Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Learning Bosnia's lessons in Congo

The UN's decision to send 3,000 more peacekeepers to Congo won't stem the conflict unless they are prepared to use force

o Ian Williams
o, Wednesday November 26 2008 22.00 GMT

Last week, the UN security council agreed to send 3,000 more peacekeepers to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While size does indeed matter, the history of the last few decades suggests that direction and vigour are actually more important. In both Congo and Sudan, massive human tragedies take place while ill-equipped and badly led forces with inadequate mandates make token gestures. It is strongly reminiscent of Bosnia, where for years inadequate forces stood around monitoring how many shells Mladic's and Karadzic's forces dropped on Sarajevo, and in effect enforcing the Serb blockade.

Too many UN peacekeeping operations are as much to do with show business as geopolitics. The international community, or at least those parts of it responsive to popular pressure, wants to appear ostentatiously to be "doing something". Few are prepared, or even able, to provide capable forces, while for some governments the UN payments are lifelines for their defence budgets rather than for suffering war victims. On the other hand, the US, which has supported, and indeed requested, many of the operations, has been paying its contributions in arrears because of loony tune amendments in Congress.

The UN itself has had endless panels analysing individual operations and peacekeeping in general, but in the end it is hostage to the member states and what they are able and willing to provide, whether in cash or troops.

In Congo, perhaps because there are no Arabs involved to vilify, far more people have died, unprotected and relatively un-noticed, than in Darfur. Lieutenant General Vicente Diaz de Villegas y HerrerĂ­a, the Spanish commander for the peacekeepers, resigned after a mere six weeks, reportedly because he could see no way out of the impasse. France, sponsoring last week's resolution, is indeed willing to take stronger action, but is perhaps the least suitable power, given its recent involvements in Rwanda.

The resolution contained all the usual diplomatic boilerplate about Congo. It reaffirms "its commitment to respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo", and "underscores the importance of MONUC implementing its mandate in full, including through robust rules of engagement". However it blithely ignores the fact that the boiler has exploded.

Even more than in Bosnia, it is optimistic to the point of Panglossian to assume that all parties really want peace. With the collapse of the economy and country, war is the major local employer. Indeed, some years ago, one UN official suggested that the central African conflicts were being perpetuated because the commanders of the various forces were all HIV-positive and needed to pay for their antiviral medications. The region's reserves of diamonds and coltan, essential for mobile phones, are highly portable and valuable in themselves, even without such an incentive.

The remnants of the genocidal Interhamwe from Rwanda, former clients of the French, have been marauding in the east of Congo, since they were defeated and expelled from their own country. No international forces have taken effective action against them, which is why there is at least some justification for Rwanda's support for Laurent Nkunda and his rebel force against them, and indeed against the Congolese army, whose conduct makes it part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Both Congo and Sudan epitomise the apocryphal Irish advice to lost wayfarers: "If I was you, I wouldn't start from here." But they do reassert the lesson that traditional peacekeeping, a thin blue line of lightly armed troops, does not work when there is no peace to keep. At best they should be a tripwire, with the strong message that anyone crossing them will get serious mayhem from serious forces.

In Sierra Leone, for example, while the UN peacekeepers were surrendering their weaponry at the first barricade, it was the British marines and navy that finally put paid to the horror. In Bosnia, the beginning of the end for Karadzic and Mladic was when General Rupert Smith pulled in the lines of peacekeepers and brought in artillery and air support against them, even if the latter promptly proved the point by taking UN troops hostage.

In the past, not entirely rational opponents of a "UN army" in Congress have managed to block longstanding proposals for quick-reaction standby forces from countries with the military wherewithal to be available for rapid deployment on UN operations for peacekeeping, and indeed peacemaking, when parties cross the thing blue line. Now that we can have at least a presumption of rationality in both the White House and on Capitol Hill it may be possible for the US to lend its vote, and even its forces to such an enterprise.

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