Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo needs a new kind of peacekeeper

The background of the conflict lies in tensions arising from the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda in the mid 1990s. By 1996, deposed Hutu Interahamwe forces from Rwanda had withdrawn to refugee camps in eastern Zaire (the previous name of the DRC) where they soon formed alliances with the Zairian Armed Forces in a campaign against Congolese ethnic Tutsis. In response these Tutsis, led by Laurent-Desire Kabila and supported by Rwanda and Uganda, formed a militia and overthrew President Mobutu’s autocratic government.

Rwanda and Uganda came to oppose Kabila, and in 1998 they backed an attack on the government by Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo (MLC). The government was supported by troops from Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, and fighting continued until a peace deal was brokered in 2001 by Joseph Kabila, who had assumed the presidency following his father’s assasination. UN peacekeepers, known as MONUC, arrived to oversee the peace in April. Despite their presence, the conflict was reignited in January 2002 by ethnic clashes in the north east, which caused both Rwanda and Uganda to cease withdrawing and reinforce their troops in the DRC. Kabila negotiated a power sharing agreement that would allow peace, and by 2003 every foreign army except that of Rwanda had withdrawn. Since then there have been several rounds of free and fair elections, but the fragility of the state has allowed for continued violence, particularly in Kivu in the East.

The most important of the rebel groups in Kivu is General Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). A Tutsi, he fought with the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which ended the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and now claims to be fighting to protect Congolese Tutsis from genocidal exiled Rwandan Hutus. His real motivations however, remain unclear given his ongoing battles with his co-ethnic Congolese army and government, and his apparent allegiance with the Tutsi Rwandan government in Kigali.

MONUC is entrusted with securing a peaceful solution to this torrid and seemingly intractible situation. It is the largest and most muscular peacekeeping force in the world, and is deployed under the UN’s strongest Chapter 7 mandate, which allows it to “take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security”. Nevertheless, in the words of its former commanding officer, Spanish General Vicente Diaz de Villegas it is “doomed to fail”. Its annual budget approximates to the cost of a week of American military presence in Iraq, and it is expected to provide security for a civilian population that outnumbers it 1000 to 1 in a huge region with poor roads and communications. What’s more, it is composed of a disparate mix of troops from 18 different countries, some of whom are under-equipped and poorly trained. India makes the largest contribution, with 4000 troops, followed by its neighbours, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, which are the only other states to contribute more than 1000 troops to the mission. Forging these diverse troops into an effective force is a difficult task, made more difficult by the need to maintain their governments’ commitment to this and other missions worldwide. Considerations of this nature have prevented effective discipliniary measures against Pakistani members of the force who are accused of exchanging ammunition and rations for ivory and gold with rebel forces, and then using MONUC helicopters to ferry it out of the country. The relative feebleness of this force is shown by its inability to prevent the murder of 26 refugees earlier this month in Kiwanja, which it described as a war crime, despite their proxity to a MONUC base; It had been forced into forming an alliance with the Congolese Army, which it has accused of war crimes, because it is too weak to ensure security on its own.

What is needed, both for the Congo and for other UN interventions worldwide, like UNAMID in Darfur, is a permanent, professional, cohesive UN armed intervention force. This force would be highly militarily capable, and rapidly deployable to hotspots of violence worldwide. It would provide the UN with a credible deterrent to those contemplating genocide or similar crimes anywhere in the world, and the capability to defeat them should they choose to go ahead. Having achieved its short term mission, it could be replaced by conventional UN peacekeepers, and redeployed elsewhere. Building such a force is almost impossible given the current climate of the UN, and the Security Council in particular, but it is essential that we attempt to do so for the good of the people of Kivu, and of those suffering from war crimes worldwide.

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