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”?

Shelly
: 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.

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

Shelly
: 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.

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