12 March 2017 – the murder of Zaida and Michael

On 12 March 2017 – one year ago ago – two members of the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) disappeared in the country’s Kasai region while they were investigating an insurrection against the Congolese government known as Kamuina Nsapu. On a mission to investigate potential sanctions violations, which has been this Group’s mandate for over a dozen consecutive years, they fell into an ambush staged by a group of persons.

What followed was a carefully organized execution of the two, recorded by the assassins. While the exact reasons of this attack remain largely unknown to this day, in the wake of the murder, amidst many rumours, a blame-game ensued between Congolese opposition and government supporters as to who might be behind the obviously premeditated attack. Subsequently, both a DRC military trial and a UN Security Management System Board of Inquiry (BoI) launched by UN Secretary-General Guterres suggested the culprits were most likely Kamuina Nsapu militiamen. However, an in-depth investigation by Radio France Internationale (RFI) and various concomitant intelligence sources raise substantial doubts as to the credibility of this conclusion.

It is all but exaggerated to note that the BoI report has several important shortcomings, such as not considering evidence provided by both the UN mission in the DRC and the Group of Experts as well as the failure to analyse audio and video evidence on its own (click here for a point-by-point analysis of the BoI report). This included translations of the video transcripts highlighting linguistic doubts, an audio recording of a meeting a day before the ambush which was attended by DRC intelligence agents, and phone records of senior military and intelligence personnel. The Board of Inquiry awkwardly states that these and other information originated from ‘sources […] caring’, thereby dismissing a big part of the hard evidence available. The subsequent weaknesses in the BoI’s analysis resulted, amongst others, in a recommendation that ‘the criminal investigation (to) be conducted and completed by the government of DRC’. Meanwhile, the UN Group of Experts, in paragraph 182a of its final report, recommended an independent international investigation to best address the complexity of the case. The UN, in turn, has settled for supporting the Congolese efforts by seconding international prosecutors and investigators, whose mandate is still ongoing.

In light of the possibility that individuals associated to the Congolese state played a role in the premeditated killing, this is problematic. To give but two examples: first, widely established knowledge that hard-core militiamen would not speak any language other than their native Ciluba stresses that the Lingala-speakers in the assassination video cannot possibly be Kamuina Nsapu. Second, a trap laid a day before when two translators (meanwhile identified as working for DRC intelligence) encourage Michael and Zaida to travel to Bunkonde, saying it was safe, while a present Kamuina Nsapu elder had in fact warned them against doing so. Hence, any opposition to an independent mechanism is concerning, especially given the information unearthed by certain UN member states, RFI and others.

While one should retain some hope that the current investigation mechanism will help establishing truth, it is obvious than anything less would translate into de facto impunity for attacking and killing UN experts. This in turn, would put at risk all panels mandated by the UN Security Council. In over a dozen different contexts worldwide, these panels provide some of the most fine-grained confidential investigations directly to the Security Council. Given the Secretary-General’s prerogative to launch an investigation without consent of other UN bodies, it remains entirely possible to set up an independent inquiry, in particular if the current mechanism would not yield reliable results. Not keeping this option, will raise questions about the UN leadership’s commitment to address impunity and will erode faith and trust in the UN.

The least the families and friends of Zaida and Michael deserve is the truth.

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