With the arrest by Spanish authorities on 29 August of a man charged with enslavement and diamond pillaging during Sierra Leone’s civil war, the issue of “blood diamonds” made headlines again for the first time in many years. But the trafficking of natural resources to fuel conflict around the world never went away. In fact, it is a challenge that confronts many parts of the UN system, from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) seeking to monitor flows, to the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) sanctions experts investigating those driving the flows and proposing their names for designation.
Security Council sanctions are a crucial element in the international response to “threat finance.” For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and Somalia sanctions regimes explicitly call for designations on those who assist in the trafficking of natural resources used to fund armed conflicts.
The question of how to better support Security Council sanctions to address illicit trafficking is one of the issues dealt with by the Inter-Agency Working Group on UN Sanctions, which is chaired by DPA. This Working Group offers a forum for coordinating information sharing among different UN entities involved in implementing UN sanctions – and, in this case, to countering illicit trafficking flows.
During a recent DPA-wide panel discussion on the illicit trafficking of natural resources and UN sanctions, experts brought together by DPA and UNEP via the Inter-Agency Working Group on UN Sanctions, surveyed the measures available to tackle illicit sources of revenue used to fund “non-state armed groups.”
“The fact is that addressing these illicit trafficking flows is critical for the underpinnings of conflict, how to address it and how to stop it,” said Christian Nellemann, a panellist and co-author of the recent UNEP-MONUSCO joint report on the illicit trafficking of natural resources benefitting organized criminal groups.
Yet, panelists stressed that effective UN sanctions rely on a full overview of regional trafficking flows, including the types of commodities being trafficked, the different routes used, and a clear sense of the armed groups benefiting from the trafficking.
The informal and unregulated character of natural resource exploitation, however, poses a complication for mapping these flows. According to Hassan Partow, a panelist, from UNEP, the general informal trade of resources, on which populations are dependent for their livelihoods, is sometimes difficult to disentangle from the illicit trafficking funding armed groups. In order to combat illicit trafficking but not destroy the livelihoods, it is necessary to couple the application of UN sanctions with a serious effort to identify and remove underlying incentives favouring smuggling, illegal and excessive taxation, and land tenure ambiguities.
Panelists also stressed that increased information-sharing across UN entities would allow UN sanctions committees to benefit from a much better picture of where and how to implement sanctions more effectively. The speakers emphasized that “understanding this pattern and these illicit flows is fundamental for understanding a conflict, but it cannot be done by one agency alone, but [only] through broad collaboration.”
To this end, panelists recommended further integration of the strategies and operations of UN civilian, police, and military entities working on these issues and increased crosscutting research and communication between UN sanctions Committees and their expert panels, UN missions, UN investigative units, and external experts. For example, research on cargo and transport companies that may potentially be involved in illicit trade could be compiled. In addition, more attention should be paid to the illicit trade of gold. David Biggs, the Secretary of the DRC, CAR, and South Sudan Sanctions Committee reminded those present that the Sierra Leone sanctions committee organised an innovative stakeholder meeting on alluvial diamonds, bringing together industry and civil society two years before the Kimberley Process was created. Today, Biggs called for similarly focused and creative approaches to artisanal gold.
The discussion also highlighted the need for more information sharing on the methods and networks of credit transactions between individuals and entities within these trading networks on topics such as pre-financing, taxation, loans, and money transfers. On this subject, Chris Dietrich, a former sanctions expert with the Liberia, Sudan and DRC panels, recommended that UN entities working on this issue have additional training on targeting illegitimate taxation and racketeering schemes, money laundering, tax evasion, and links between criminal networks. At the national level, Dietrich called for the cultivation of stronger enforcement mechanisms and, most importantly, investigative follow-up of initial findings of sanctions experts’ reports.
A First Step - Resolution 2195
Some recommendations have already taken effect. For example, the adoption of Security Council resolution 2195 on 19 December 2014 represents explicit recognition that the international community needed a concerted response to illicit trafficking flows as a crucial element in the prevention of conflict and extremist violence. The text calls for international action to prevent terrorists from benefiting from transnational organized crime, through securing borders and prosecuting illicit networks.
As Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, said following the adoption of the 2195 resolution, “Boko Haram, Al-Qaida, the Taliban, Da’esh and their sinister peers make it abundantly clear that the pervasive synergies between terrorism and cross-border crimes foster conflicts, prevent their resolution and increase the chance of relapse.”