Report

‘The Worst Bloody Job in the World’

U.N. sanctions inspectors feel unsupported and unsafe.

un-sanctions-inspectors-africa-foreign-policy-illustration
Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

On March 26, 2019, Moncef Kartas, a U.N. expert enforcing an arms embargo and financial and travel sanctions in Libya, touched down at Tunis-Carthage International Airport in Tunisia, cruised through customs, and collected his luggage before he was abruptly intercepted by more than a dozen armed Tunisian counterterrorism agents.

They seized the dual national’s German and Tunisian passports and U.N. identification, then wrenched his cell phone from his hands as he tried to call his U.N. supervisor. Two beefy agents with assault rifles forced him into a white SUV, beginning a traumatic monthslong ordeal in the Tunisian justice system.

Sanctions have never been more popular, but the system for enforcing them at the United Nations is breaking down. In this two-week series, FP looks at why that is and what can still be done to fix it.

Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

On March 26, 2019, Moncef Kartas, a U.N. expert enforcing an arms embargo and financial and travel sanctions in Libya, touched down at Tunis-Carthage International Airport in Tunisia, cruised through customs, and collected his luggage before he was abruptly intercepted by more than a dozen armed Tunisian counterterrorism agents.

They seized the dual national’s German and Tunisian passports and U.N. identification, then wrenched his cell phone from his hands as he tried to call his U.N. supervisor. Two beefy agents with assault rifles forced him into a white SUV, beginning a traumatic monthslong ordeal in the Tunisian justice system.

“The first couple of days they tried to break me,” Kartas recalled in a phone interview from Athens. Kartas, an expert on border security and arms trafficking who previously headed up the North Africa program for the Small Arms Survey, described his first stressful days in a cold cell at the country’s counterterror compound along with 50 to 80 other prisoners. Subjected to lengthy interrogations, he was placed in a stress position, handcuffed to a chair for several hours, and deprived of water and food, shedding more than 20 pounds in two weeks.

Kartas’s tribulations—he spent a total of 56 days in custody in a series of Tunisian holding centers and prisons facing a series of espionage and terrorism charges that carried the death penalty—are a recent example of the kind of intimidation that members of the U.N. Security Council sanctions panels face on the job. They have also raised questions about the United Nations ability to protect its experts when they run afoul of a powerful government, according to interviews with more than 15 former and current U.N. sanctions experts.

In recent years, U.N. inspectors in several countries—including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and South Sudan—have been threatened by local authorities and arms dealers with lawsuits, violence, rape, detention, and murder. On March 12, 2017, the U.N. panel for the Congo lost its first two members, American Michael Sharp and Swede Zaida Catalan, who were executed by an armed militia, allegedly under instructions from Congolese security authorities, while investigating human rights abuses in eastern Congo.

The U.N. Security Council first began appointing expert panels in the 1990s to help enforce U.N. sanctions regimes in Rwanda and Angola that were being routinely violated. Drawing recruits with a broad range of backgrounds and skills—including journalists, scholars, arms specialists, and experts in shipping, trade, and finance—the council also hoped to obtain an independent source of information and analysis on sanctions busters.

Several panel experts have expressed concern that they receive inadequate support from the U.N. Secretariat, which oversees the work of some 60 panel members, and the U.N. Security Council, which empowered them with a mandate to investigate sanctions violations. They are usually viewed in the countries where they work with suspicion—and often with hostility.

“It’s the worst bloody job in the world,” said James Bevan, a British munitions expert who served on the U.N. sanctions panel in the Ivory Coast from 2008 to 2011.

“If you go into a country with a rebel force and a government, both parties hate you because you are trying to dig up dirt on them,” he said. If there is a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country, he added, they often resent experts whose investigations can complicate their peace efforts. And “the Security Council hates you because they have created this beast, which is going to report to them, and they have no control over what it is going to report,” he added.

Bevan said his own career as a U.N. panel expert ended abruptly after he opened an inquiry into the suspected transfer of spare parts for Mi-24 attack helicopters. Bevan said he suspects Russia subsequently blocked the renewal of his contract. “My candidacy was blocked,” he said.

Some observers see a widening cultural gap between the U.N. Secretariat and Security Council, which are steeped in the Byzantine practices and protocols of international diplomacy, and the panel experts themselves, who are often recruited from outside the United Nations.

Some U.N. insiders tend to denigrate some of the experts as politically naive and incapable of navigating complex diplomatic terrain, on which powerful member states can exert enormous political pressure. The panelists, they feel, sometimes act as if they are above the laws of the countries where they operate.

Many experts, meanwhile, said they feel the U.N. Secretariat defers too readily to the interests and demands of member states rather than supporting their efforts to enforce tough, unambiguous Security Council mandates. They feel the U.N. Secretariat and the Security Council committee that oversees their work don’t always have their back when they fall into harm’s way.

In response to such claims, U.N. chief spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said: “In providing its support to the sanctions committees, and its expert panels, the Secretariat adheres strictly to the relevant Security Council mandates, General Assembly resolutions, rules and regulations of the Organizations, and the U.N. Charter.”

“The full implementation of the mandate of each sanctions committee is the responsibility of the member states who sit on the committee,” Dujarric added.


Trainee soldiers for a new unified army carry their wooden rifles while attending a reconciliation program run by the U.N. Mission in South Sudan at a makeshift barracks in Mapel on Jan. 31, 2020.

Trainee soldiers for a new unified army carry their wooden rifles while attending a reconciliation program run by the U.N. Mission in South Sudan at a makeshift barracks in Mapel, South Sudan, on Jan. 31, 2020. TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images

In South Sudan, U.N. inspectors have been carrying out a series of highly sensitive investigations into human rights violations, including targeted executions of political opposition figures, by the country’s top national intelligence brass. Earlier this year, one sanctions expert received a death threat. In January, two other U.N. sanctions experts were investigating a potential violation of the U.N. arms embargo in Yei, South Sudan, when they were summoned by South Sudanese security forces and stripped of their passports and U.N. credentials. They were told to return to Juba, the South Sudanese capital, and instructed to collect their credentials from the country’s national security agency. The two cases resulted in two inconclusive internal investigations. The U.N. registered no formal complaint with the South Sudanese government.

In Somalia, U.N. sanctions experts were blocked entirely from entering the country between 2018 and 2019, apparently in retaliation for an investigation that the panel had previously conducted into a Somali executive, Hassan Ali Khaire, who served as prime minister from 2017 to 2020. The dispute emerged after Buzzfeed News published a leaked letter from the Somalia and Eritrea sanctions panel expressing concern that Khaire may have had “possible links to East African extremist groups,” including al-Shabab. The panel later issued a follow-up letter indicating it had “not found credible evidence” to support its initial suspicions and it was dropping the case.

But the incident had apparently soured Khaire’s government on the panel and, more specifically, on the panel’s coordinator, Jay Bahadur, who served on the panel at the time the letter was leaked, according to Bahadur, a Canadian national who had previously worked as a journalist and author. The panel was subsequently the target of online attacks by a “Twitter troll army” and what appeared to be orchestrated demonstrations in Mogadishu, Somalia, he added. In one protest, local demonstrators held up signs reading “#SEMG: stop holding Somalia back,” said Bahadur, who served as the panel’s coordinator until the end of 2019. (SEMG stands for the Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group.)

Other experts said they’ve withheld information about personal threats because they feel there is little the United Nations can or will do to protect them.

Bahadur said throughout the dispute, the head of the U.N. department that administers all U.N. sanctions panels, Kelvin Ong, undermined his position, telling other members of the panel they might not have their contracts renewed as long as Bahadur was the coordinator. Ong declined a request for comment.

“I felt I didn’t receive the support of the [U.N.] Secretariat,” Bahadur said.

“My view was the Secretariat should have drawn a strong line that a member state does not dictate who the coordinator of the panel is,” he said. “If they are going to defy the Security Council, that is for the council to deal with.”

Other experts said they’ve withheld information about personal threats because they feel there is little the United Nations can or will do to protect them, even as scrutiny from headquarters over inspectors’ actions in the field has intensified after the murders of Sharp and Catalan.

One panel expert told Foreign Policy they were the target of a rape threat by a senior security official, but they chose not to inform U.N. headquarters. The expert, who asked the mission not to be named, was concerned that headquarters would pull them off the mission. In another case, three expert panelists were caught in the middle of an attack by armed militia, forcing them to flee the shooting and hide out for several hours, according to an expert familiar with the case. But they declined to report the attack. “If we report back to [New York], what can they do?” the expert asked. “There is a big discrepancy between what we do and what they know that we do.”


Tunisian military forces guard the area around the parliament building

Tunisian military forces guard the area around the parliament building in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, on July 26. FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

The detention of Kartas was no secret to the U.N. brass.

As Kartas was led away by Tunisian security, a friend and business partner who had come to pick him up witnessed his arrest and alerted the United Nations. Kartas, meanwhile, was subsequently driven to his apartment in Tunis, where government agents rifled through his belongings, confiscating his U.N.-issued computer, U.N. documents, and a small flight box that tracks the movement of airplanes suspected of transferring weapons in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.

Searching his hard drive, Tunisian security found a batch of photographs showing smuggled Libyan weapons held inside a Tunisian military installation and a PowerPoint presentation on Tunisian border security. They also turned up information indicating he had established a private consultancy business.

Tunisian officials charged that it was illegal to obtain sensitive photographs from a military installation or to use the flight-tracking equipment, saying together, the material demonstrated Kartas was involved in espionage. Kartas countered that the information was critical for his work as a U.N. sanctions expert, and other panel members used the same tracking equipment in other countries. He said the consultancy business, which he established in 2017, was carrying out two projects, including a study on regional migration and a project promoting the rule of law in Tunisian municipalities. The two projects, he said, were managed by his partner and had “no overlap” with his U.N. work.

The U.N. was unaware of the consultancy business, but they ultimately backed Kartas’s contention, noting the photographs, the flight box, and other materials were largely consistent with his work as a panel expert, even if they may not have been officially authorized by Tunisian authorities or by the United Nations. Other panel experts had used similar flight boxes to discretely track flights.

But first the United Nations had to make a decision on how to get him out of detention.

The U.N. legal office proposed two initial options for securing his release. The first was to demand Kartas’s immediate release on the grounds that his detention was a clear violation of his functional immunity as a U.N. expert. Or they could hear the Tunisians out, review the evidence against Kartas, and then make their case.

The U.N. split the difference: asserting Kartas’s diplomatic immunity while inviting Tunisian authorities to formally present their case to the United Nations.

The decision meant Kartas was subjected to weeks of detention as the Tunisians prepared an extensive written dossier, allegedly a series of national security crimes, before the U.N. then had to translate hundreds of pages in Arabic into English before they could assess the charges.

But Kartas had one thing in his favor. The German government held the chairmanship of the U.N. committee that oversaw Libya sanctions and took an interest in securing the release of one of its nationals. But Germany’s efforts to press Kartas’s case in the committee were constrained by Russia, which blocked a German request to issue a statement highlighting Kartas’s diplomatic immunity.

It wasn’t until May 13, a month and a half after Kartas was first detained, that the United Nations informed the U.N. sanctions committee it had completed a review of the Tunisian charges and requested his immediate release and the dropping of all charges, according to a statement by Jürgen Schulz, the German chair of the Libya sanctions committee.

Days before his release, Germany’s ambassador in Tunisia paid a final visit to Kartas in his cell. He said he didn’t want to get Kartas’s hopes up, but there were signs the government was planning to release him.

Days later, Kartas’s lawyers were told he could leave.

When the warden at the prison told him he was free to go, Kartas didn’t believe it. “Are you joking?” he asked. “Me, joking?” the warden responded. “This is like my birthday today. Since you arrived, my life has been miserable,” he said, noting he had been besieged with pressure from lawyers, advocacy groups, foreign dignitaries, and the International Committee of the Red Cross about Kartas’s treatment. Before the day ended, Kartas was on a flight out of the country.

“The only reason I came out was because the Germans put so much pressure. Whatever the U.N. did had no impact,” Kartas said.

But Tunisian authorities have not closed his case, and Kartas has decided not to return to Tunis out of fear the case could be reopened at any time. In the meantime, he said, he has not been able to tend to a family residence inherited from his recently deceased father. Unattended, the house has been robbed multiple times, and thieves have stripped the home of its plumbing pipes and copper wiring. “The only reason I came out was because the Germans put so much pressure. Whatever the U.N. did had no impact,” Kartas said.

Dujarric, the U.N. spokesperson, said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres “placed Mr. Kartas’s well-being as his priority” and had personally raised the matter with Tunisia’s prime minister during a 2019 visit to Tunisia. Other U.N. officials also visited Kartas while in detention.

The U.N. position throughout, Dujarric said, was that “the arrest, detention and prosecution of Mr. Kartas was inconsistent with the international legal obligations of Tunisia under the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations; that he should be immediately released; that the charges against him be dropped and that his belongings and documents be returned to him.”

That message, he said, was made publicly and privately by top U.N. officials in Tunis and New York, and the United Nations’ top lawyer sent four formal diplomatic notes to the Tunisian government “outlining the U.N. legal position.”

Nonetheless, the episode has left Kartas embittered by his service in the United Nations.

Although Kartas credited the U.N.’s top representative in Tunis, Diego Zorrilla, with aggressively pressing his case to U.N. headquarters, he said he felt abandoned by U.N. leadership.

Days after he was first detained in Tunis, Kartas learned Guterres had touched down in Tunis for a meeting with the Arab League.

“He was, of course, aware of my case and spoke about it,” Kartas said. “Honestly, this is where I am speechless; every time I think about it, I get angry. You have this notion with the American military of no one left behind. I just can’t imagine that in such a situation, where the breach of immunity was so clear, that Guterres can stand there in front of these guys and have little more than a diplomatic chitchat about my case rather than being totally assertive about the fact that he is leaving Tunis with me in the plane.”

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

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