UN peacekeeping and lives in Congo

congo photo

UN peacekeeper in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO/ Myriam Asmani)

By David Bosco

Friday’s Boston Globe featured an examination of the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, with particular emphasis on the role of the “intervention brigade,” which the Security Council authorized early last year. The author, Thanassis Cambanis, reaches some gloomy conclusions:

The goal was to put teeth in the UN’s promise to protect civilians in war zones. But after one early success routing the largest antigovernment militia, the brigade’s promise has faltered. The remaining militias have proved far harder to suppress, with foreign backers and sympathetic local supporters. And to some observers, the brigade has turned the United Nations into just another army in a war with too many armies already, helping hand territory over to a Congolese government that behaves just as badly as the militias it replaces.

For Congo, the failure of this experiment would mark a tragedy in a region already exhausted by tragedy. For the world at large, the test comes at a pivotal moment for the idea of international peacekeeping itself—a concept that is under increasing scrutiny from the nations upon whose money, troops, and political support its existence depends.

The article purports to focus on the turn toward more coercive peacekeeping, but in fact many of the dynamics it describes have little to do with the intervention brigade itself. For example, peacekeeping missions routinely work with and seek to strengthen weak and troubled central governments; the UN peacekeepers in DRC were holding hands with the regime in Kinshasa long before the intervention brigade began operations.

After briefly surveying the Congo operation and the broader debate about post-Cold War peacekeeping, Cambanis offers this world-weary conclusion:

The West has tried all manner of approaches, from containment to invasion and occupation to staying out of it. That none of these tactics has reliably worked doesn’t mean that we should do nothing. But it does mean that whatever we do try is unlikely to bring a prompt end to the violence. It might, at best, save a few lives.

As with much writing on Congo peacekeeping, I think the author dramatically minimizes the difference between eastern Congo at the height of its misery in the mid-1990s and early 2000s and the situation today. That difference is not “a few lives.” It is the difference between death tolls in the tens or hundreds of thousands and a dramatically lower–although still unacceptable–toll. It is of course debatable how much of that conflict mitigation should be attributed to the large peacekeeping force, which now numbers about 20,000, and how much to shifting regional politics, international diplomacy, and other external factors. But even if the peacekeepers are responsible only for a portion of the improvement–or for preserving those gains–their contribution should not be so lightly waved away.

About David Bosco

Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service. Contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics and Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World
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