A board of inquiry looking into major gaps or flaws in United Nations security policies that might have contributed to the murders of two UN experts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was set up May 1, according to documents not released to the public yet. The board is to travel to the Congo in early June as part of its work.
The four-member board, organized by the UN secretariat, is expected submit its report by July 31, 2017, to Peter Drennan, the head of the UN Department of Safety and Security.
The two members of the UN’s group of experts on the Congo — Michael Sharp, an American from Kansas, and Zaida Catalán, a Swedish-Chilean — were murdered in March in Kasai-Central Province. The region is home to militias and rebel groups, including ones using child soldiers.
The experts were hired as contractors by the UN to assist the Security Council’s sanctions committee to investigate regional and international networks linked to armed groups; arms supplies and transfers; and violators of humanitarian law.
So far, the Security Council has not created an investigatory body to determine who killed the two experts and four Congolese colleagues with them. But Sweden is an elected member of the Council, and Olof Skoog, the Swedish ambassador to the UN, said in March: “The circumstances surrounding the fate of Zaida Catalán, her colleagues and the others affected must be thoroughly investigated. The four Congolese citizens that remain unaccounted for must be found.” (The Swedish mission to the UN confirmed that a Swedish prosecutor has opened a criminal investigation into Catalán’s death.)
Sharp and Catalán were investigating who was responsible for dozens of mass graves discovered in the last six months or so in Kasai. The experts were reported missing on March 12; their bodies were discovered buried in a shallow grave on March 27. Despite media reports to the contrary, the bodies of the Congolese interpreter and the three Congolese motorcycle drivers with Sharp and Catalán have not been found.
Previous reports from the experts group found links among foreign and Congolese armed groups, criminal networks and smuggling of natural resources — particularly gold and ivory — contributing to instability in eastern Congo. Approximately 1.5 million people have been displaced in the country in the last six months because of violence in Kasai related to suppression by the government against rebels there.
The deaths of Sharp and Catalán come amid budget tightening on investigative operations and reduced safety standards for such work, according to some former UN experts who have worked in the Congo. Sharp worked for the UN in the Congo since 2015 and previously for a Mennonite mission in the country. The New York Times reported that Catalán had little training and no safety equipment as she investigated the Kasai massacres.
The murders were widely reported in the media; another recent article, from Reuters, said that Congolese authorities have arrested two perpetrators and will prosecute them. Accusations from human-rights groups say that Congolese officials might be implicated in the murders, but a military prosecutor said that government forces were not involved in the crimes. Human-rights groups question the impartiality of a Congolese official prosecuting the case.
Moreover, the Reuters report said the government screened a video for journalists showing Sharp and Catalán’s executions by men wearing red headbands characteristic of the local Kamuina Nsapu rebels, aiming to reject suggestions that authorities participated in the killings. Numerous analysts suspect the veracity of the video.
The UN board is examining the circumstances of the experts’ murders and how the UN can strengthen its security of people operating in high-risk environments, like the Congo.
The UN has long had a peacekeeping mission in the country, called Monusco, which was directed to help the sanctions committee and the experts group.
Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the UN, successfully pushed to lower the ceiling of total military-troop numbers by 3,600 in Monusco during the same week the experts’ bodies were found. Since the mission was not at full capacity, that cut meant losing 500 troops on the ground.
Haley’s goal is to reform UN peacekeeping to appease certain members of US Congress and keep current levels of US assessed contributions to the world body. Some diplomats on the Security Council, however, think her approach should be more holistic rather than slashing numbers.
Sharp, who was 34, was coordinator of the group of experts and specialized in armed groups. He was appointed by the UN secretary-general in July 2016, having served in the group for a year. Catalán, 36, was a humanitarian expert, appointed by the secretary-general in July 2016 as well.
The UN board consists of Gregory Starr, Andrew Hughes, John Logan and Loraine Rickard-Martin.
• Starr is the chair of the board and a former US assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security; before that he was the UN under secretary-general for safety and security.
• Hughes is an Australian who served in the country’s federal police for 30 years; most recently, he was a police adviser to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations from 2007 to 2013.
• Logan is a former chief of Field Support Service in the UN Department of Safety and Security and an ex-US Navy officer.
• Rickard-Martin is a consultant on sanctions and a former senior political affairs officer in the Security Council Division of the UN Department of Political Affairs.
This article was updated.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.