Putting things in perspective: Buffet Foundation versus UN Group of Experts

On April 1, the Howard G. Buffet Foundation issued a report scrutinising the role, methodology, and content of the UN Group of Experts’ work on the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The reports closely aligns to the rebuttal the Government of Rwanda issued against the Group’s 2012 interim report’s infamous annex. It thouroughly criticises the findings of the experts, particularly on everything that concerns the regional implications, namely the alleged support from Rwanda and Uganda. The Buffet Foundation’s report has been written by “Lake Partners Strategy Consultants and the Crumpton Group LLC” as well as the consultation of other experts and the 14 years experience the foundation has in the region itself. No mention on who actually researched and/or drafted the piece, unlike the Group’s report where authors are easily identifiable (the controversy case of last year’s coordinator Steve Hege, who was attacked for an older piece that split the bunch of observers into fiercely debating camps, is telling in that regard).

To start with a small historical record. Howard Buffet, the foundation’s head, has become rather vocal in dropping an article on Foreign Policy several weeks ago. The short piece basically demands to resume all frozen aid payments to Rwanda which has suffered significant cuts pursuant to the UN Group of Experts’ accusations. The article however contains some serious flaws, most of them being basic knowledge and not even touching upon the politically sensitive topics in that debate. For instance, Blair and Buffet fall prey to the chimera that 5.4 million people had died in the second Congo war, while meanwhile all renowned individuals and organisations agree that this is cumulated fact and battle-related deaths are much less. Also, they claim MONUSCO’s strength is 14000, while it actually is 17000 uniformed staff plus 2000-3000 other staff. In addition, at the time of writing the aid freezings to Rwanda were less than the mentioned 245 million USD as several donors had unblocked their shares again. Given that Howard Buffet is a potent philanthropist in the US and Tony Blair a former primer minister of the UK, this is an astonishing amount of mistakes and does not shed a very positive light on the foundation’s 14 years experience in the subregion.

The now published report seems to have been researched more carefully, however it does not spare with blatant accusations against the UN Group of Experts. Most notably, the piece accuses the UN experts of lacking cooperation with MONUSCO. Anyone closely following the internal politics of MONUC/MONUSCO or UN peacekeeping in general, knows about how hard it is to successfully collaborate with the force component at all times. Intersectional and interagency competition within integrated UN missions are a further phenomenon that withheld the experts from achieving a 100% result. Then, the Buffet Foundation laments that the Group had not sought enough interaction with authorities, most notably in Rwanda. A claim they underline with a multi-annual statistic of consultations of entities within Rwanda by the subsequent groups. While the chart implies that last year’s group has not done sufficient efforts in that regard, it falls short insofar as it does not display the actual numbers of a) attempts of contacting and b) the number of people spoken to. A serious critique would require such a research as well. Moreover, the Buffet report does not seem to be informed of the fact that not only the Group seemed to be reluctant to deal with Rwandan authorities at some point, but also Rwandan authorities were unreachable and unwilling to respond to requests. The breakdown of diplomacy, being a core allegation towards the Group, is hence nothing else as a reciprocal phenomenon. The fact the Buffet report ignores this raises serious questions about the foundation’s claims of neutrality.

While being offensive in its key findings and summary, the report tries to balance out the facts a bit better in its plain text. Nevertheless, it ends up in bringing forward some parts that are relatively easy to dismiss. One example is what has been called “punitive action”: Among the Group’s recommendations, only c), f), g), i), j), and l) are considered as adequate. Among the remaining, a), e), h), and k) are attached the quality of being prosecutorial. No argument is delivered, however, why this should apply. A closer look to the recommendations (which are all quoted by the Buffet report) rather shows that none of these four call for actual prosecution – they much more read as appeals to stakeholders. And, according to the statutes of the Group, the latter never had prosecutorial capacity – which is why that accusation sounds extremely far-fetched. Recommendations b), d), and m) are qualified as punitive. While b) only addresses military support and not aid in general, d) calls for using drones for surveillance matters. This, for sure, is a matter of content and debates, but the Group is not a body to implement such a step. It is the Security Council, where not only Rwanda is a member now, but especially the US and allegedly the authors of the report include former US government officials. Finally, m) asks for a closer follow up of DDR programmes. Given that DDR is all too often ill-conceived and seldom implemented fully, this is much more a concern raising than any kind of punitive action demanded.

To add up a couple of other issues, the reports suggestion that Uganda (and Rwanda) may withdraw from current peacekeeping efforts is spurious, since it does not have anything to do with the eastern Congo’s situation. Accused countries would probably always issue such threats, regardless whether accusations are true or false. This is how politics in the contemporary world function. Also, it would have been wishful to have a larger part on the context and history of the conflicts and the work of the Group in the Congo. The broken-down character of these parts give way to serious simplification in the conclusions. The stated lack of methodological strictness is another point to wonder about. While the report seems to approve former Group of Experts’ report, it denounces the methodology of last years’. This is surprising given the fact that last years’ Group augmented the standards significantly. One more point worth noting, is the creatin of Agaciro (“dignity”) fund in Rwanda pursuant to the aid freezings. Acknowledging Rwanda’s history and its tremendous development success in the past 15 years, Agaciro is, despite being triggered by the known political dynamics, a to-be-welcomed step into another phase of development. It is nothing else as a transition away from external dependence towards the capacity to help itself. In this context, it could even be argued that massive accusations against Rwanda have enabled the country to even more sustainably develop in future.

Coming to a conclusion, the freshly issued Buffet report is certainly not wrong in all of its claims and concern. The nature they are brought forward still is misleading and dangerous in many instances. In terms of framing and PR, a major shortcoming is that the aggressively termed headlines and key findings do not correspond to the more conciliatory tone of the plain content. In some points the reports is also simply getting wrong conclusions from fragmentary compilation of originally factual points. In that regard, the resemblance to the quoted Foreign Policy piece is obvious. Further, it appears doubtful, whether the named consulting firms and unnamed individuals have been the adequate persons to draft such a kind of report. Congolese politics, their regional impact, and international meddling in all that are a minefield. Scholars and institutions from all over the world and, not to forget – those from the region itself, are struggling to understand them at least partially. No convincing response is provided to the question why two law consulting firms without an extensive track record should be the suited to do better. This claim is made under full conscience that also this blog’s work cannot aim at full adequacy and complete information on all the matters it touches upon in its analyses. It is, however, exactly this conscience that lacks in the Buffet report. 14 years of engagement for peace in the region are a track record to be welcomed. But having mainly invested in sustainable development and lacking a permanent representation on the spot that analyses conflict is not necessarily a factor that assures complete accuracy. The last year’s Group of Experts reports have been explosive, of course, and many observers acknowledge that some of its conclusion have had a tentative character, or might have profited from more stable evidence. On the other side, the Group has a history of being one of the most trustworthy organs in uncovering crime and violation in eastern Congo. In this regard, also last year’s reports performed well, in overall terms.

All of these points suggest that, in its future activities, the Buffet Foundation should aim at a more subtle approach. Without prejudice to the individuals involved in its current work, the above presented analysis shall simply serve as the necessary pinch of salt that is missing in the Buffet report.

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