GENEVA - The United Nations Security Council has targeted illegal wildlife traffickers for sanctions in a pair of resolutions against African armed groups, a step conservationists called unprecedented and a major shift on a problem that has morphed from an environmental issue into a security threat.
A resolution that renewed an arms embargo, travel bans and asset freezes against armed groups in Congo included individuals who support those groups “through illicit trade of natural resources, including gold or wildlife as well as wildlife products”. The Security Council approved the resolution yesterday (Jan 30), two days after including similar language in a sanctions regime imposed on armed groups in the Central African Republic.
The conservation group WWF said the resolutions “represent the first times that the UN Security Council has specifically named illicit trade of wildlife and wildlife products in sanctions regimes”. The move follows years of warnings from advocates and UN officials that wildlife trafficking, particularly elephant ivory, has increasingly become a source of financing for armed groups.
“It’s a huge step forward,” said Ms Wendy Elliott, WWF species programme manager. Wildlife traffickers “are funding the armed groups that are causing the human rights violations, but it is still treated as an environmental issue and that is just not going to work out”.
Britain, which will host a summit on illicit wildlife trafficking next month, applauded the Security Council for approving a “sanctions regime which includes targeting those who fuel instability by illegally exploiting wildlife”.
“This provides us with another avenue to protect vulnerable species and cut off support to criminal and armed groups,” said Ms Iona Thomas, a British government spokeswoman.
United States Ambassador Samantha Power said, “In recent years wildlife trafficking has become a lucrative business and a source for conflict, so it’s a sign of progress that the Security Council recognises the link between stopping poaching and advancing peace.”
Yesterday’s Security Council resolution also stressed the importance of preventing M23 rebels from regrouping in Congo. M23 launched a rebellion in April 2012, becoming the latest reincarnation of a Tutsi rebel group dissatisfied with the Congolese government. Earlier this month, the top UN envoy in Congo said there were “credible reports’’ that the rebels were resuming activities despite its military defeat and a peace agreement with the Congolese government last month.
The Congo conflict is a spillover from the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.
A heated argument erupted between Congo and Rwanda during the Security Council meeting, with their ambassadors trading insults over allegations that each country is supporting rival armed groups.
A UN experts report released last week said there was “credible information” that M23 rebels were recruiting inside Rwanda.
The Security Council resolution expressed concern about reports that Congolese soldiers are aiding the FDLR, another rebel group which was formed by extremist Hutus from Rwanda who took part in that country’s 1994 genocide and then fled across the border.
Rwandan Ambassador Eugene Gasana dismissed the experts’ report as baseless. Congolese Ambassador Gata Mavita demanded that UN officials provide evidence of Congolese army support for the FDLR.
In their report, the UN experts said the slaughter of elephants in Congo “is one of the most tragic consequences of years of war and poor governance”.
In Garamba National Park, a census showed fewer than 2,000 elephants were left in 2012, compared to 22,000 in the 1960s.
The report said the Lord’s Resistance Army - which originated in Uganda and has waged one of Africa’s most brutal rebellions - maintains bases in the park and has engaged in firefights with park rangers, including a shooting in May last year that left two girls dead.
The report said that another armed group, Mai Mai Morgan, is “infamous for poaching elephants in the Okapi Fauna Reserve”, though its focus last year shifted toward attacking gold mines.