home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

UN peacekeeping: Congo on the brink of full-scale war

International Herald Tribune, 26 July 2004


After the loss of some 3 million lives in Congo's war of 1998 to 2000, most due to hunger and disease, only intense international pressure drove the belligerents to the negotiating table and into a peaceful transition. At the end of this month, the world must decide to recommit itself to that peace process if Congo is to avoid a return to full-scale war.

The lingering tension and constant potential for violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo could hardly be more obvious after last month's turmoil in and around Bukavu, the capital of the strategically sensitive South Kivu Province that borders Rwanda. After clashing with transitional government troops, two renegade commanders captured Bukavu and held the town from June 2 to June 9, leaving several hundred people dead and sending more than 30,000 Congolese fleeing into Burundi and Rwanda.

With that as a backdrop, the UN Security Council would seem to have a relatively straightforward decision to make when its review of the UN Mission for the Congo, known by its French acronym MONUC, comes due at the end of July 2004. The peace is still very fragile, so the peacekeepers must remain.

Indeed, the UN misssion must be renewed; however, that renewal should not be a rubber-stamp approval of the status quo. The mission needs to be significantly strengthened in the process.

The fall of Bukavu to the renegades highlighted the mission's weaknesses and was a blow to its credibility. Its very ability to support the transition was thrown into doubt after it was unable to prevent the capture of the city by the mutineers and the subsequent violence. The UN mission would appear to have been better advised to have taken the side of the loyalist troops from the beginning. Its mandate, after all, is to support the transition and, if necessary, the transitional government's legitimate forces. Instead, the mission negotiated with the insurgents, who broke the deal and then proceeded to kill, rape, and loot without serious opposition.

The UN mission's behavior appeared impotent and na´ve, but, to be fair, its capacity to fulfill any greater expectations has been severely limited. With only 10,800 troops in a country roughly the size of Western Europe, the mission had only just 600 men in Bukavu when 2,000 to 3,000 well-armed rebels moved to take the town. Clearly, the UN is stretched thin and needs more troops: An additional brigade of 4,000 to 5,000 troops would seem a minimum.

But at least as important as numbers would be the composition of the reinforcements. Not all national components of the current force have been well-suited to the job. A portion of the additional troops should have the training and equipment to operate as a rapid deployment force. The quick movement of troops across the expanse of eastern Congo also requires airborne transport that the UN mission presently lacks.

The mission needs more capability to act forcefully and even proactively to implement its mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The international community has to accept that to support Congo's transition, it may at times be necessary to support the armed forces of Congo's transitional government.

One of the UN's most important jobs is monitoring the movement of armed groups in North and South Kivu and carrying out round-the-clock surveillance of the Congo-Rwanda border for the presence of foreign troops and the illegal transport of weapons and equipment. The rebels who briefly took Bukavu were heavily armed, indicating they had received outside support, almost certainly from across the Rwandan border. It is essential that the UN radically improve its capacity for monitoring movements of weapons across Congo's borders not only to curtail such movements but also for early-warning of possible violence. For this the UN mission will also need boats with which to patrol Lake Kivu.

Such moves on the ground ought to be supported by international diplomatic pressure on Rwanda to cease all military involvement in Congo, whether through its own armed forces, or through arming or otherwise encouraging Congolese surrogate forces. Too often, Rwanda has aided the spoilers of Congo's peace process. Kigali has to be convinced that its effort to control the Kivus cannot go on - that the best chance for its own long-term stability and development lies in the success of Congo's political transition next door. The Bukavu war scare is a stark reminder that events in Congo could spiral into large-scale war again very quickly at nearly any time. The war that began in 1998 and cost the lives of at least 300,000 people as a direct result of fighting and violence and another 2.7 million through disease and starvation has never really ended. If the UN makes the right decision to re-enforce the mission when its mandate is renewed in the coming days, then that end will be one step closer, and Congo's peaceful transition will still have a chance.

Gareth Evans, a former foreign minister of Australia, is president of the International Crisis Group.