Why we need to protect Congo’s civilians, now

10:14 am - November 26th 2008

by Paul Hilder    

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Eastern Congo is aflame again – but so far all we have from the world is talk and precious little action to show for it. It’s time to change that, if we don’t want a repeat of the failures of the Rwandan genocide, ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia and previous genocides in DRC. In the last three weeks alone, hundreds of thousands have been made refugees, rape, murder and pillage has surged, children have been abducted and pressed into militias… and the situation may be sliding into regional war, with talk of the countries who tore Congo apart before sending forces on either side.

The UN has voted to approve over 3000 reinforcements for its peacekeeping presence. But that force is in disarray, discredited by its failure to protect civilians and its closeness to brutal government troops — and no-one is yet offering to provide reinforcements.

The people of Congo, NGOs and former UN peacekeeping heads agree – only Europe looks able to act fast enough to put in a capable, neutral force to protect the vulnerable.

That’s why we at Avaaz among others have been campaigning with increasing urgency for a European force to protect eastern Congo’s civilians – and it would really help for the blogosphere to pile in.

We ran the ad above (click for full PDF text) as a full-page in The Times last week, quoting the words of Gordon Brown and David Miliband back at them, and calling on them to live up to those words. It’s hard-hitting – we hosted Miliband’s first speech and have worked with these people before – but they need to know how serious we are. Our members around Europe have sent over 60,000 emails to their leaders, and over 130,000 around the world have joined our campaign.

Why Congo? It’s the biggest genocidal war since Vietnam, probably as big in terms of casualties, with over 5 million killed. It’s far from distant – its coltan reserves are essential to our mobile phones and Playstations in the West. And it’s far from being intractable, although regional, international and business interests fighting over its riches would like you to think so. Painstaking progress had been made toward stopping the conflict and building a better future.

This is the decisive moment for Congo – either the world will finally surge to help its people, or this crisis will poison the seeds of hope. The conflict on the ground is flaring because there’s a vacuum, even a small European-quality force could stabilise it – and this is necessary if the diplomatic process is to move forward and Congo’s people are to have a hope of disarming the militias and re-establishing public authority over their lives and natural resources. If this is the heart of darkness, it is partly because of what the world has done to it. But we could help instead of harm – indeed, it is our responsibility to.

Why press the UK? It matters here, for two reasons. First, there are only two European rapid-response groups that can be deployed immediately in crises like this, and the only one which could be politically acceptable in eastern Congo is the British contingent currently on standby. Second, leadership is needed to make anything happen in Europe, and Britain is one of a very few states able to lead (meanwhile, France cannot send troops to eastern Congo given its history with the region, and Germany is perhaps the strongest opponent, although many other EU states would be ready to contribute).

Until we ran this ad, I was getting a mix of distractedness, ignorance and excuses from our contacts in the British government. They’ve been doing stalwart diplomatic work, but it will stall unless the situation on the ground can be stabilised.

The word behind the scenes was that the Ministry of Defence was determined to block any such deployment, partly because it’s overstretched, partly because it wants to send more troops to Afghanistan. But the overdue withdrawal of over 2,000 troops from Basra Airport in Iraq is imminent, the rapid-response group is standing ready, and it would be far wiser to launch a successful peacekeeping mission than to dig deeper into an unprofitable war against a Taliban insurgency which will never be defeated – see Rory Stewart’s latest piece on that.

This isn’t about Blairite crusading. It’s about keeping the peace and protecting civilians. We need to focus on the spectre of Congo behind the spectre of Iraq (without forgetting the lessons, and responsibility, of the latter).

The day after I sent the Congo Genocide ad to government contacts, we got a mobile call from Mark Malloch-Brown, the UK Africa minister and no fool. Behind the scenes, we are getting signals that the UK has moved toward supporting a European force. But the clock is ticking – there’s a key Brussels meeting on 8th and 9th December, at which the UK and other states need to be discussing and agreeing on concrete proposals, and at present we’re miles from where we need to be.

That’s why we’re laying siege to Number 10 and the FCO today with a cross-organisational black-clad protest (thanks to Amnesty for taking the lead), and that’s why Avaaz is fundraising to step up our ad campaign here and all over Europe in the next 2 weeks.

The Avaaz petition is here, and you can send a message to Gordon Brown here. (We have ways of getting it through.)

Bloggers, please pile in. Post, create buttons, do whatever you can.

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About the author
Tinker, tailor, soldier...? Nope. Paul co-founded the global debate network www.openDemocracy.net in 2000, and more recently helped set up www.Avaaz.org, where he now directs people-powered campaigns on a range of issues - conflicts, climate, global justice and democracy. In between, he has worked around the UK, Europe and the Middle East, with think-tanks from the Young Foundation and Oxford Research Group to the Club de Madrid. He's advised governments and civil society groups, conducted private diplomacy, run an election support campaign (Vote4Peace in 2005) plus a participatory democracy programme around England's cities and counties, and has written/edited a bunch of books and reports (most recently Contentious Citizens). None of it seemed to do half as much good as campaigning.
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Reader comments

“only Europe looks able to act fast enough to put in a capable, neutral force to protect the vulnerable.”

Except we are not capable, not neutral and not able to act fast enough.

Furthermore, all sides are guilty of atrocities so there is no way of distinguishing the vulnerable from the next set of revenge-mongers.

We cannot micromanage other countries problems for them and we shouldn’t blackmail ourselves into doing so. The only way to solve a problem like the Congo basin is to emphasis continuing dipomatic efforts and solidarity across the borders of the region.

Great to have two of the “bad” (for which read inaccurate, inadequate or immoral) reasons for doing nothing straight away. So here’s why they’re bad:
Number 1 – “we aren’t up to it”, or “we are not capable, not neutral and not able to act fast enough”. Not true, thrice over.

Fast enough? The EU has two rapid-response forces for precisely this purpose, able to deploy within 15 days – far faster than most other forces around the world. One of them is wholly British at present. European states also have more logistical capabilities than most other UN-contributing states.

Neutral? Well, you wouldn’t want French troops in there. But part of the problem is that MONUC has been dragged onto one side of this conflict, too often supporting rogue government troops rather than keeping the peace. A European force with the appropriate terms of engagement, either within or parallel to MONUC, could radically alter both the reality and the perception. Nkunda has hinted at being much readier to back off if something like this happens.

Not capable? Hogwash. European peacekeepers are some of the most capable in the world. And take what happened in Sierra Leone and the recent Bunia deployment. Here’s Jean-Marie Guehenno, the ex-peacekeeping chief at the UN, who believes that the extra UN troops being sent to the Congo need to be elite soldiers from Europe (from the link in the article above):

JEAN-MARIE GUEHENNO: That would have a big deterrent effect. Because the troops, they really play two roles: they have their operational role but they also are a political signal. And if the Europeans showed that they are ready to go, that would be a very powerful signal.

When you think of what happened during the election where there was a very small, very, very small European deployment in Congo, but it had a huge psychological impact because there was that sense that the rest of the world was watching. That deterrent effect was enormous.
Finally, the “they’re all guilty and you can’t tell them apart” narrative, otherwise known as Heart of Darkness. This is completely ridiculous. It’s based on the idea that this is a civil war among peoples, a kind of Tutsi-Hutu face-off in which everyone mobilises. That simply isn’t true.

You have a few key forces – a few thousand of the genocidaire FDLR, Nkunda’s CNDP, some of the Mai-Mai – opening up a security vacuum for people to vie for power, and the rogue Congolese army playing one of the biggest parts, and people playing for advantage in extortion and corruption, and some community militias. But the vast majority of the population is outraged, calling out for help from Europe, and victim not party to this conflict, until their children get press-ganged into it.

Meanwhile, you have a regional diplomatic process which will never advance while the situation on the ground remains so volatile and uncertain. Diplomats acknowledge to us that disarming the FDLR, reintegrating Nkunda and getting the Congolese army under control are essential. This is not going to happen unless people are out there facing down bad stuff and creating space for good stuff to get built.

It’s easy and appealing to some Brits and Europeans to think of Africa as a heart of darkness, to be touched only forensically with diplomatic prods, where we failed before, and should never return. But that would be a horrific abandonment of our African brothers and sisters who are calling out for help. It would also be to abandon our historic responsibility for some of what has gone wrong.

Now, please tell me why we should use historic guilt for getting things wrong as a justification for getting things wrong again?

Sure we have a rapid response force capable of responding in 15 days, so please, why has it taken 37 years to get round to it? What about Darfur?

Neutral? The UN forces are not peacekeepers in any meaningful sense, just like they weren’t when they stood on the sidelines during the Rwandan massacres (to give them credit) and just like they were bystanders at Srebrinica.

The UN peacekeepers are hired mercenaries who operate on license under agreement bartered by tribal chiefs to protect mutual economic interests. These tribal chiefs then go on to use the cash raised from western corporations raping the natural resources in their territories to buy arms from the west to secure their position and compete for dominance. Thus the UN enables the civil war to exist in the first place and it is their presence which is the problem.

Yes the UN should be doing something – they should be getting out.

But of course vested interests always find it politically unacceptable to cede control, because to do so weakens their domestic case for maintaining the status quo.

‘Capability’ is not a question of how advanced western forces are, but of the sheer scale of the task facing them. Just as successive attempts have proved in places as diverse as Afghanistan and Vietnam overextension is a strategic error – the Congo basin is the size of western Europe and how many troops were required to be deployed here before we managed to establish normalised relations?

It is not the job of outsiders to attempt to dictate politics to a sovereign nation in order to support our own corrupt economic system at their expense.

If we cannot treat the congolese as equals and afford them similar privileges of consent as we afford ourselves we will not be able to expect them to live up to the conditions of agreement they make.

If ever an intervention is to succeed it must be done on precise evaluation of the practical military and humanitarian objectives and not on a basis of moral or political doctrine.

We must choose whether endless perpetual conflict and strife is more or less acceptable than a temporary war and the conscious sacrifice required to end it.

This conversation is useful to clear up misconceptions. I’d welcome hearing from others though! “The UN enables the civil war to exist in the first place and it is their presence which is the problem” – ridiculous. The regional war in Congo exploded in 1996 and the UN didn’t put peacekeepers in till 2001. I don’t think anyone gave them a time machine. Since then, they’ve helped politically and practically to secure ceasefires and end that raging genocidal regional proxy war, getting other countries to pull out and doing a lot of vital interpositioning, disarmament etc. Of course, I’m the first to criticise a lot of what MONUC does – that’s why we’re pushing for a strong European force with a more neutral mandate and better discipline, hopefully even as a trigger to help clean house in MONUC too.

I am told that there are little more than 3000 peacekeepers currently in North Kivu, with the rest scattered around trying to protect further outbreaks. We could double that, with peacekeepers light-years more effective than the current ones with their orders to stand off. I call that capability, and a practicable theatre. We’re not talking about 3000 across all of eastern Congo here. And yes, we’re talking “precise evaluation of the practical military and humanitarian” – and politico-diplomatic – objectives. Finally, it’s my understanding Kabila supports the additional peacekeepers, is realising the problem with his rogue troops, and wants to move to disarm FDLR sooner. So that tackles your sovereignty problem.

We’re campaigning on Darfur too, but this is both a bigger and more pressing situation, and Darfur most urgently needs an effective political process. And yes, we’re campaigning for responsible withdrawal from Iraq. One of the ghosts lurking here is the confusion between peacekeepers and UN-mandated support for imperial adventures. I share an opposition to the latter, but these things are very different. I am familiar with the view that even peacekeeping is part of a logic of perpetual conflict and understand where it’s coming from. But ultimately, it’s untrue and a council of despair. Finally, the humanitarian agencies are passionately for this, and so are the civilians on the ground. Are they not our equals?

Anyone else out there?

thomas – Now, please tell me why we should use historic guilt for getting things wrong as a justification for getting things wrong again?

As opposed to sitting around twiddling our thumbs while women are being raped and people being killed enmasse? About 5 million people were killed in Congo in the recent civil war. Even if we can’t be perfect soldiers according to whatever criteria you lay down – we can still have some positive impact, no?

It is not the job of outsiders to attempt to dictate politics to a sovereign nation in order to support our own corrupt economic system at their expense.

I’m sorry, but I don’t buy the idea of sitting around idly when people around you are getting killed or raped. If I saw a woman being hurt I’d try and help, not stand around and say maybe nature should take its course because I don’t fully understand the situation.

In the past I’ve researched and written about the atrocities being committed in the DRC. There are some unspeakably nasty things going on there and I agree, in theory, that the rest of the world has a moral duty to try and prevent those things insofar as they have the power to do so.

However there are a couple of things that concern me regarding Paul’s article. The first is the assumption that pouring troops and weaponry into one of the longest-running and most vicious in history — even in the name of keeping the peace — will have a positive outcome. My reading of the situation is that an extra few thousand UN peace-keepers will do little to protect the people of the region and may actually exascerbate the situation.

The other thing that really concerns me with Paul’s article and subsequent comments is the contradiction they contain. As well as a willingness to be selective with the facts.

On the one hand Paul, you insist that (comment #2) a European force would be neutral — albeit with the caveat that “you wouldn’t want French troops there”. Yet in your article you make it clear that one of the reasons we should be addressing the problems in the DRC is because “It’s far from distant – its coltan reserves are essential to our mobile phones and Playstations in the West.”

I cannot see how troops from a group of nations which have significant economic interests in the region can be considered a “neutral force”. We already have reports of Indian peacekeepers being heavily involved in gold smuggling. Whether or not these reports are true, the notion that foreign troops will be viewed as neutral by those currently struggling to establish control over the natural resources in the DRC is frankly risible. They are — and will be — viewed as competitors by many of the militia groups.

With regards to being selective with the facts. Paul, you decide to cite the Sierra Leone and the recent Bunia deployments as evidence that “European peacekeepers are some of the most capable in the world”. Indeed they may be, but one could just as easily choose different examples and paint a significantly different picture. The South Lebanon deployment proved to be a complete farce when Israel decided to invade again recently and did a huge amount to discredit the UN’s effectiveness in my view (as well as sending a couple of soldiers home in body-bags) and it’s worth noting that here in Ireland, within the past few weeks, we have unveiled a memorial to those peace-keepers who were killed in action. Most notably, nine soldiers who died in the Niemba ambush in the Congo.

Once again, let me stress that I firmly believe that what’s happening in the DRC is a blot on the collective soul of humanity and needs to be stopped. I have real doubts, however, that the best way to stop it is to send in more soldiers.

Thanks, Jim. I (and Avaaz) never advocate sending in peacekeepers lightly. In this case, we’re doing so with the broad support of over 90% of members polled, and on the basis of detailed information from people who know the country well. Can anyone really think doubling the presence in North Kivu and transforming its ability to protect civilians many-fold isn’t going to make an impact?

The point about economic interests is an important one. But the interests concerned are private, not state-owned, and many of them are pretty rogue. Neutral is as neutral does. If a new Congo force deployment was neutral in protecting civilians, guaranteeing a ceasefire, and helping the establishment of public authority, as I believe a European presence could be, I’m pretty sure it would find a lot of enemies. But it would have more friends, especially if progress was being made on the diplomatic front. And from what I hear and know, it’s going to be tough to make that diplomatic progress without it.

UNIFIL in South Lebanon is an interesting example which I do know a little about – I’d like to know more about how you think they failed during the Second Lebanon War. It’s arguably not a bad observer mission, but it has a limited task set. Sounds almost as though you think UNIFIL should have stopped the Israeli invasion — something not currently part of their mandate there. (Though perhaps it should be?!)

oh and Jim, it would be great to hear more about your research, either here or privately. I agree that DRC is an intensely complex situation and anyone who understands all the ins and outs may well find my rendition here simplistic. Rightly so — it’s impossible to explain this fully in 1000 words, but it’s also impossible to help many people understand the basics of how and why action is needed if you have to use 15000. Even so, no-one has yet brought up a complexity which I think challenges our core analysis and campaign. If there’s anything specific you want to raise, please do.

Paul, first up I’d like to point out that upon re-reading my comment, I think I may have come across as a little more strident than I’d intended. I respect your opinion on this, as well as the campaigning work you do. I accused you of being “selective with the facts” which is often a euphemism for “deceitful” and I want to acknowledge that it was a poor choice of words. I stand by my basic point, but was truly not implying any deceit on your part.

With regards to the UN presence in South Lebanon, I’m certainly not suggesting that they should have intervened to prevent Israeli forces crossing the border. I think we can both agree that would have ended very messily (even if it had been politically thinkable… which it obviously wasn’t).

My problem is that the mission clearly highlighted the inability of the United Nations to act effectively when they are unwelcome in a region. When the UN — an organisation tasked with, among other things, maintaining the rule of international law — sends troops into a region and we then watch as they are powerless to prevent a nation or group openly flaunt that law, it damages us all.

In order for a UN troop deployment to be effective (in my opinion — and this is just a personal view) then two specific conditions must be met.

Firstly, the majority of the combatants (I won’t say “both sides” as there’s occasionally more than two sides involved) must actually want them there. This is not the case in Southern Lebanon where the Israelis clearly do not want international troops in the area and would be very happy to unilaterally decide on the appropriate policy for Lebanon without outside interference or observation.

Secondly, there must be some diplomatic leverage available with which to prevent the UN becoming targets. In other words, the UN must be willing to impose sanctions or “get tough” in some sense with anyone who fails to respect the UN personnel. While I’m certainly not suggesting that Israeli forces would deliberately target UN peace-keepers as a matter of policy (they don’t, and anyone who suggests that is a fool), the fact is that the IDF is aware that it can kill UNIFL observers “in error” without any serious consequences befalling it. This is hugely problematic in my view.

I believe the deployment of UN troops in the DRC also fails both these tests. The first one is probably uncontroversial — most of the combatants in the DRC would rather the UN get the hell out and let them continue with their resource grab and the acts of barbarism carried out on populations not aligned with them. The UN are barely tolerated as it is, and — with a horrible twist of fate — will be tolerated even less should they become more effective.

Secondly, I don’t think there’s any real diplomatic or economic leverage available to us. Not because anyone in the region has a sponsor on the Security Council but because whoever controls the natural resources in the DRC knows full well that they will find a willing market for those resources whatever statements get issued by the UN or whatever sanctions are applied.

Though even that is not the most important reason why there’s no leverage to be applied in the DRC. But it’s enough to be getting on with. I’ve dropped you an email with some other thoughts that would probably drag this discussion off-topic.

having an unfocussed mandate is a recipe for failure and failure is a recipe for undermining legitimacy.

If this is the alternative to twiddling our thumbs while suffering continues then maybe you should also ask why we are twiddling our thumbs over Darfur, Burma etc. Why do we remain passive over the ‘frozen conflicts’ in places like the northern Caucasus?

Your analogy is utterly misplaced: fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

It is hopelessly unrealistic and counterproductive to throw troops into any and all situations where they don’t know what they are trying to achieve or why those are the aims – and more importantly – how are hearts and minds ever going to be won over to democracy when the terms are dictated by the western political imperatives?

I am cautiously favourable towards the shift in policy David Miliband set out in his Wilberforce lecture where he placed some emphasis on the conditionality of intervention, particularly where he said “to restore belief in the efficacy of intervention we must learn the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. We must work differently. Intervention should not always be military and only rarely be forcible.”

So perhaps it was immoderate of me to say that the UN should be getting out of DRC, but they should nevertheless not take their eyes off the requirements for a successful withdrawl and the planning needed to create a stable aftermath.

In Germany it took 40 years to establish a structure for regional consolidation to enable this, but in the middle east there has never been anything of the sort and there remains widespread opposition to African unity both nationally and globally.

11. the A&E Charge Nurse

Alexander Lucas, a 24yr old marine, was recently killed in Afghanistan bringing the total to 126 deaths.

Maybe the fallen regarded the sacrifice as worthwhile, or maybe, being soldiers, they simply had to accept whatever posting came their way, even if it meant being stationed in a very dangerous part of the world, like Afghanistan.

Now some commentators here feel that “we” (presumably meaning soldiers) should be sent to an even more volatile region – if such a thing is actually possible.

Well I wouldn’t go – who wants to end up as another stat on ‘news at ten’ for a conflict that most of the British public know very little about. – hell, we can’t even prevent home grown chavs from killing a 17 month old baby despite the close attention of social services.
I would prefer these kinds of issues to be addressed before we begin to think about engaging in another intractable, and bloody conflict.

Sitting idly by and letting the killing and mayhem continue is not an option. Suggesting that we are imposing western values on the situation and that western colonialism precludes our right to protect basic human rights ignores the objective reality in the Congo.

In addition to military intervention, perhaps a thoughtful economic response is in order. After all, it is economics that drives much of the conflict. a boycott doesn’t solve much here but a thorough understanding where the Congo’s natural resources originate from and acting accordingly is a valid approach.

See the Global Investment Watch post at http://globalinvestmentwatch.com/2008/12/08/the-coltan-wars-pt-1/

I note that there are 16,000 peacekeeping troops in Kosovo, which has a population of 2.2m.

According to 2007 estimates DRC has over 62m.

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