Think Tank: We are Betraying Congo
The Sunday Times
2 November 2008
The terrible images beamed into our living rooms from the Democratic Republic of Congo last week are eerily similar to those from Rwanda in 1994. A United Nations mission under fire and under pressure, surrounded by terrified and angry civilians whom the UN is unable to protect. Tens of thousands of people walking barefoot amid the bright green undergrowth, fleeing to safety. The panicked evacuation of foreign aid workers. Tales of rape, murder and pillage.
It is not surprising that the images are similar, for this crisis has its roots in the bloody legacy of the 1994 genocide. As the Hutu-supremacist Interahamwe militia were forced out of Rwanda by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front, hundreds of thousands of mainly Hutu refugees flooded into camps across the border in what was then called Zaire. The world flew in aid to help the refugees - but many of them were killers.
Since then, many have returned home to Rwanda to face justice and reintegrate into society. But a hard core of about 8,000 former enocidaires and their sympathisers remain in eastern Congo, still nursing their genocidal ideology. They have menaced their own people, led raids into Rwanda and exploited Congos minerals to buy guns. The Congolese government has repeatedly pledged to fight and disarm them. But in fact it has divvied up lucrative mineral mining operations with them and even fought alongside them. The governments failure to get to grips with them has allowed General Laurent Nkunda, the renegade Tutsi officer, to claim a spurious legitimacy and say that he is fighting to protect his Tutsi kinsmen.
What is to be done? Three years ago in New York the worlds leaders embraced, with great fanfare and razzmatazz, a new doctrine of the responsibility to protect, pledging that human lives are more important than national borders. If this is to be anything more than a bumper-sticker slogan we need to take action now in Congo.
The 17,000-strong UN force in Congo is the worlds biggest peacekeeping operation and 18 different nations have contributed troops. But they are deployed in a country the size of western Europe. They have proved unable to take on the well equipped former Interahamwe.
The UN troops guarding the key city of Goma are reportedly lightly armed and unable to stop the fighting. Many Congolese are infuriated by the UNs failure to protect them and desperate civilians have stoned the UN compound and passing tanks. The UN is only as strong as its member states. Its forces on the ground should be beefed up urgently. There must be no repeat of the international cowardice of 1994.
To stave off disaster Alan Doss, Congos UN chief, has issued an urgent call for 2,000 extra troops, including police, air assets and special forces. His request must be granted. This truly is the acid test of the international communitys commitment to the responsibility to protect.
Britain does have real influence in the troubled region. We are the biggest aid donor to Rwanda, spent 80m in Congo last year and give aid to every one of Congos nine neighbours. The government must push hard for a stronger UN, an immediate ceasefire from all fighters and guarantees of security for humanitarian agencies. ()
However, the Congolese government has been either unable or unwilling to deliver on its promise. These cancerous militias must be tackled - and that includes the Lords Resistance Army in the northeast. Ensuring they are fully disarmed and disbanded - something that the UN has been unable to achieve as a result of a lack of political will - should be the priority for the international community. Rwanda, too, must do all it can to deescalate the situation and must not get dragged further into the conflict. It is pretty simple: without a stable Congo there wont be a stable Africa. The failure by the international community in Rwanda 14 years ago, when nearly a million people were butchered, should be seared onto the conscience of the world. Five million have died in Congo in recent years. ()