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POLITICS: U.N. Faulted for Toothless Sanctions in Civil Wars

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 27 2010 (IPS) - The United Nations estimates that at least 40 percent of civil wars during the last 60 years have been fought either over natural resources – including diamonds, gold, timber, oil, gas, and cocoa – or sustained by revenues from rich minerals and commodities.

Still, says a London-based investigative and human rights group, the United Nations and its member states are “weak” and “ineffective” in enforcing sanctions or implementing resolutions against countries and rebel groups involved in these perennial conflicts over natural resources.

According to Global Witness, which continues to expose the corrupt exploitation of mineral resources and the international trading system that nurtures these shady deals, civilians have been dying on a daily basis in war-ravaged eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where the ongoing conflict has been triggered by a lucrative global trade in minerals.

But when the Security Council, the most powerful body at the United Nations, passes resolutions concerning DRC, including targeted sanctions, members of the Council and other governments have declined to implement them.

These failings, says a 49-page study released Wednesday by Global Witness, reflect the lack of a coherent and committed international approach to tackling these conflicts.

Asked if member states fail to act because they seek to protect their own interests in these politically-troubled countries, Mike Davis of Global Witness concurred with that reasoning.

“Yes, when U.N. member states, including those in the Security Council, decline to implement their own resolutions on targeted sanctions, for example on DRC, this is often due to vested political and economic interests,” he told IPS.

Countries such as Britain are reluctant to penalise their own companies or displease allies in the region – such as Rwanda – which, in its capacity as a conduit for conflict minerals, benefits handsomely from the illicit trade, Davis pointed out.

Another reason, he said, is the sheer lack of commitment by these Security Council members and their assumption that if they fail to live up to their responsibilities, no one will call them on it.

“Holding to account international companies that are fuelling this vicious conflict requires a relatively small amount of effort from the big powers, but because it is DRC, they are not prepared even to undertake this modest step,” he added.

The conflict in DRC, described as Africa’s ‘World War’, is not the first in which natural resources have played a central role, says the study, “Nor is it likely to be the last.”

In the 1990s, the Security Council imposed sanctions on the timber trade controlled by the Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia and the diamond trade dominated by the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

Since the turn of the century, the Security Council has also sought to contend with wars fuelled by natural resources in countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire.

And “in the past 20 years, just under one in three U.N. peacekeeping operations worldwide, and just over half of those in Africa, have concerned conflicts sustained by revenues from primary commodities such as oil, diamonds, minerals and timber,” according to the United Nations.

The study by Global Witness, titled ‘Lessons UNLearned’, says the international peace and security system is “poorly equipped” to deal with the challenges posed by most of these “self-financing wars” in countries such as DRC, Angola, Cambodia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire.

When considered together, the four key entry points for international action – sanctions, peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding – should offer the basis for effective action.

“However, despite progress in some areas, the overall picture is one of ad hoc decision making and yawning gaps in institutional capacity and coordination,” the study says.

The 15-member Security Council has also remained paralysed over several conflicts – in Burma (Myanmar), Zimbabwe and Palestine – primarily because of vested political, economic and military interests by the five veto-wielding permanent members: the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia.

In January 2007, both Russia and China exercised a double veto against a Western-inspired resolution against the repressive military regime in Burma, a country rich in mineral resources.

In July 2008, the two big powers also vetoed a resolution calling for punitive measures, including an arms embargo, against Zimbabwe, and financial travel restrictions on President Robert Mugabe.

Meanwhile, the three Western powers, the United States, Britain and France, have continued to throw a protective arm around Israel and warded off all attempts to castigate successive governments in Tel Aviv for human rights violations and war crimes.

Asked if sanctions have been effective, at least in some instances, Davis of Global Witness said there have been cases in which sanctions to tackle the trade in conflict resources have been “very effective”.

The imposition of diamonds sanctions on Angola and Sierra Leone, at a time when the diamond trade in both countries was substantially controlled by rebel groups, was successful.

The use of timber sanctions on Liberia to dry up funding for former Liberian president Charles Taylor’s campaign of regional destabilisation was another success story.

With respect to DRC, Davis said, “We remain cautiously optimistic that, with enough international pressure”, the five permanent members of the Security Council, and other member states, will feel compelled to implement the targeted sanctions regime against companies whose activities are fuelling the violence.

This, he noted, can weaken the operational capacity of the abusive armed groups in the east of the country.

Meanwhile, the study has called on the United Nations to establish a high-level panel to draw up a comprehensive strategy for tackling self-financing wars.

The study has also made a series of recommendations on how to improve the operational effectiveness of U.N. bodies and member states with respect to sanctions, peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

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