High Risk Zones

Killing Investigators Blinds Us All

04 April 2017

By Mark Taylor, Trustee and International Advisory Council Member, IHRB

For those who follow the news, the horrors that people suffer in war seem more visible now than ever before. Yet, there are moments when the hidden contours of war’s violence are driven home to us through the sacrifice of outsiders.

There are moments when the hidden contours of war’s violence are driven home to us through the sacrifice of outsiders.

The discovery this week of the bodies of two United Nations sanctions investigators by a roadside in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the continued disappearance of their colleagues, is one of those moments.

Michael Sharp, an American, and Zaida Catalán, a Swede, both on mission for the UN, were found dead after going missing two weeks ago in the Kasai region of DRC. Their interpreter, Betu Tshintela, is still missing, as is Isaac Kabuayi, a driver, and two unidentified motorcycle drivers, all apparently abducted. Search and rescue missions deployed by the UN peacekeeping mission have so far failed to find them.

On Monday, Congolese police confirmed the identities of Michael and Zaida. The fate of the rest of the team remains unknown.

Eyes and Ears of the Security Council  

The murders and abductions come alongside the mass murder of 40 policemen in the same region of DRC. The killings form part of a larger rebellion in the Kasai region of DRC which erupted last year. At the time of their abduction, Michael and Zaida were reportedly investigating an incident involving security forces in which over 100 rebels and supporters were killed.

As families and friends mourn, the stock-taking among the small community of UN sanctions investigators has begun. This is likely to be recorded as the first kidnapping and murder of foreign sanctions investigators on mission for the UN, and the shock is palpable.

Small teams of UN investigators – known either as a Group or Panel of Experts - have been acting as the eyes and ears of the UN Security Council for more than two decades. A succession of investigators had worked on this particular Group, documenting the connections between the fighting in eastern DRC and the illegal exploitation of natural resources which has accompanied the conflict.

This is likely to be recorded as the first kidnapping and murder of foreign sanctions investigators on mission for the UN, and the shock is palpable.

The Group of Expert’s reports are the most detailed public domain information we have on the changing nature of the conflicts in DRC and the economies which sustain them.

The last report from the DRC Group of Experts, to which Michael and Zaida both contributed, was issued in December 2016. Like past reports, it is a unique window into the patterns of violence, the flows of weapons, and the involvement of unit commanders, both insurgents and DRC military, in the illegal exploitation of natural resources, like gold. It provides clear and concrete evidence of how commodities destined for the global economy are produced by or under the control of violent and criminal armed forces or groups. The report also monitored progress in the international efforts to control those activities.

Witnesses to the Life-Support Systems of Endemic Conflicts
Sanctions are often criticised and the Council is viewed as a fickle, many-headed beast. But without the work of people like Michael and Zaida, UN sanctions committees would be literally flying blind.

The work Michael and Zaida were involved in was vital. Without it, the Security Council would not have the information necessary for sanctions to work. Sanctions are often criticised and the Council is viewed as a fickle, many-headed beast. But without the work of people like Michael and Zaida, UN sanctions committees would be literally flying blind. Perhaps more important, UN Member States on the Security Council would be entirely unaccountable for what impacts those sanctions do have.

It has become a platitude to refer to the ‘watchdog’ role performed by NGOs and the media, in particular when it comes to the commercial aspects of contemporary wars. With pathetically little in the way of resources and at huge risk to themselves, Congolese and international human rights organisations like Global Witness, Human Rights Watch and IPIS do incredible work documenting the realities on the ground.

They are doing what government regulators and prosecutors should be doing, both in the DRC and in the home states of multinationals. They are doing it with desperately small resources and no small amount of risk, particularly to local civil society investigators in places like the DRC.

The work of UN Group of Experts is both a validation of this watchdog role and a key information resource necessary for it to function. Michael, Zaida and their colleagues formed part of an ecosystem of accountability that has emerged over the past twenty years. It includes the work of human rights defenders, whistleblowers, investigative journalists, public interest lawyers, campaigners, prosecutors, judges and regulators seeking to uncover - and break - the links between violence and economic opportunity in the world’s war zones.  

Slow Progress

This ecosystem of accountability has slowly showed results - painfully slowly when one considers the magnitude of the suffering they are seeking to grapple with.

This ecosystem of accountability has slowly showed results - painfully slowly when one considers the magnitude of the suffering they are seeking to grapple with.

As shown by the Legal Case Map at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, or via the Red Flags initiative, there has been a steady trickle of cases that have emerged from the war economies of Congo or other conflict affected countries and found their way to the courts of the homes countries of European companies.

Regulations in the US, EU and China have been passed, requiring companies to conduct due diligence on their supply chains originating in the mines of eastern DRC. Implementation is wanting, but it is progress.

In the Face of Resistance

The push-back is now well underway. Governments are already cracking down on civil society, or closing the space for even the mildest forms of monitoring by treating the media as an “enemy of the people”.  The mild and sensible due diligence transparency rules put in place in the US are threatened by a Trump administration hell-bent on deregulation for its own sake.

The violence that resulted in the deaths of Michael and Zaida will not stop people from seeking to uncover the connections between conflict and commerce. But there is a risk that UN Groups of Experts will suffer increasingly limited mandates or more administrative hurdles.

The violence that resulted in the deaths of Michael and Zaida will not stop people from seeking to uncover the connections between conflict and commerce. But there is a risk that UN Groups of Experts will suffer increasingly limited mandates or more administrative hurdles

That would be a tragedy for the people who must survive these plagues of violence and predation. It would be a betrayal of what Michael, Zaida and their colleagues have achieved.

If anything, their sacrifice should wake us up to the fact that international responses to the economic life-support systems of endemic conflicts are far too narrow and incoherent.

There are limits to what we can do from afar, but concluding that we can do nothing is simply wrong. As Michael and Zaida showed us, the economy of the Congo conflict is well integrated to our own global economy. In a sense, we cannot avoid playing a role. The question is whether our role is for the good, or merely for profit. 

 

 

Image: Courtesy of Human Rights Watch/twitter

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