A hard-hitting report published in April 2017 by the United Nations Security Council sanctions panel monitoring South Sudan was potentially marred by weakly sourced allegations about arms sales from Egypt and elsewhere, according to a senior Egyptian diplomat and two former UN sanctions experts.
The perceived flaws in the South Sudan panel’s work are “a case of slipping standards” that go far beyond the panel in question, reflecting broader problems faced by the UN as it has expanded its sanctions programs in recent years, said a former expert with deep knowledge of the UN’s sanction monitoring system.
The Council sanctioned just two countries before 1990, but it now maintains 13 continuing sanctions regimes and nine panels of independent experts tasked with monitoring the targeted parties.
That expansion, along with funding shortages, has left the UN struggling to attract, train and retain talented and effective experts, the former expert said, requesting anonymity to discuss the situation freely. “It used to be these panels of experts were led by ambassadors,” the former expert said. “Now they just grab whoever they can, and throw them in.”
Criticism of the South Sudan panel’s report comes as the Security Council sanctions monitoring work faces intense scrutiny after the killing of two experts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in March 2017.
The murders raised serious questions about the level of institutional support received by experts; the UN, facing criticism over its response to the tragedy, assigned a board of inquiry to examine potential security lapses linked to the two experts’ deaths. The report is due by July 31; a UN spokesman said the UN would aim to make the information public.
Most of the criticism of the South Sudan panel focuses on its weapons reporting, which has been complicated by the lack of a UN Security Council arms embargo against the country. Russia has repeatedly blocked an embargo, despite urging by the current US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, and her predecessor, Samantha Power.
Even without an embargo, the South Sudan experts have a mandate to report on weapons flow to the region, and their report linked an Egyptian company to a $7.2 million contract to deliver armored vehicles to the South Sudanese military. The report also cited media speculation about possible covert arms shipments from Egypt, suggesting that South Sudan’s government might have acquired two L-39 fighter jets from Ukraine.
In a retaliatory gesture, Egypt, as an elected member of the Security Council, delayed the reappointment of the panel’s experts after renewal of the panel’s mandate in May. A top Egyptian diplomat confirmed to PassBlue that the move was intended to highlight Egypt’s concerns about the panel’s use of media reports to support some of its claims on arms flows.
Egypt, which takes over the rotating presidency of the Security Council in August, relented last week to allow the panel’s reappointment, but it also held an open meeting at the UN, on July 6, to discuss UN sanctions programs overall, including the role of independent experts.
Egypt’s diplomatic posturing is standard behavior for a country that has been named and shamed in a sanctions report, said Alex Vines, director of the Africa Program at Chatham House, a think tank in London. Still, he said, there are legitimate concerns about the South Sudan panel’s evidentiary standards.
During the early 2000s, Vines served on UN panels monitoring Ivory Coast and Liberia, which had been mired in conflict. He introduced the now-standard practice of including detailed annexes with primary sources as part of the panels’ reports. That was largely absent from the South Sudan report, Vines said.
“I don’t know how much information they have, but the information they’ve published raises questions,” he said. “There needs to be more detail and documentary evidence.”
A broader issue, Vines added, is that the expansion of the UN’s sanctions system has left the UN struggling to recruit and retain competent weapons experts. Private consultancies, which typically pay far better than the UN, are depleting the pool of available talent by snapping up the most experienced weapons investigators, Vines said.
“It’s much harder to find good weapons inspectors now for UN panels than it was a number of years ago,” Vines said. “It’s a challenge to find individuals of integrity, who’ll work on a UN panel and be fairly fearless, and do the work to a high evidentiary standard.”
South Sudan, which became the world’s newest country in 2011, spiraled into civil war in December 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused his vice president at the time, Riek Machar, of overthrowing him. A peace deal signed in 2015 has done little to halt the fighting, which has forced at least 1.9 million people from their homes and another 1.6 million to leave the country as refugees, according to the panel’s latest report. Meanwhile, about 100,000 people are thought to be dying of starvation — famine — as a direct result of the crisis.
A further 5.5 million people — half the country’s population — could face starvation unless action is taken, said Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, who has announced plans to visit South Sudan in the fall.
Klem Ryan, the South Sudan panel’s coordinator and weapons expert, rejected criticism of his sourcing and said the panel had submitted confidential updates to the Security Council Sanctions Committee in addition to its public reports. “The committee does have access to material that’s more than is contained in the public report,” he said.
Ryan, a New Zealander who previously served as the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration officer for the UN Mission in South Sudan, said that the panel’s reporting on weapons had been “in accordance with our mandate” — introduced by the US in 2015 to get around the lack of an arms embargo — and that its methodology had been clearly articulated and “applied rigorously.”
“We stand by the findings of the final report,” Ryan said.
The spat over the report could further complicate efforts to secure an arms embargo in South Sudan, according to the former sanctions expert. “It’s given Egypt the perfect excuse to throw their weight around,” the expert said. “They’ve made the whole process much more difficult.” Egypt’s two-year term on the Security Council ends Dec. 31.
The panel’s report was undermined by a “frivolous” approach to sourcing and a lack of cooperation and information sharing among panel members, the former expert noted. The inclusion of detailed claims about the Egyptian company, a Cairo-registered entity named Egypt and Middle East for Development, was particularly unusual and galling for Egypt, given the absence of an arms embargo and the panel’s determination that the contract in question might never have been fulfilled, the former expert added.
The contract, signed in May 2015, called for the Egyptian company to deliver an unspecified number of Panthera armored vehicles to South Sudan, but on closer inspection it appeared to have been an “embezzlement mechanism,” the panel reported.
According to the report, a confidential source told the panel that South Sudanese military officers, acting on orders from then-army chief Paul Malong Awan, used the contract as an excuse to carry large sums of money to Cairo, distributing the cash to unknown parties.
At a meeting in Cairo, a source connected with the Egyptian contract also provided the panel with documentation relating to a separate deal, signed in 2014, which suggested that South Sudan’s National Security Service had sought to buy heavy weaponry, small arms and ammunition worth $264 million from a Seychelles-based company. It remains unclear whether any money or weapons changed hands as a result of the contract.
Including such details potentially exceeds the panel’s mandate to investigate arms sales, the former expert said. “The operative term is ‘arms sales’ — alleged arms sales, arms sales that haven’t happened, they aren’t asked to report on those,” the former expert said. “All of these actions reveal a profound misunderstanding of how the work of sanctions experts should be done.”
Taken alongside the tragedy in the Congo, the perceived shortcomings of the South Sudan panel’s work speaks to “slipping standards, systemwide,” within the UN’s sanctions monitoring programs, the former expert said.
That’s all the more troubling, the former expert added, because the UN panels’ reports play a vital role in facilitating the Security Council’s efforts to resolve conflicts and prevent humanitarian crises.
“Despite all of these problems, and sometimes very obvious failures, overall the expert groups remain a very valuable resource, and often the only voice you’ll hear regularly discuss these situations,” the former expert said.
Vines, the former Liberia and Ivory Coast expert, also said the quality of the UN’s sanctions reports has grown patchy. In some cases, reports’ shortcomings have stemmed from obstruction by member states or from the conflicting interests of Security Council members, he said, but in others they could be traced to the failings of the experts themselves.
“There are some places where the panels are completely useless and don’t do well because the panel’s not interested in doing a proper job,” he said.
That problem underscores the importance of finding conscientious and experienced experts, training them effectively and providing them with proper institutional support, Vines said. “There are such people on panels at the moment, but it’s more difficult to find them and retain them long term,” he said. “There needs to be new, fresh thinking about how panels operate and how they’re resourced.”
The South Sudan panel’s humanitarian affairs expert, Anna Oosterlinck, who is Belgian, defended its work and played down rumors of infighting among members.
“I don’t think our panel is any different than any other panel from the UN,” she said. “I’m sure that as in any team or office, people might have differences of opinion, but at the end of the day we work together, and we all stand behind the report we submitted.
“The story here isn’t the panel or whether we’re all best friends — the story is South Sudan and what’s happening there,” she said.
The South Sudan panel’s investigations are a crucial aspect of the Security Council’s work to contain the unfolding crisis, said Emile LeBrun, who covers South Sudan and the UN’s experts system for the Small Arms Survey, an independent research center based at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
The panel’s evidentiary standards are similar to those used in other UN reports, and its investigation doesn’t appear to have been methodologically flawed or to have exceeded its mandate, LeBrun added.
Still, LeBrun acknowleged that the lack of an arms embargo leaves the panel in uncharted waters in reporting on weapons. “The unusual situation in South Sudan is that there’s no arms embargo,” he said. “As far as I’m aware, that’s a unique situation.”
Concerns have been repeatedly raised about the UN’s panels of experts in recent years, with a UN report acknowledging in 2006 that the experts system had been pieced together through “trial and error,” and that perceived missteps by experts risked diminishing the credibility of UN sanctions regimes.
In 2014, a high-level review of UN sanctions reported that member nations were “particularly concerned about the objectivity and evidentiary basis” of expert reports, and called for efforts to improve recruitment and training of experts.
The UN Secretariat — led by the secretary-general — has sought to improve standards in recent years, convening an annual meeting where experts gather to discuss best practices and creating a formal roster of potential experts to increase transparency.
Yet, many of the issues previously identified remain problematic, said Jeremy Farrall, a sanctions researcher at the Australian National University. “I’d be a bit skeptical about claims that standards have slipped. Were they ever particularly high?” he told PassBlue by email.
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Ben Whitford is a British journalist based in Chicago. A graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he was a Fulbright scholar, he has written for the Guardian, Newsweek, Slate, Mother Jones, and many other publications.