As America and Europe were in the clutches of eleventh-hour Obamania, a tragedy was unfolding in the heart of Africa: Up to 250,000 Congolese had been driven from their homes in the latest fighting that still threatens to engulf more African nations, driven into fetid refugee camps that supposedly offer U.N. peacekeeper protections from the carnage. On Halloween, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked the U.N. Security Council president to consider sending peacekeeping reinforcements to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Security Council didn’t take it up until this week, approving a French resolution to send 2,785 more troops and 300 more police to the beef up the sorely understaffed force of about 17,000 already there.
Oh, and that valiant Ban begging for more troops? The United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known by its French acronym MONUC, actually asked the U.N. for more troops — properly equipped and trained to react rapidly to the deteriorating situation there, at that — back on Oct. 3. And those freshly approved troops? No volunteers as of this writing. And pencil in another two months or so for their arrival, not likely by MONUC’s Dec. 31 mandate expiration. No rush or anything, U.N.
But France’s ambassador to the U.N., Jean-Maurice Ripert, got it right on the nose: While quantity is lacking, so is quality. “The rules of engagement, if they are strong enough, they are not being used strongly enough,” he said. No one knows better than the beleaguered Congolese.
As Americans went to the polls on Nov. 4, civilians in the town of Kiwanja, which had an ostensibly protective U.N. base nearby, answered knocks on their doors only to be met by gunfire. The slayings continued into the next day, as Americans and Europeans were snapping up their Obama-headlined newspapers. Human Rights Watch estimated at least 50 killings in Kiwanja; the Congolese Red Cross said it could be as high as 200. Reuters reporter Emmanuel Braun wrote, in part:
In Kiwanja, one distraught woman, crying hysterically, asked journalists to “come and see the five dead bodies in my house.” One was that of her husband. Two more bodies lay outside.
…Journalists asked the U.N. peacekeepers, who have a base nearby, why they had not intervened. They did not reply.
The U.N. later said that they only had 120 peacekeepers at the base, and were too “pinned down by fighting,” according to the Guardian, to save lives.
How ironic that just the previous week Congolese citizens lashed out at U.N. peacekeepers as they rumbled their tanks away from the threatened town of Kibati. “Where are they going? They’re supposed to protect us!” the Associated Press heard one man shouting. And so after nine years of the U.N. presence in their country, after an untold number of sexual assaults committed by peacekeepers on Congolese girls and women, and the latest unsurprising but still tragic inability or unwillingness of the forces to get involved when needed most, Congolese civilians took the nearest weapon — rocks — into their own hands, and pelted four U.N. compounds in the provincial capital of Goma.
In another twist of tragic irony, the roots of this conflict stem in part from past U.N. inaction. While the Tutsis and Hutus have a long history of conflict, the current one in the eastern part of the DRC is billed as a carryover from the unchecked Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which the U.N. — and the Clinton administration — sat around debating the difference between plain old genocide and “acts of genocide.” Nearly a million deaths later, everyone had their answer.
And Hutu militiamen fled into neighboring countries, including rural parts of the DRC. The Tutsi rebel general, Laurent Nkunda, accuses the Congolese government of sheltering fighters responsible for the Rwandan genocide and says he fights to protect other Tutsis. How might the story be different if the U.N. and member states had actually provided the 5,000 troops that Gen. Romeo Dallaire, who oversaw the peacekeeping mission in Rwanda when the genocide began, begged and pleaded for to stop the machete-wielders? Six weeks into the 100-day genocide the Security Council approved the additional troops, but then nobody would volunteer soldiers. How might the story in the Congo be different today if the world had had the guts to say “enough” back then?
U.N. peacekeeping has long been a sick joke in the annals of world conflict. Just ask the Bosniaks who fled to the “safe area” of Srebrenica, to be guarded over by 400 Dutch peacekeepers, yet to have those peacekeepers watch as 8,000 boys and men were led to their deaths by Serbs. Or look at why Hezbollah felt it could safely rearm under the noses of peacekeepers after the U.N.-brokered cease-fire with Israel. Such operations are just window dressing, blue-hatted vanity contingents without much of a will and, thanks to a low priority placed on comprehensive leadership, discipline, and materiel support for peacekeeping forces, without much of a way. And striking fear in the hearts of militants? I can only imagine how many peacekeeper puns Nkunda has stockpiled away by this point.
As Rwanda Part Two threatens to unfold in the DRC, the incoming Barack Obama will have to decide if he’s going to take the Clinton approach to African genocide, or take a leadership role. His swear-in date will likely be too late, though, for the tens of thousands of Congolese in peril, and he’d likely take the U.N.-friendly route in line with his 2007 example of the Congo as a reason not to prevent genocide in Iraq, so let’s hope President Bush steps up with some serious parting shots at the U.N.’s paltry response. The African Union has threatened to send troops into the conflict, which could spiral things out of control into a regional war.
And Congolese wait, hoping there’s no mysterious knock on the door in the dead of night. It doesn’t matter that the “peacekeepers” are just down the road — who’s actually going to protect them?