Source: THE ECONOMIST
AFRICAN economies are rising steadily, but in the Democratic Republic of Congo life for many is as bad as ever. Armed men rape and plunder with impunity. Rebel groups terrorise vast stretches of land rich in minerals and agricultural potential. Millions have died as a result. And for years the outside world has done little more than shrug. Its main effort—a 14-year-old UN peacekeeping mission—has failed to end “Africa’s world war”, which started as an ethnic conflict sparked by the genocide next door in Rwanda before descending into murderous anarchy farther afield.
Now things are changing. The Rwandan government backed Congolese rebels until recently but, shamed by their cruelty and by international outrage, it has abandoned them. That presents an opportunity too good to waste, so the UN Security Council is trying a new tack (see article), deploying 3,000 troops to fight at least some of the rebels. Soldiers from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi wearing UN insignia will take on the irregulars who sow mayhem in Congo’s east.
This is the first time that the UN will send its own troops into battle. In the past the Security Council has authorised the use of “all necessary force” but has delegated the fighting to posses from willing nations. In the Korean war the Americans were in command. In Afghanistan and Libya NATO took charge. In Congo, however, the UN itself will be responsible for artillery fire, helicopter gunships—and the inevitable casualties. Should the UN really be doing this?
The starting point ought to be extreme caution. Getting “blue helmets” to knock out one side in a civil war in the name of the rest of the world could taint the entire machinery of global peacekeeping. The UN’s neutrality is a valued asset. Risking it can be justified only as a last resort and when a mission enjoys broad international approval.
Congo fits that description. No powerful nation has been prepared to take the job on independently; not even those keen to intervene in the bloody quagmire of Syria are tempted to send troops to Congo, no matter how prolonged and grotesque its people’s nightmare may be. Mindful of this, the Security Council authorised the new force unanimously—a high bar to clear. This was not a sneaky power grab by an unaccountable bureaucracy or a warmongering few. Approval followed months of patient and sincere diplomacy. Even normally reluctant powers like China and Russia voted yes.
Making it work
The risks in Congo are considerable. The terrain is tricky and local allies are unreliable. The 3,000 UN enforcers are not especially cohesive or powerful and some may have ulterior motives, including the defence of business interests. That could damage the UN’s reputation and undermine its mission. Furthermore, Congo suffers from far more than violence. Political institutions are dilapidated, corruption is rife, poverty is widespread and ethnic tensions run deep. No armed force can fix all that. Peace alone will still leave most Congolese in misery.
Nonetheless, the new UN initiative deserves wide support. All previous efforts to end the bloodshed have failed. The recent history of war-torn African countries like Sierra Leone shows that peace brought about by foreign troops can boost political reforms and generate prosperity. Liberal interventionism is an unfashionable creed; in poor, benighted Congo, it is still worth trying.