On March 17, a team from the UN went missing while traveling on a road in central Democratic Republic of Congo to investigate widespread human rights abuses in a remote village.

The team included two members of a UN committee that investigates compliance with Security Council sanctions and their local support staff. Michael Sharp, an American; Swedish national Zaida Catalán; Betu Tshintela, a Congolese interpreter; Isaac Kabuayi, a driver; and two unidentified motorcycle drivers had apparently been abducted. Search and rescue missions deployed by the UN peacekeeping mission turned up empty handed.

Today, there is word that two bodies believed to be Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán were found in the area where they went missing. (There is no reporting yet on the fate of the other four members of their party.)

The apparent abduction and murder of this UN team is at once a massive tragedy and profound threat to the entire UN system of sanctions enforcement.

Sharp and Catalan were two of six members of what is known as a “group of experts” These are committees of independent experts who provide on-the-ground reporting and analysis of how sanctions imposed by the Security Council are being implemented or evaded. They produce periodic reports to the Security Council, which can then take action to tighten up sanctions, punish violators, or close whatever loopholes might exist.

The sanctions committee groups of experts are the eyes and ears of the Security Council in some of the most dangerous places on earth. The reports they generate are often highly technical and quite detailed. For example, this from Sharp and Catalan’s most recent report, finds that government armed forces, apparently illegally, are working a gold mine.

Sanctions are imposed by the Security Council as part of the council’s single most important duty: maintaining international peace and security.

As in the case in the DRC, if an armed group is systematically exploiting a natural resource and using those funds to sow instability and inflict misery on vulnerable populations, the Security Council will impose arms embargoes or demand controls on the natural resource. Those sanctions are legally binding under international law, but the Security Council does not have its own police force to ensure compliance. Rather, it depends on the cooperation of local, national and international governments to enforce. That cooperation is secured, in part, because governments fear they will be called out in these reports — and be targeted themselves by the Security Council.

The handful of women and men who report back to the Security Council about sanctions breaches are crucial to global efforts to stem human rights abuses, promote security, fight terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Without them, the utility of sanctions written in New York to change behavior of actors halfway around the world, would be limited at best. If these murders go unpunished, other nefarious actors may try to kill, maim, or otherwise intimidate sanctions investigators. The entire edifice of sanctions enforcement in DRC and beyond could come crumbling down.

In my years of reporting on the UN, I cannot think of another instance in which sanctions committee members were abducted and murdered like this. It is certainly a first for the Congo. These two slain investigators were on the front line of protecting international peace and security for all of humanity. Their murder is a tragedy that demands justice. But it is also a direct threat to the entire UN system.

UPDATE: US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley released the following statement, confirming their deaths.

It is with great sadness that we received confirmation today of the deaths of Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan. Michael and Zaida were killed senselessly while on a mission working for the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My prayers and heartfelt condolences are with Michael and Zaida’s families during this terrible time.

It is always difficult to lose a brave American dedicated to service. Michael was working on the front lines of what we try to do at the United Nations every day: find problems and fix them. He selflessly put himself in harm’s way to try to make a difference in the lives of the Congolese people. His courage and desire to serve others is an example for us all.

 

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