Turtle Bay

Exclusive: Named and shamed, China turns to intimidation

China has escalated a campaign of pressure against the U.N.’s chief sanctions enforcers, blocking the reappointment this month of a U.N. arms investigator who discovered Chinese bullet shells in Darfur, Sudan, in violation of a 6 year-old U.N. arms embargo. Beijing’s action could undermine the independence of numerous panels of U.N. experts responsible for enforcing ...

China has escalated a campaign of pressure against the U.N.’s chief sanctions enforcers, blocking the reappointment this month of a U.N. arms investigator who discovered Chinese bullet shells in Darfur, Sudan, in violation of a 6 year-old U.N. arms embargo.

Beijing’s action could undermine the independence of numerous panels of U.N. experts responsible for enforcing U.N. sanctions and arms embargoes, according to former U.N. arms experts and diplomats. One top council diplomat called China’s behavior "deplorable," saying it sends a troubling message that any U.N. expert who delves into China’s role in the illicit arms trade may lose his job.

The dispute places another harsh spotlight on Chinese diplomacy at a time when President Hu Jintao is preparing to hold his final high-level summit at the White House on Wednesday with President Barack Obama. It also highlighted how China’s expanding global interests, including a burgeoning small arms trade in Africa, are colliding with some U.S. priorities at the U.N. Since 2001, China has supplied Khartoum with 72 percent of its imports of small arms and light weapons, according to Sudanese customs data cited by the Small Arms Survey.

Investigations into arms trafficking have increasingly focused on China, rather than countries in the former Soviet Union, including Russia, whose nationals sold massive numbers of surplus weapons to African clients in the 1990s.

While Beijing has worked constructively with Washington on many high-priority U.N. issues, striking agreements on tough U.N. sanctions resolutions against North Korea and Iran, it has sometimes impeded efforts to ensure those very same measures are actually enforced. And it is only one of many countries that have resisted the U.N.’s requests for help in tracing the illicit import of weapons into Africa’s conflict zones.

China’s colleagues in the council, including the United States, have urged Beijing to avoid a confrontation with the panels, arguing it will needlessly expose itself to greater public criticism. But Chinese officials have reacted furiously when U.N. inquiries into sanctions violations have criticized or embarrassed China.

In recent months, Chinese diplomats have expressed growing impatience with numerous U.N. arms panels after they drew attention to the import of Chinese ammunition and assault weapons in several African conflict zones under U.N. arms embargo, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, and Sudan.

None of the panels’ investigators has accused China or its arms manufacturers of violating U.N. sanctions, saying it is more likely that African governments or arms brokers that purchased Chinese weapons legally have illegally transferred them to armed groups in violation of U.N. regulations. Still, Beijing has been highly defensive in response to questions about the arms’ origins, and provided limited responses to requests for information aimed at tracing the export history or origin of Chinese weapons.

The U.N. panel responsible for enforcing a 2004 arms embargo in Darfur, Sudan, encountered Chinese opposition late last year, after it circulated a report claiming that Chinese ammunition had made its way into Darfur, and in some cases, had actually been used in skirmishes against U.N.-African Union peacekeepers.

The report, first reported by Turtle Bay, does not accuse China of directly violating the embargo, which prohibits the import of weapons into Darfur, but allows China and other arms suppliers to sell weapons to the government in Khartoum. Nonetheless, China initially threatened to block the renewal of the panel’s mandate, a move that would have effectively ended the enforcement of sanctions in Darfur. It relented under pressure from the United States and Britain, but it has succeeded in blocking the report’s publication. In the past, such reports were routinely made public.

On Jan. 7, China ratcheted up pressure on the panel, placing a hold on the renewal of the panel’s arms expert, Holger Anders of Germany, who provided the most detailed case that Chinese munitions had been smuggled into Darfur. Council diplomats said the hold effectively constitutes dismissal, and the U.N. secretariat has already begun a search for an arms expert to replace Anders.

A Chinese diplomat had previously challenged Anders’ findings in a written statement as insufficiently supported by evidence, and questioned the panel’s professionalism. Exasperated, Anders snapped backed. "He took some ammunition he had found in the field from his pocket and he threw it on the table: `You want evidence? Here’s the evidence,’" Anders told the Chinese delegation, according to an official familiar with the exchange. "The Chinese were very offended. They said this is unacceptable."

The U.S. declined to comment on the cases. While Germany’s U.N. ambassador, Peter Wittig, declined to comment on Anders’ predicament, he said, "Part of the effectiveness of the U.N. sanctions system is the monitoring boards, and the group of experts — they are supposed to be independent. And that independent advice and expertise is part of the whole set up, and we value that highly, and we would want to assure that this independence remains intact."

China’s spokesman, Yutong Liu, declined to comment on the matter, saying, "I don’t think I have any comment for you now." Anders declined a request for comment.

China has long been uneasy about the U.N.’s imposition of sanctions to coerce countries to change their behavior, but it has yielded to U.S. pressure to impose such measures to restrain proliferation of nuclear weapons, or to prevent the flow of small arms into conflict zones. It has also sought to limit the severity of measures targeting allies such as Sudan, Iran, and North Korea. Last year, it blocked for more than six months the release of a U.N. panel report suggesting North Korea may have supplied Syria, Iran, and Burma with banned nuclear technology.

But China has been growing increasingly assertive. Chinese diplomats also clashed late last year with a separate panel probing arms smuggling in Ivory Coast. That panel placed China and several other countries on a list of countries that "have given incomplete responses" to requests for information, according to an official familiar with the report.

China was one of several suppliers of small arms and light weapons to the government of Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast. But those shipments stopped after the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo on the country in 2004. Still, U.N. arms investigators have discovered hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Chinese Type-56 assault rifles in the arsenal of the rebel Forces Nouvelle. According to an unpublished report, the vast majority of rifles have had their registration numbers ground off, raising suspicion that they were smuggled into the country after the imposition of sanctions.

The inspectors, however, found a handful of rifles with serial numbers still intact and asked China to help trace them to Chinese arms manufacturers. China replied by saying that most of the rifles had markings inconsistent with those of Chinese manufacturers, suggesting they were copies, and that others had been sold to a third country. But they did not reply to a request for information about the third country, and the arms inspectors are not convinced the weapons are copies.

During the panel’s presentation of its evidence late last year, a Chinese diplomat, again reading from a prepared text, accused the panel of lacking "100 percent proof" that the weapons came from China, and scolded the experts findings as "unprofessional. It could have been written by young students."

"They were very, very insulting," said one official familiar with the exchange. "It was an arrogant reaction to stop the experts from what they call naming and shaming China. They want to act like a big country that has the right, through its veto, to intimidate."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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