The United Nations is poised to launch a fresh bid to find out who killed Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán — the American and Swedish human rights researchers, respectively, murdered on assignment for the U.N. last March in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — three U.N.-based diplomatic sources told Foreign Policy.
In response to calls for action from the United States and other key countries, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has decided to send a team of investigators to Congo to join the government’s troubled, inconclusive probe into the March deaths, according to those diplomatic sources.
Four U.N. specialists, including an expert in forensic homicide, will embed with the Congolese security agency investigating the case, according to the officials. A fifth senior official will coordinate the team’s work from U.N. headquarters in New York. One source said the Congolese government has agreed in principle to cooperate with the U.N. experts but that they are still hammering out the details.
The move comes after a U.N. board of inquiry last month failed to definitively identify the perpetrators of the killings and follows mounting pressure from the United States and Sweden to open a credible new U.N. investigation into the brutal killings. The U.S. mission to the United Nations declined to comment for this story.
But the plan falls short of the calls by family members and human rights advocates for a full-fledged independent international investigation. Some rights advocates and U.N. officials have privately expressed concern that Congolese authorities may be implicated in the crime and that any government investigation may therefore be compromised.
“The secretary-general’s plan is to put his trust in Congolese institutions, who may well have been implicated in the murders,” said one senior U.N. official familiar with the case.
“The secretary-general is setting this team up for a ‘mission impossible,’” Akshaya Kumar, the deputy U.N. director for Human Rights Watch, added in remarks emailed to FP. “Given concerns that Congolese officials may have been involved in the killings, it’s crucial that U.N. investigators have the freedom to follow their own leads and carry out a fully independent investigation. The worst thing would be for the U.N. to unwittingly provide support to a potential cover-up.”
Guterres has been reluctant to use his authority to establish an independent investigation into the murders, arguing that it would be impossible to get to the bottom of the crime without the cooperation of the Congolese government.
In a meeting with relatives of the fallen U.N. staffers, Guterres outlined three options: setting up a full-fledged U.N. Security Council-mandated international investigation, establishing a special U.N. investigative commission, or sending a team of U.N. experts to support the Congolese investigation.
He recently told the United States and Sweden that he would select the third option, arguing that the Security Council remains too politically divided to support a major investigation and reiterating the need for cooperation with the Congolese government.
Speaking to reporters at a press conference in New York on Wednesday, Guterres suggested that a final decision had not been taken. He said he is still exploring a series of investigative options but that he favored a plan to “include some independent experts within the Congolese system,” adding, “I am not sure if it will be possible or [if] we will take our own initiative.”
Sharp, 34, and Catalán, a 36-year-old former Green Party activist in Sweden who held dual Swedish-Chilean nationality, were members of a U.N. Security Council panel of experts investigating rapes, mass killings, and the illicit extraction of natural resources in Congo. They had traveled to Kasai Central province in early March to determine whether Congolese forces or several local militias were responsible for an upsurge in violence there during previous months.
On March 11, Sharp and Catalán met with François Muamba, a spiritual leader of the Kamuina Nsapu militia, to determine whether it was safe to travel to the city of Bunkonde to question local armed groups. Sonia Rolley, a journalist with Radio France Internationale who obtained a recording of the meeting, reported that Muamba, speaking in a local language, warned them not to go.
But she alleged that individuals who may have been linked to the Congolese government deliberately mistranslated his remarks to imply that conditions were safe in Bunkonde.
“[Muamba] was saying, ‘We are not in control of the militia in Bunkonde,’” Rolley told FP. But three individuals who were interpreting the exchange, including a member of a Congolese intelligence agency, told Sharp and Catalán a different story. One of the individuals said Muamba had assured the experts that “‘we can provide you with a guarantee of security.’”
The following day, Sharp and Catalán, accompanied by three motorcycle taxi drivers and an interpreter, were fired on by an armed group en route to Bunkonde. They were marched into the bush, executed, and buried in a shallow grave. Their interpreter and three drivers have not been seen since. The U.N. board of inquiry concluded that they were likely killed, though no bodies have even been found.
The board of inquiry also concluded that Sharp and Catalán were likely murdered by a local Congolese militia, downplaying the likelihood of a government hand in the killings.
“It is the judgement of the board that information circulating regarding the possible involvement of various government individuals or organizations does not provide proof of intent or motive on the part of any individual(s),” according to a summary of the board’s findings. “It noted that an absence however does not precluded the possibility that others are involved.”
But U.S. officials at Turtle Bay weren’t satisfied.
“The murder of U.N. experts — especially like Michael and Zaida, who risked their own lives in order to help others — cannot end in a bureaucratic procedure,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said in an Aug. 17 statement following the release of a summary of the board of inquiry report.
“We still need a full investigation under the secretary-general’s authority into the events surrounding their deaths and accountability for the perpetrators — there is simply no other appropriate course of action,” she said.
Martin de Bourmont contributed to this report.
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