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U.N. peacekeepers failing to stem illegal trades that fuel conflicts -- report

UNITED NATIONS -- U.N. peacekeeping efforts are largely failing to recognize or counteract the root effect of the illegal commodities trade that fuels armed conflicts in Africa and elsewhere, a prominent nongovernmental organization says in a new report.

There have been some successes, particularly in tackling the conflict over diamonds that plagued West Africa, according to the study "Lessons UNlearned: How the U.N. and Member States Must Do More to End Natural Resource-Fueled Conflicts," written by the U.K.-based research group Global Witness and commissioned by the European Commission. But it concludes that, though the Security Council and member states have placed sanctions on natural resource trading in some instances, the steps are always ad-hoc and often come too late and do too little.

And even when a robust sanctions regime is established, individual U.N. member states generally ignore them or refuse to enforce them altogether. The list of noncompliant states includes the five permanent members of the Security Council itself: China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States.

"Member states have been remarkably lax in enforcing, particularly in prosecuting, sanctions violations," said Mark Taylor of Global Witness. Taylor added that his group has found very few cases of states prosecuting individuals or companies for violating U.N. sanctions where natural resource smuggling is at issue.

The most well-known current example of this in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where a weak and corrupt government is battling at least two major armed factions in the eastern part of the country, with all sides accused of inflicting atrocities on civilians caught in the middle.

There, a peacekeeping force known by its French acronym MONUC has been thrust among combatants even as the governments that put it there fail to curb the commerce that fuels the conflict. Both armed insurgencies and even factions of the DRC government are actively engaged in mining and illegally exporting gold, coltan -- used in the manufacture of computers and cellular phones -- and the tin ore cassiterite.

One of the most egregious examples cited in successive independent U.N. investigative reports and the new Global Witness study involves Amalgamated Metal Corp. (AMC), a U.K.-registered minerals trader.

In 2008 and 2009, investigators concluded that two subsidiaries of AMC in Malaysia and Thailand were procuring cassiterite from parts of the eastern DRC controlled by the the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), in violation of Security Council sanctions. The FDLR is an armed group manned mostly by the escaped collaborators of the Rwandan genocide.

Despite the evidence presented to it thus far, the U.K. government has refused to penalize AMC or to conduct its own investigation.

The AMC subsidiary Thaisarco recently announced that it was ending purchases of all cassiterite from the DRC, citing "the threat of misleading and bad publicity." Thaisarco said that it had set up a vetting process in mid-2009 that would have weeded out purchases aiding the FDLR but that continuing NGO pressure compelled the company to change course.

In the United States and Norway, authorities are aware of the activities of RUD-Urunana, a pro-FDLR group with members in New Jersey and Oslo who routinely wire funds to the outlawed organization via Western Union. To date, no action has been taken against them.

The United Nations estimates that roughly 40 percent of all armed conflicts since the 1950s have been sparked by a competition over natural resources in one way or another.

Reluctant players

In a discussion of the report at the European Commission offices in New York yesterday, one diplomat said that countries that are major natural resource exporters are usually reluctant to even debate ways to tackle the issue. They fear the stigmatization of particular commodities more than the instability the trafficking creates, he said.

The problem is not limited to the DRC. For at least two years, Khmer Rouge rebels in Cambodia financed their war against the government through illegal timber sales before governments got a handle on the problem. Lessons from the illegal trafficking of diamonds from Angola, oil from Nigeria and even cocoa from northern Cote d'Ivoire show that U.N. members have been remarkably inconsistent in dealing with the problem.

As an effort to balance out the failure of states to comply with sanctions, Global Witness recommends empowering peacekeeping troops in conflict and post-conflict areas to intervene in the illicit trade of commodities, by searching cargo bound for export and arresting conspirators. Peacekeepers in the DRC have been authorized to intervene in resource smuggling to some extent, but their overall impact has been marginal.

"There is now adequate language in the mandate of MONUC," said Jan Grauls, permanent representative of Belgium to the United Nations. Nevertheless, "we do not have the indication that MONUC has the resources," he added.

The United Kingdom's Global Witness also acknowledges the limitations of this approach.

"Peacekeeping missions like MONUC are staffed with military peacekeepers and observers, or civilian protection officers, not with specialized sanctions monitors or customs officials," its report says. "Simply put, they may not know what to look for when seeking to interdict illicit commodities. "

The group also recommends that any peace negotiations include resource-sharing agreements worked out between combating parties. Security Council sanctions should also be expanded to ban all sales of resources, not only those from designated illegal armed factions. In support of this recommendation, Global Witness cites cases in the DRC where regional government military commanders took over mining areas and continued exploiting them for their own profit.

Global Witness' critiques and recommendations echo the recent conclusions of an independent group of investigators on the decades-long civil war in the DRC.

Last December, the Security Council received a commissioned report by the "Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo" detailing how tin, tungsten, gold and other minerals were being smuggled out of DRC with little difficulty.

That report summarized how the FDLR easily circumvented U.N. sanctions to sell minerals and timber and launder the proceeds abroad. The open export of DRC gold to jewelry makers in the United Arab Emirates was singled out for providing a particularly lucrative stream of cash for guns and ammunition.

The Group of Experts said the FDLR was conspiring with authorities in Uganda to smuggle gold out of DRC territory it controls and to Dubai, in exchange for weapons from Tanzania. The 2009 report also named Amalgamated Metals Corporation for violations, as the 2008 version did.

Founded in 1994, Global Witness researches and documents cases where commodities smuggling is directly linked to civil strife and advises governments on the steps necessary to curb the trafficking. In the past, the group has successfully lobbied for U.N. sanctions on diamonds from UNITA rebels in Angola and raw wood from the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and helped to create the Kimberley Process that weeded out conflict diamonds from African exports, helping to end decades of civil war in Liberia and Sierra Leone.