Earlier this year, on March 12, two United Nations investigators – American Michael Sharp and Swedish-Chilean Zaida Catalan – went missing in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Just over a month later, a video documenting their murders was obtained by the Congolese government and shown to reporters in the capital, Kinshasa. The four Congolese people traveling with Sharp and Catalan, including interpreter Betu Tshintela and driver Isaac Kabuayi, were also kidnapped. Tshintela’s body was found with with the two UN experts.
A New York Times article recently slammed the UN for not adequately equipping or training the UN investigators, and an editorial went so far as to suggest that this made the UN complicit in their killings. But the families of Sharp and Catalan responded in the Times opinion pages: “There is abundant evidence that these murders were premeditated and that no amount of training could have altered the outcome.” So is the UN responsible? Who was behind these crimes, and what was their motivation?
It seems apparent that someone did not like what the UN experts were uncovering in their investigations, and this is why they were targeted; but little else can be inferred at this time.
The DRC government has said it believes a militia called Kamwina Nsapu is responsible for the killings. In the video shown to journalists in Kinshasa in April, the perpetrators are wearing red headbands, which the militia is known to wear. But, according to the Guardian, while government spokesman Lambert Mende said the video was taken by the militia, he “declined to give further information on how the video was obtained.” State security forces are also implicated in some of the crimes being investigated in the Kasai region and so, as the Congo Research Group (CRG) points out, state involvement or complicity in these killings cannot yet be ruled out.
What is the Kamwina Nsapu Militia?
Kamwina Nsapu was mobilized to fight against the government last summer. The instigating events appear to have been the central government’s appointment of representatives close to Kinshasa in important local government posts rather than local leaders, and frustrations over the splitting of Kasai into five provinces in 2015. In the last presidential election, the Kasai region came out strongly in support of the political opposition, and Kamwina Nsapu emerged to fight for more autonomy and local power in Kasai.
Violence escalated after the August 2016 assassination by security forces of Jean-Pierre Mpandi, a customary authority whose appointment the state refused to recognize. Mpandi’s tribal name was Kamwina Nsapu; the militia he led took his name. According to New Vision, “Before he was killed, Mpandi had called on his militia to fight anyone representing the government, posting an audio appeal online for the ‘liberation of Congo.’”
Kasai has been in tension with the central government arguably since before independence, when the 300-year-old Luba Kingdom was weakened by the slave trade and a succession dispute, and subsequently incorporated into the “Congo Free State” of Belgium’s King Leopold II. At independence in 1960, Kasai attempted to secede. Until last year, the region represented a relatively tiny proportion of violence in DRC. (This is opposed to eastern Congo, which is far from Kasai and has long been a restive section of the country.) The UN estimates that since last summer more than 400 people have been killed in fighting in Kasai, and over one million people are displaced in that region alone.
Toward an Independent Criminal Investigation
In a recent post the Congo Research Group writes, “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.” The New York Times article and editorial questioning the preparedness of the investigators seems to have played no small part in this misdirection of focus.
The DRC government conducted a swift investigation in which two suspects were arrested, and the authorities have rejected the possibility of allowing an independent international investigation. According to Human Rights Watch’s Ida Sawyer, “Given the implication of Congolese army soldiers in much of the violence in the region in recent months we have serious doubts about the Congolese authorities ability or willingness to carry out a credible independent investigation.”
The families of Sharp and Catalan also called for an independent inquiry:
No member of the United Nations Group of Experts on Congo had been killed before, and there was no reason to expect abduction or murder. For this reason, we are pressing the secretary general to appoint an independent international criminal investigation team to identify the perpetrators and their chain of command and to help ensure that those responsible face justice.
The US and Swedish governments have commissioned their own investigations, but as the Congo Research Group notes, “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.” The United Nations faces the same constraint.
Whatever form the investigation takes, it will bring attention to a part of the DRC that has not historically drawn much international focus. Ultimately, the success of any investigation can be judged not only on whether it brings the perpetrators of this crime to justice, but lays the foundation for a more lasting peace in this part of the country.