Argument

Former Senior U.N. Official Defends Handling of Congo Murder Investigation

Responding to a Foreign Policy story, official says panel that probed the murder of two U.N. experts focused mainly on preventing future incidents.

Zaida Catalán at work with U.N. colleague Michael Sharp. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Morseby)
Zaida Catalán at work with U.N. colleague Michael Sharp. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Morseby)

Colum Lynch’s Nov. 27 Foreign Policy article “Congolese Cover Up” distorts the United Nations’ response after the March 2017 murders of U.N. experts Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As head of the U.N.’s Department of Political Affairs at the time with some oversight responsibilities for sanctions experts (who report directly to the U.N. Security Council), I was, as the article acknowledges, horrified by the murders. Supported by the constant attention of Secretary-General António Guterres, I worked with U.N. colleagues to identify two related but distinct responses: protection—a serious, independent investigation of U.N. procedures and policies in light of the murders, to better protect other experts working in some of the most dangerous environments in the world—and justice, striving to establish culpability and accountability for Michael and Zaida’s deaths.

I spent time with the author to explain that the Board of Inquiry headed by Gregory Starr was set up primarily to deal with protection, by looking at what the U.N. should do better in view of the murders.  The board’s recommendations dealt with security procedures, training, reporting responsibilities, and other issues that are within the power of the U.N. Secretariat or Security Council to improve, to help reduce the risk that others would suffer the grievous losses of the Sharp and Catalán families.  It would have been irresponsible of us to continue to deploy experts to Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere without examining the terrible lessons of Michael and Zaida’s murders. I regret that this aspect of the U.N.’s response—indeed, the raison d’etre behind the Starr Board of Inquiry—was apparently edited out of the article.

This does not minimize or replace the need for accountability, which is also linked to protection:  Would-be murderers of U.N. experts should not expect impunity. So far, the justice issue, the exclusive focus of this article, has not been addressed satisfactorily, to our collective regret.  The author is well aware of the U.N.’s limitations to operate without member state consent, and the Security Council has not elected to authorize or support the type of independent investigatory powers provided, say, after the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But the article does a terrible disservice to those of us who were in the U.N. in suggesting we were somehow involved in an intentional cover-up. I would expect that the United States and Sweden, the countries of Michael and Zaida’s citizenships, respectively, would join with the U.N. secretary-general and the Security Council to encourage Kinshasa, particularly with a new government to be formed after Dec. 23 elections, to be far more attentive and forthcoming regarding these murders.

Jeffrey Feltman was the United Nations undersecretary-general for political affairs from July 2012 until April 2018.

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