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[Published: Monday November 01 2010]

 UN struggles in chaotic DRC

 In 2008 the crisis in the eastern Congo affected 250,000 people as fighting between tribal groups, Congolese government troops and rebels led by the renegade Rwandan General Laurent Nkunda escalated. The chaos was greatly exacerbated by the struggle to control the area’s rich mineral resources. There was a UN peacekeeping force of 17,000, the largest such force in the world, in the region. Goma, the biggest town in eastern Congo, had become the centre for UN and humanitarian aid organisations. Nkunda’s forces moved where they willed and ignore the UN peacekeepers, which ought to have been transformed into peace enforcers. A joint visit to the area was made by the foreigner ministers of Britain and France, David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner, who issued a joint statement: “The crisis commands our attention because of the region’s history and the scale of human suffering. There’s no excuse for turning away.” However, as the brutality and killing persisted there was little indication that the UN presence was able to halt the violence.

The chaos continued. In August 2010, within a short distance from a UN base, some 200 women and four baby boys were gang-raped by Rwandan and Congolese rebels. This atrocity focused attention upon the UN peacekeepers: what do they do? And can they ever put a stop to such violence? The response of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was to send two top aides to assess the situation. He expressed outrage at such sexual attacks and the UN special representative for sexual violence in conflict, Margot Wallstrom was appointed to take charge of the UN’s response and follow-up. Ban Ki-Moon called on the rebel groups to lay down their arms and join the peace process; he urged the Congolese government to investigate the attack, bring the perpetrators to justice and bring an end to the insecurity in the east of the country.

The rebel attack on the 200 women had taken place just 20 miles from a military camp of Indian soldiers, present under UN auspices. Only 25 peacekeepers tried to control the rebels. When peacekeepers approached a village the rebels withdrew into the forests but once the UN troops had moved to another area the rebels would return. Although the Security Council condemned the mass rape it found difficulty in explaining how its large, only peacekeeping operation in the area failed to stop it since its headquarters had been only 20 miles from the village where the rape atrocity had occurred. It transpired that an e-mail message of 30 July has warned humanitarian groups to stay away from the area so that there was foreknowledge that something violent was about to happen.

Admittedly, the eastern Congo is probably the most brutal and chaotic area in the world, which is why a 17,000 UN peacekeeping force is deployed there. On all the evidence this force should be converted into a peace enforcing operation since at present it appears manifestly incapable of keeping the peace.

Guy Arnold

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