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Who is to blame for the murders of Michael and Zaida?

In the wake of a tragedy, it can be tempting to point fingers, establish blame, and move on. That’s what appears to be happening with the murders of UN investigators Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan. Over the past week, the New York Times has published an article highlighting the “complicity” of the United Nations in the killings, while the UN itself has announced––misleadingly––that it is trying to find out who is guilty for the killings.

In the meantime, there is no––repeat: no––comprehensive investigation into their murders, or into the massacres of hundreds of Congolese in the Kasai region.

First, the Times article. The title cuts to the chase: “For 2 Experts Killed in Congo, U.N. Provided Little Training and No Protection.” And if there was any doubt what the argument was, the Times published an editorial three days later, titled: “The U.N.’s Complicity in a Congo Murder.”

There is no doubt that the United Nations can do a much better job supporting the various groups of experts and panels that are in charge of monitoring the sanctions regimes (North Korea, Somalia/Eritrea, Sudan, Central African Republic, etc.). When I was coordinator of the DRC group in 2008, we never received any security or investigative training, we had to use our private Yahoo! and Gmail email addresses, and we didn’t have any analytical software to organize our notes or do network analysis.

On the other hand, the Times article takes some pot shots. Yes, we did not have health insurance––but the experts have the status of consultants and as consultants anywhere are expected to purchase their own health care, and all of the current members are insured. Yes, we did not have security escorts, but the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo is perceived as a party to the conflict (they conduct joint operations with the Congolese army) and the experts would not be able to access many of the armed groups if they went with a UN escort. And yes, better training on many issues would be great, but the current members of the group of experts do have considerable experience and are not “woefully unprepared.”

More broadly, the Times article and the subsequent editorial suggest that Sharp and Catalan were not equipped for the job. “Neither of the investigators appears to have been prepared for the dangerous world they were assigned to investigate,” the editorial board penned. In fact, Michael was one of the most professional investigators I have met in the Congo: extremely meticulous and levelheaded. What he and Zaida did that day––cross a front line on motorcycles after speaking with locals and security officials––is what every group of experts has done dozens of times since the sanctions regime was imposed in 2004. Moreover, the video that has since been released suggests that their assassination was just that: a planned murder, prepared in advance. Nothing in recent Congolese history could have prepared them for that, and it would have been extremely difficult for the UN to prevent.

My broader worry is that we are losing focus of more important questions. To say the UN was complicit in their murders is to confuse complicity with negligence––a pretty critical distinction. The UN was not complicit in their murders. But who was?

The Times article insinuates that Clément Kanku, a former opposition leader turned government minister, may have been involved. It bases this on a recording found on Zaida’s computer, allegedly with Kanku speaking to a militia member, encouraging him to burn villages and kill security officials. Apparently Catalan had told Kanku that she had the recording.

The audio file is certainly damning. But a few considerations: According to UN sources, the attack they were speaking about took place in August 2016. While Catalan had the file, so did others, including the Congolese security forces. According to one source, the national intelligence service had the recording long before November 2016, when Kanku was co-opted by the government and made a minister in government. So while Catalan putting Kanku’s name in a United Nations report would have been damaging to him, would it have been much worse than what he was already facing? (And why on earth did the government name him minister full-well knowing he was involved in the attacks?)

Also, we should be wary to provide story lines that shut down other potential leads. For example, according to sources with knowledge of the killings, there are other facts that point toward government complicity.

So where are we with the investigations? The US and Swedish governments both have launched investigations––but any progress they make will depend somewhat on the collaboration that the Congolese authorities provide them, and the government itself is on the list of suspects. Some members of the UN Security Council are pushing for another, independent investigation, but the Congolese foreign minister has pushed back with heft, saying “Congolese expertise in this matter must be respected.”

The UN has put together a board of inquiry, led by senior former UN and US officials. It seems, however, that their primary focus will be to understand whether internal UN rules and regulations were followed, not on finding the perpetrators. This despite ambiguous statements from the United Nations Security Council that the inquiry will “investigate the deaths of the two experts” and “that the United Nations will do everything possible to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.” At the moment, it seems that much remains to be done to live up to that last statement.

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