Making the same mistakes

Memo to the United Nations: A peacekeeping mission to Congo may do more harm than good

By David Rieff

March 20, 2000

After the humiliating failures of United Nations peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia and Rwanda, there was a consensus both within the U.N. Secretariat and among member states that no similar deployments would be attempted until new ways of undertaking them had been developed. The need for such a rethink was urgent. By seemingly remaining a passive onlooker to genocide in the Great Lakes region of Africa and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, the United Nations saw its moral authority—on which it depends—suffer lasting, if not irreparable, damage. True, under the stewardship of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, much of that authority has seemingly been restored; but the U.N.'s credibility remains fragile. That is what makes the recent decision to deploy 5,500 U.N. peacekeepers to the Democratic Republic of the Congo so incomprehensible. For if ever there was a peacekeeping operation that seemed doomed to failure, it is a mission to try to stop the fighting in what was formerly Zaire.

The proposed deployment is a textbook example of good intentions leading to ill-advised and dangerous policymaking. Throughout the 1990s, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa have watched enviously, and with increasingly ill-concealed bitterness, at the way the "international community" responded to the crisis in the Balkans and, most recently, in East Timor. With most of the world's wars, refugee emergencies and humanitarian disasters occurring in Africa, the failure to even attempt U.N. peacekeeping seemed an example of timidity at best, and at worst, of a racist double standard.

Many in the West agree. In his speech last year opening the 54th session of the General Assembly, Annan demanded that the international response to crises in places like Sierra Leone and Angola be at least as vigorous as those in Kosovo and East Timor. And it was clear that Annan was speaking at least as much as an African as he was as secretary-general.

Certainly, his words seem to have resonated with Richard Holbrooke, the current U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. Although he began his career as an East Asia specialist and is known as the architect of the Dayton peace agreements that ended the Bosnian war, Holbrooke's tenure in New York has been marked by a relentless focus on Africa. And to a very large extent, it has been the synergy between Holbrooke's efforts, the concerns voiced by Annan and the demands of African states that has led to the decision to deploy U.N. peacekeepers to Congo.

On the face of things, the need for the operation seems indisputable. For however confusing and remote it may seem to a non-African, the stakes in Congo are very high. What is taking place there is nothing less than the first general war in postcolonial Africa. The central government of Laurent Kabila, itself installed thanks to an intervention by Ugandan, Angolan and Rwandan forces, is fighting a mixed bag of rebel groups. Moreover, the war has now pitted a number of African states against one another. The Rwandans and Ugandans have switched sides and are now aiding the rebels, while the Kabila regime is being supported principally by Zimbabwe and Angola.

For Congo, all but destroyed by 30 years of Mobutu Sese Seko's kleptocratic rule, this is one ordeal too many. The state has literally stopped functioning, the economy is in shambles and disease is rampant. In the capital, Kinshasa, there is now cholera and malaria in epidemic proportions for the first time in several decades. But the war is also pauperizing the other states involved in it. Zimbabwe, in particular, has committed vast resources to the fighting. The situation in that country is so dire that its dictator, Robert Mugabe, has turned to the explosive expedient of reigniting racial hatred through an orchestrated effort to seize white-owned farms in order to distract his people from the blood and treasure being wasted in the Congo war.

Were there, then, a real chance that deploying peacekeepers would bring the conflict to an end, there would be strong arguments for undertaking the mission. But in reality, there is no evidence that those doing the fighting want it to end. Crudely put, they have gotten rich off the fighting. It is Bosnia all over again: U.N. peacekeepers are being deployed in a situation in which there is no peace to keep. And, if anything, the mandate they are being given is even more restrictive than the one the United Nations received in the Balkans. In Congo, 500 observers will be deployed along the front line with approximately 5,000 U.N. troops. The principal job of the troops will not be to protect the Congolese, but rather to ensure the security of the observers.

We have been here before. As the United Nations itself now concedes, there were many grounds for reproach in the institution's conduct in Bosnia and Rwanda. But, in fairness, those efforts never had either the means or the mandate to accomplish anything more than a bit of marginal humanitarian relief. What is both so astonishing and so dangerous about the proposed Congo deployment is that the identical mistakes are being made once again. The fact that they are being made with the best of intentions alters nothing, and may, in fact, make the effects of what will almost certainly be another catastrophic failure all the more damaging. For to the public, the fact that the mission has neither the funding nor the authority to do much of anything will not be clear. Instead, it will seem as if the world tried to do something for Africa, but there was nothing that could be done. Such a conclusion helps nobody, least of all those Africans who deserve so much better from the rest of the world.

Original article