U.N. investigation could shed light on Congo deaths

Jun 26, 2017 by and

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Three months after their son Michael J. Sharp was killed while leading a United Nations investigation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, parents John and Michele Miller Sharp continue his efforts seeking justice and peace for the war-torn region.

Their quest is inhibited by a combination of corruption in Congo and apathy in the U.S., prompting them to seek wider assistance calling on U.S. politicians to pressure the U.N. to mount an independent investigation in the DRC.

Michael J. Sharp addresses the U.N. Security Council in August 2016. — Sharp Family

Michael J. Sharp addresses the U.N. Security Council in August 2016. — Sharp Family

Sharp and Zaida Catalán of Sweden were kidnapped and fatally shot by an unknown group in mid-March while they were investigating human rights abuses and sanctions violations in Kasaï-Central Province. Before his work with the U.N., Sharp was Eastern Congo coordinator with Mennonite Central Committee from 2012 to 2015.

Media reports indicate their Congolese interpreter and three motorcycle drivers are still missing.

Speaking June 20 from Prague, where he is leading a TourMagination group visiting Mennonite sites in the Czech Republic and Poland, John Sharp said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres was likely waiting for a critical mass of member nations to call for an independent investigation, especially from the U.S. and Sweden, or the U.N. Security Council. The U.N. typically declines to intervene officially without the cooperation of the host country.

Three days later, the U.N. Human Rights Commission partially fulfilled this goal when it approved a resolution on June 23 to send a team of international experts “to establish the truth” about a surge in violence in Kasaï-Central. It remains to be seen how much cooperation and support Congolese authorities give the experts.

“One of the complicating factors is nations or companies that have vested interests in the DRC,” Sharp said. “There are mining and diamond operations who stand to gain by keeping things as they are and stand to lose by supporting such an investigation.”

Writing in The New York Times June 15, Human Rights Watch Central Africa director Ida Sawyer and former coordinator of the U.N. Group of Experts on Congo Jason Stearns said the longer the U.N. waited the harder any investigation would be, as key evidence or witnesses could disappear.

“Reports have already emerged of soldiers digging up the mass graves to cover up the traces of their crimes,” they wrote.

Growing support

Some government officials are already on board. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico — where Michael Sharp had begun putting down stateside roots last fall — has been in conversation with the Sharps already and is seeking further bipartisan support. The Sharps appreciate advocacy to all senators — whether or not they are on the Foreign Relations Committee — to lend Udall greater bipartisan support in ensuring an investigation actually happens.

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley had already issued a statement June 5 calling on the U.N. to investigate the deaths.

“We owe it to their legacy to end the human rights abuses being carried out by armed groups and the DRC government against the Congolese people,” she said. “We hope other nations will join us in supporting a U.N.-led investigation and Human Rights Council-led inquiry into these horrific acts.”

Haley requested the secretary general initiate a special investigation into Sharp and Catalán’s deaths, which she called murder.

“As a member of the [U.N. Human Rights Council], the U.S. will support a resolution to establish a Commission of Inquiry into the ongoing human rights violations in the Kasai regions of the DRC,” said the statement. The New York Times reported European Union countries had initially pushed for a resolution requesting a relatively tougher commission of inquiry, but dropped it when it became clear such a resolution lacked support in Africa and the DRC would not allow such a commission to enter.

Multitude of atrocities

The U.N.’s top human rights official, high commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of the Human Rights Council, requested June 20 that the HRC establish an independent international investigation into widespread human rights violations and abuses that have displaced 1.3 million people.

“The humanitarian and human rights situation has deteriorated dramatically [over the last three months], and various actors are fueling ethnic hatred, resulting in extremely grave, widespread and apparently planned attacks against the civilian population in the Kasaïs,” he told the council.

He cited abuses by both militias and government security forces, including executions, rape, dozens of mass graves, mutilation of living fetuses and limbs chopped off of children as young as 2.

Sharp said his son was not explicitly investigating the government when he was abducted.

“But he had implicated an officer in the national army who was massacring civilians and blaming it on a militia group,” he said. “He named him in his last report in October. So he wasn’t going after the government specifically, but where the money was leading.”

There is a lot of money at stake. The Sharps’ pursuit of justice is inhibited by powerful countries and corporations that want to keep their mineral rights.

The Center for Public Integrity reported May 11 that the DRC government is putting millions of dollars into a Washington lobbying campaign using firms such as Alston and Bird, which employs former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who is named as lead attorney on the matter.

Sharp said Dole had thus far declined an opportunity to speak with the family, unlike current Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, who appears open to advocating for the family. But the effort would be easier with even broader support.

“It feels timely because there’s a lot of focus on M.J. and Zaida,” Sharp said. “And if there’s more than usual attention on them, that’s a doorway into other violence in the Kasaï and the DRC. It’s a doorway into the real problems that most of the world is not paying attention to.”

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