UN Peacekeeping in the DRC: A Band-Aid on a Gaping Wound

The United Nations announcement that it is sending an “intervention force” to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is sparking debate once again about the role of the UN and its peacekeeping missions in conflict zones.  This force will have a mandate to attack rebel groups rather than just defend civilians, an aggressive step aimed at preventing further war crimes in what is now the deadliest conflict since World War Two.  Many people might read this news and ask whether or not the UN should get involved in a situation like this and whether or not a UN peacekeeping force is capable of doing any good.  These are good questions to ask.  At the same time, this announcement raises a much more fundamental question about the United Nations and its role in the world; while the UN sends troops to quell the violence in the Congo, after all, some of its most powerful member states continue to support the countries responsible for the violence in the first place.  And so we are left to wonder: if the United Nations is not the collective voice of its member states, then what purpose exactly does it serve?

To answer that question as it pertains to the DRC, we must first take a step back. The conflict in the DRC is the product of both malicious and inept foreign intervention.  French support for Rwanda’s genocidal government in the early 1990’s helped spark a killing spree in that country that was more ruthlessly efficient than the Nazi concentration camps.  American, French, and British inaction on the UN Security Council ensured that UN peacekeepers stationed in Rwanda would be unable to stop the killing.  The American government was so desperate to avoid sending troops to Rwanda because of the public relations nightmare that had occurred when US troops were killed in Somalia just months earlier (i.e. Black Hawk Down) that it refused to call the genocide a “genocide:”

Elsner (Reuters): How would you describe the events taking place in Rwanda?

Shelly (State Department Spokeswoman)
: Based on the evidence we have seen from observations on the ground, we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred in Rwanda.

Elsner: What’s the difference between “acts of genocide” and “genocide”?

: Well, I think the—as you know, there’s a legal definition of this … clearly not all of the killings that have taken place in Rwanda are killings to which you might apply that label … But as to the distinctions between the words, we’re trying to call what we have seen so far as best as we can; and based, again, on the evidence, we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred.

: How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?

: Alan, that’s just not a question that I’m in a position to answer.

The Rwandan genocide then directly led to the beginning of the Congo conflict.  A French intervention aimed at saving Paris’ genocidal allies allowed massive numbers of refugees and armed militias to flee into what is now the DRC, all at the invitation of the West’s favorite kleptocratic dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.  Rwanda’s new government then invaded in an effort to wipe out the genocidal armies arrayed against it and funded a Congolese rebel army that marched thousands of miles to Kinshasa and toppled Mobutu.  This is known as the First Congo War.

But it is the Second Congo War, beginning in the late 1990’s, that still rages today.  Rwanda and Uganda, capitalizing on the weak government in the DRC and the geographic distance between its capital on Africa’s western coast and the resource-rich hinterland in the East, began attacking the DRC again, ostensibly to fight the remnants of the genocidal militias, but with a far more sinister motive in mind: resource extraction.  Rwandan and Ugandan backed rebels massacred civilians, looted valuable minerals, employed slave labor and child soldiers, and even in one instance took apart an entire factory and moved it across the border into Rwanda.

All the while, Rwanda and Uganda have continued to be the darlings of Western governments and corporations.  Foreign companies have profited from the conflict in the Congo, in some cases even doing business directly with murderous rebel groups.  Rwanda and its clean streets, female-heavy legislature, and environmentally conscious leadership is supported heavily by Western countries and wooed, often patronizingly so (“a functioning African state! Oh my!) by Western companies and religious groups.

Every reputable independent report on the conflict has concluded that Rwanda and Uganda are largely responsible for the millions of deaths in the Eastern DRC.  In December, independent organizations called on the US to sanction Rwanda and suspend all military aid to the country, arguing that “US efforts at ‘quiet diplomacy to address Rwandan involvement in eastern Congo have failed to deter Rwanda’s continued incursions and use of proxy armed groups.”   If the United States and the UK put pressure on their allies, they could influence the situation in the Congo.  Instead, the United States is supporting the creation of the UN “intervention” force designed to stop the bloodshed that its own allies are perpetrating.

If this doesn’t make much sense, it’s because in one fundamental way, the United Nations itself doesn’t make much sense: if the UN is the collective voice of its members, why does it so often intervene in ways that conflict with the actions of those members?  It is not clear what level of success the UN will have in the DRC, though it’s easy to be pessimistic about its chances.  It is also not clear whether the deployment of peacekeeping forces in general is the best method for protecting innocent people and bringing an end to conflicts.  What is certainly clear is that supporting UN peacekeeping missions gives powerful countries a means for appearing to proactively support a peace process without actually having to take the difficult step of interrupting the business of capitalism and resource extraction.

And so the UN force arrives as a band-aid on a gaping wound.  If the UN fails, as it has so often in the past, it will certainly be roundly criticized by those who consider it weak and inept.  But perhaps that is not fair to the UN.  International institutions are, after all, only as good (in any sense of that word) as the countries that run them.  The irony is, then, that what would make the UN a force for good in the world is if its member states were forces for good.  But if the conflict in the DRC teaches us anything, it’s this: if the UN member states were forces for good, we wouldn’t need a United Nations at all.

The Boston Bombings and the Real Enemy

The bombing last week in Boston is a tragic reminder of the pointlessness of violence.  Whatever political agenda the alleged bombers had, it is difficult to see how it could be advanced in any meaningful way by killing an 8-year old boy.  If the motive was indeed related to America’s conflict with segments of the Islamic world, the bombing is yet another example of the failed strategy of killing innocent civilians in retribution for western government policies; the response to such killings is usually just an intensification of those very same policies.  Just ask a Palestinian.

At the same time, beneath the dominant blanket of media coverage focused on the attack, there are Americans asking questions about the manner in which the Boston bombings have been treated in American society.  Why is it that the three tragic deaths in Boston received such a disproportionate amount of media attention relative to the fourteen tragic deaths at the site of the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas?  If the answer to that question involves the distinction between murder and natural disaster, then why do routine triple-homicides in America’s inner cities not receive similar outpourings of grief?  And how would the media be covering the Boston attacks if the perpetrators had been native-born Americans protesting U.S. tax policy rather than immigrants protesting U.S. foreign policy?

At the heart of these questions is a very simple perspective: our media’s obsession with this case and with the Muslim, Foreign, Chechnyan, Immigrant, Jihadist brothers at its epicenter demonstrates a very skewed perspective on the value of human life and on the unity of the human race.  The enemy is defined as anti-American terrorists.  If “we” is defined as Americans, then this makes sense.  But if “we” is defined as humanity, then a very different enemy needs to be identified.

That enemy is violence.  Violence, in all of its forms, leaves a path of hatred and destruction in its wake.  A path of dead children and grieving mothers and broken lives.  This notion isn’t merely the expression of a particular political, religious, or even spiritual ideology, but rather the acknowledgement of a central truth: for every instance in which violence has allegedly made life better in some way, there are literally thousands of instances in which violence intended to do good has destroyed lives.  This is a practical argument.  Violence, as an ideology, as a tool, has failed.

So if we as Americans can identify violence and all of its manifestations (Sandy Hook, Boston, the streets of Chicago) as the real enemy, then we are faced with a very simple proposition:  Either we believe a dead Congolese child is just as important as a dead American child, or we don’t.  Either we believe that the families of dead children in our inner cities suffer a grief just as powerful as that of the families of the suburban victims in Aurora, Colorado, or we don’t.  Either we believe that Palestinian lives are as valuable as Israeli lives, that Afghan lives are as valuable as French lives, or we don’t.  And either we believe that children in Mozambique do adorable things and have nicknames and spend nights looking up at the stars and wondering about the nature of the universe and when they are taken from their families way too soon the loss their parents feel is as debilitating and crushing as it would be if our children were taken from us, or we don’t.

If we believe that, then our actions need to reflect it.  Our media coverage needs to reflect it.  Our government’s policies need to reflect it.  If we as Americans believe so highly in the value of human life, we should urge our government to stop supporting dictators, to stop using drones to attack funeral parties, to stop exporting weapons.  We should pass gun control measures that are supported by more than 90% of NRA members and could curb gun violence.  We should support economic policies that decrease food insecurity in areas of the world vulnerable to famine.  Caring about human life has to mean more than just wearing a “Boston Strong” shirt and shaking our fists at the terrorists.

There are some cynical reflections on Boston floating around cyber space that in essence imply that given the discrepancy in media interest between the loss of white/American life and the loss of black/brown/foreign life, perhaps we should all just care less about what happened at the marathon.

No.  We should care more.

Every child’s death should matter as much as 8-year old Martin Richard’s.  In a photo released to the Boston Globe, Martin, who was killed in the bombing attack, is shown holding a sign that says “No more hurting people.  Peace.”  Maybe that’s partly what makes the death of children so painful: in some sense, they are better than we are, because they know so much less and yet they know so much more.  They get it.