Yet again the United Nations has confessed to a serious and embarrassing failure to protect civilians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - the main reason of its deployment of 17,000 peacekeeping troops to the region. Unless the UN is prepared to adapt its mission there to the realities on the ground, it may be setting its blue helmets up for the same kind of mission creep that afflicted its interventions in Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia.
The admission by a senior peacekeeping official, Atul Khare, more than 500 women were raped, half of them within 20 miles of a UN forward base near Luvungi, North Kivu, is merely the latest in a series of incidents that have revealed the inadequacy of the UN force.
This has been going on for years. In 2004, in the most notorious case, militia fighters murdered, raped and looted in the South Kivu city of Bukavu while a UN contingent, deployed there to protect the city, stood by inactive.
But despite promises by Khare to improve performance through more intensive patrols, better communications equipment and so on, the question has to be asked: Is the UN force capable of protecting civilians in the Congo? We believe it is not.
There are many reasons why not. First, peacekeepers are not supposed to fight wars. A UN peacekeeping force, whatever its size, is typically not equipped with the logistical and medical backup, equipment, weaponry, force structure, command and control arrangements, or the leadership to conduct sustained offensive combat operations. And the troop-contributing countries that provide peacekeeping soldiers at the Security Council's request do not expect them to be killed.
Secondly, any military activity in the precarious security conditions of North and South Kivu, no matter by what troops or for what purpose, inevitably causes massive displacement of civilians, accompanied by murder and rape, outbreaks of disease and malnutrition. Most of the five million "excessive deaths" recorded by the NGO International Rescue Committee occurred because of forced displacements caused by the fighting. For the UN to launch an offensive with such results would be to victimize the very civilians they are supposed to be protecting.
So who is supposed to look after the people of eastern Congo? There can only be one answer - the elected government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its armed forces, the FARDC. The fact that both the government and its army have so far proved lamentably inadequate to this task, with the army itself being accused of large-scale human rights violations, in no way reduces its responsibility in the matter. And no UN peacekeeping operation can substitute for the government and national armed forces of a country.
Typically, a government elected following a UN peacekeeping operation will forge bilateral links with friendly governments to provide training and support for their armed forces. True, in the DRC this would be a titanic enterprise, and probably beyond the capacity of any one single donor. But the EU, which contributed half a billion dollars to the successful elections of 2006, and Belgium and France, could be asked to consider sending further assistance. The DRC government could also consider approaching China, where President Kabila himself underwent military training. There are loyal and competent officers in the FARDC. But the army needs a thorough and long-term overhaul to equip it, vet and motivate its commanders to the political task at hand, and thus stand a realistic chance of carrying out its primary task of defending the territory and protecting the people of the Congo.
There is another very important element to be considered, and that is the role of Congo's neighbor, Rwanda. Since the genocide that engulfed it in 1994, Rwanda has benefited from a torrent of international aid and other forms of support from a world that felt guilty about abandoning the country in its time of need. But Rwanda's role in the DRC, revealed in a human rights report http://congoasia.blogspot.com/2010/09/documents-on-mapping-report.html leaked to the media last week, appears to have been far from that of an innocent victim. The report lists more than 600 war crimes which,according to the report, could constitute genocide if proven before a competent court.
Many of these crimes are laid at Rwanda's door, prompting furious denials from Kigali, and threats to withdraw Rwandan troops from the UN/African Union peacekeeping operation in Darfur. Rwanda is also on the defensive following unflattering coverage of the climate of repression that accompanied the recent re-election of President Paul Kagame. And a series of expert UN reports claiming that Rwandan occupation forces in Congo looted billions of dollars' worth of natural resources still rankles.
Rwanda's friends and supporters, starting with the USA and Britain, as well as the Commonwealth, which Rwanda recently joined thanks to British help, should send it a brief and clear message: stop meddling in the DRC. Aid could be made contingent not just on refraining from interference, but on positive acts of good-neighborliness. The latest mass rapes have been blamed partly on the FDLR, an organization linked to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. It was their cross-border raids into Rwanda that prompted the first Rwandan invasion of the then Zaire in 1996.The UN and donors should insist that the FDLR, though also blamed for countless other atrocities against Congolese civilians, no longer constitutes a significant military threat to Rwanda. Insofar as it portrays itself as representing the 85 percent of the Rwandan population that is Hutu, FDLR may constitute a political threat to Tutsi control of the Rwandan government - but one that should be dealt with by political means. Rwanda is the only country in its sub-region that refuses to talk to its political opponents, on the grounds that they are associated with the genocide. The accusations now leveled against Rwanda itself render that claim rather hollow.
We are not suggesting a total UN withdrawal from the DRC. If the government so wishes, the UN could offer a wide range of human rights monitoring, humanitarian assistance, electoral support, rule of law, child protection and other forms of advice and development assistance. But the Security Council should speed up the withdrawal of UN troops from the DRC. The current budget of MONUSCO runs to more than $1.3 billion dollars a year, much of it spent on maintaining the force. As they gather for the opening of the 65th General Assembly this month, UN member governments and their taxpayers might well be wondering if they are getting their money's worth.
Peter Swarbrick served as UN Director for repatriation and disarmament with MONUC in Congo between 2001 and 2007. Michael Soussan, a New York based journalist, is the author of Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy (Nation Books). He teaches international relations at New York University.