It's Time To Give The UN Some Teeth

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The deteriorating situation in the Congo, right under the nose of the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission, is forcing a re-evaluation of the way the UN deals with humanitarian emergencies. There is growing support for a United Nations Emergency Peace Service, or "UNEPS", which its proponents argue could have prevented the latest atrocities.

Mass displacement, rape and the recruitment of child soldiers are everyday events in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a conflict is being waged primarily between rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda’s forces and the Congolese army. The United Nations is calling these events war crimes. Others are calling them the Srebrenica of the Congo.

Eastern Congo has been volatile for over a decade, but the current situation reveals a government unable to protect its population and a UN failing to meet its responsibility to prevent gross human rights violations. While there have been calls to hold Congolese leaders accountable, these have been dismissed by certain African commentators as examples of neocolonial western discourse.

For many there is a sense of déjà vu at this impasse, in which the desire to protect a vulnerable population is neutered by concerns over the expense and the very real practical difficulties of such efforts, and the risks to forces on loan from other countries, together with doubts over what is to be done exactly and how best to go about it.

Situations such as these have prompted UN officials such as Sadako Ogata, while she was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to plead for the rapid deployment of a specialised force to protect people caught up in deadly conflict. Calls for such a force have been supported by the Former Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, Juan Mendez, who believes in the political feasibility of the UNEPS idea.

Supporters of the UNEPS proposal argue that if such a force had been ready to deploy on October 26th when the Tutsi insurgents loyal to General Nkunda launched a major offensive within 20 kilometres of the North Kivu provincial capital, Goma, it may have been able to prevent much of the violence. According to Jean-Marie Guehenno, the former head of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, there is an urgent need for an effective, sufficiently resourced international force in the east.

While the idea of maintaining a standing force as part of the UN is as old as the organisation itself, the current UNEPS campaign is inspired by Sir Brian Urquhart’s proposal of UN volunteer military force. The proposal has been further developed by activists, academics, former UN officials and peacekeepers from around the world.

As it is currently imagined, UNEPS would be a standing permanent outfit, available to deploy within 48-72 hours of authorisation. The service would be designed to complement traditional UN and regional peacekeeping capacities. It’s like the relationship between an ambulance and a hospital: the ambulance stabilises, the hospital heals.

The service would be based in a UN designated site (possibly on Okinawa) with mobile field headquarters and comprise 15,000 to 18,000 individually and independently recruited and equipped personnel. UNEPS members would include civilian police, military officers, humanitarian relief professionals and judicial experts, among others.

Besides paying humanitarian dividends, the UNEPS idea could restore public confidence in the UN as an effective multilateral peacekeeping and peace-building institution. The absence of such a service is felt strongly as the UN, regional bodies, individual nations and NGOs call for something to be done to stop the slaughter of innocents in the Congo.

As things stand, calls to bolster the current peace operation in the region — known as "MONUC" — with an emergency force to protect civilians and facilitate access to humanitarian aid have not translated into action.

Last week the UN voted to send 2785 extra troops and 300 police officers to the Congo but there are questions about who will supply these troops and whether they will be appropriately trained, resourced or authorised to make a difference.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner last month called for the deployment of a hundreds-strong European stabilising force to North Kivu but EU member countries were divided on the issue because of military priorities in Afghanistan. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) pledged troops a fortnight ago but probably lacks the military capacity to meet its commitment.

Prominent human rights NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, have called for intensified diplomatic efforts and a strengthened UN peacekeeping force to prevent the crisis in North Kivu reaching catastrophic proportions.

By any measure the current approach is not working. The 17,000-strong MONUC is the world’s largest peacekeeping mission. It has been based in the DRC since 1999, but while it has had some successes, it has been unable to stop Nkunda’s advance or protect tens of thousands of fleeing civilians.

Part of the problem involves the way in which the MONUC force approaches its mission. Despite its Chapter VII mandate, which gives peacekeepers the right to use "all necessary means … to protect civilians", MONUC’s rules of engagement depend upon the risks that troop-contributing countries want their forces to take. This has left peacekeepers struggling, and sometimes failing, to protect the vulnerable.

This is where a dedicated UN force could help, by rapidly deploying 2000-4000 highly trained combat troops to complement the MONUC force. The troops would ideally be deployed to the most volatile parts of North Kivu, especially the towns surrounding Goma.

The unit’s small size would make transportation of troops, equipment and supplies manageable. Given that UNEPS’s staff would have a wide repertoire of skills, it would be capable of providing a range of responses appropriate to the nature and stage of the crisis, bringing in police and other law enforcement at short notice to support the work of MONUC and the NGOs.

The UNEPS campaign has attracted growing interest and support since the launch of the UNEPS publication in 2006. This support includes the recent inclusion of the UNEPS idea into Democratic Party of Japan’s vision for a new Okinawa, a US House of Representatives resolution supporting UNEPS, regional conferences in Australia, Costa Rica and South Africa and advocacy work with partners in the UN and different regions, including Indonesia and Malaysia.

The development of the UNEPS proposal is taking place in consultation with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. It is also emerging alongside efforts to advance other UN peacekeeping and security sector reforms such the proposal for a standing UN rule of law and police capacity by the Stimson Centre, the US-based peace and security studies think-tank.

Peacekeeping operations and the UN’s Department of Political Affairs need more tools and capacities to address violence in its formative stages. UNEPS could be one of these tools.

But UNEPS is not a panacea. It would not address the complex political issues underlying the conflict in the DRC. Regional neighbours Rwanda, Uganda and Angola all have a stake in the conflict and are using the Congo as a battlefield to purse their own interests. These interests include exploiting ethnic divisions which were such a big part of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and a desire to capitalise on the huge mineral wealth available in the region.

Beyond addressing the current crisis, the Congolese and the Rwandan Governments must be obliged to fulfill their commitments to army integration, economic governance and transitional justice. The fulfillment of such promises would include the disarmament of militias and subsequent integration into the Congolese army, ending Rwandan support to Nkunda and the establishment of UN and government control over the area’s natural resources.

These issues are at the heart of the crisis and addressing them properly is the only way of breaking the cycle of violence, poverty and bad governance.

As the independent Enough Project (a US-based NGO committed to preventing genocide and crimes against humanity) points out, the Congo needs the world’s sustained attention, not political ambulance chasing.

Yet something must be done when a conflict spirals out of control and tens of thousands of people are trapped with little food, shelter or medical help.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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