investigation in the Kasais takes time and is extremely difficult. While the mandate of the board was sufficiently broad for them to do this, others––MONUSCO, the FBI, and Swedish police­––were already conducting investigations.

This is why it was strange to learn from the first press accounts of the report that the board had concluded that a local militia was responsible for the assassination, and that there is no evidence that the government was involved. (The strange formulation was: “information circulating regarding the possible involvement of various government individuals or organizations does not provide proof of intent or motive”––but intent or motive are not needed to prove involvement). Sure, a local militia was almost certainly involved­­––­­the video of death makes this fairly clear––but any conclusions beyond that seem to be difficult to make. Saying that there is no proof of the government intended to kill them seems to border on irrelevant.

It is also somewhat misleading––As a reminder, this is what we know about the incident that suggest that it was not just a local militia:

  1. A linguistic analysis carried out by RFI shows that several individuals on the video of the killing are not locals due to their accent and unfamiliarity with Tshiluba. The Kamuina Nsapu militias are very, very local––it would be very strange for outsiders to be involved in this kind of operation.
  2. The same analysis by RFI suggests that the killers had had a recent meeting in Bunkonde, a village that at that time was under Congolese army control.
  3. Phone logs and statements from key actors obtained a variety of researchers suggest that there is a high likelihood that the killing involved members of the political elite––either opposition politicians or the government.

I have to be vague here, as the investigations are ongoing. And none of this is proof that the government was involved. But saying that there are significant leads regarding actors outside of the Kamuina Nsapu is very different than saying that there is nothing to prove that the government did it. As Ida Sawyer, the Human Rights Watch director for Central Africa, said: “Since Congolese security forces may have been responsible for the killings, the Congolese government cannot be relied on to find the killers.”

As for the responsibility of Michael and Zaida: Yes, the board is correct in stating that there need to be better security precautions for these groups, and that sometimes group members––myself included when I was a member––can be so concerned about their independence that they bristle at security guidance from UN officials.

However, the board says that the poor working conditions––no health insurance, long stints of travel, economy plane tickets––have discouraged more mature (i.e. less inexperienced and young) people from applying for the job. They recommend going back to a system that sees senior officials­­––chairpersons, not coordinators––lead the panel. This was the case for the DRC over ten years ago. Finally, they say that investigators should be escorted by MONUSCO military in the work. Again, I disagree on several counts:

  1. It again makes it seem like Michael and Zaida were reckless youths with little appreciation for their safety. I don’t think this is fair. There was also no precedent for any violent targeting of UN investigators either in the Kasais or elsewhere in the country. And while the security situation in the Kasais was very volatile, other UN officials and foreign journalists––including RFI and Reuters correspondents just days prior––were traveling in the same area at the same time. The assassination very much appears to have been a targeted, planned operations, which would have been difficult to prevent.
  2. The previous system of UN Groups of Experts being led by senior diplomats, while I am sure having other advantages, did not bear great results. The expert panels between 2008 and 2016, which were all led by “coordinators,” did meticulous investigative research that revealed Rwandan support to the CNDP and M23; the involvement of Congolese, Burundian, and Tanzanian security officials in illegal mineral trade; and the support by the Congolese government to the FDLR and other armed groups. While more safety precautions are necessary, I can easily see how this can lead to an excessively risk averse approach.
  3. I think the board did not adequately appreciate the trade-offs between military escorts and access: MONUSCO is perceived as a party to the conflict in much of the country, not as an impartial actor. MONUSCO has been conducting joint operations with the FARDC against the FDLR, ADF, and other armed groups. For then the same MONUSCO troops to provide an escort to the UN Group of Experts to meet with those very same armed groups does not make much sense.

All in all, the report makes many valid and critical points, and should serve as a springboard for further discussion about the methodology of the Group of Experts, in particular their security provisions. But the current report casts too much blame on Michael and Zaida and too little on the involvement of the outside actors, including possibly the Congolese government. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a conversation, as US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley suggested, and not a pretext to close the book on the killings.