The problem with MONUC

By Richard Norman

Watching events in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the last few days, I’m reminded of John Bolton’s suggestion that the top ten floors of the UN headquarters could be chopped off and no one would notice (these comments were made before he served a turn as American ambassador to the UN).

It is far from surprising to see renewed violence in the Great Lakes region. Many of the belligerent parties in the wars that both occasioned and followed the toppling of Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 are still around, unreconstructed. While some action has been taken by the UN and the Congolese government to demobilize members of the FDLR—remnant Hutu forces forced out of Rwanda following the 1994 genocide—several thousand continue to raid and plunder the countryside, drawing reprisals from Tutsi militias, led for the last several years by General Laurent Nkunda, who is under investigation by the International Criminal Court and is likely receiving covert aid from the Rwandan government.

Diplomats can debate whether Kigali’s motives are cynical—is this part of a plan for a Greater Rwanda?—or motivated by humanitarian concern for the Tutsi groups that populate the Kivu regions of eastern DRC. What is less debatable is the failure of MONUC (the French acronym for the UN Mission to the DRC) to head off these problems at the pass.

One of the most important lessons taught by UN peacekeeping missions in the 1990s is that the robustness of the military component should be proportional to the fragility of the peace. There is no point sending a peacekeeping mission to a country that is not at peace. Likewise, if a country stands on the brink between peace and war, having an empowered UN mission with a clear mandate and plan can make the difference. Sending rent-a-cops into an extremely tenuous conflict zone will not only waste everyone’s time, energy, and money, it may do more damage. If a mission is under-funded and under-staffed, as MONUC plainly is, the least it can promise is to "do no harm." Unfortunately, this principle has not been observed. If it had been, we would not continue to hear stories like these:

The 34-page report, which was obtained by The Washington Post, accuses U.N. peacekeepers from Morocco, Pakistan and Nepal of seeking to obstruct U.N. efforts to investigate a sexual abuse scandal that has damaged the United Nations’ standing in Congo.

The report documents 68 cases of alleged rape, prostitution and pedophilia by U.N. peacekeepers from Pakistan, Uruguay, Morocco, Tunisia, South Africa and Nepal.

Washington Post – December 16, 2004


Despite the ban [on having sexual relations with locals], MONUC admitted last month it was investigating new allegations implicating its peacekeepers in the "sexual exploitation of minors".

"MONUC has received allegations about the existence of a major prostitution ring involving minors, close to a large concentration of Congolese soldiers and Blue Helmets in South Kivu, (in the) northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo," the UN mission said in a statement.

Since December 2004, the peacekeeping force has registered at least 140 alleged cases of sexual abuse and exploitation implicating its personnel.

Independent Online (South Africa) – September 27, 2006

An internal U.N. investigation has found evidence that some Indian peacekeepers may have engaged in "sexual exploitation and abuse" in Congo, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday.

In a statement issued by his spokeswoman’s office, Ban said he was "deeply troubled" by the outcome of the U.N. investigation and said "disciplinary action to the maximum degree permitted by Indian law should be taken as soon as possible against those found to be involved."

The Indians were previously stationed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of the United Nations’ MONUC peacekeeping force, the statement said.

Reuters – August 12, 2008

Note that these allegations have been continually made over the course of the last four years. It seems quite a stretch to imagine MONUC as capable of maintaining peace in the DRC when it is unable to prevent its own members from committing grievious crimes against the Congolese people.

Indeed, a wild leap of imagination would be required to see the latest violence in North Kivu as anything other than more evidence of MONUC’s failure. As hundreds of thousands of civilians flee from Nkunda-led marauders in eastern DRC, the UN again can do little or nothing to prevent the violence. To begin with, only 6,000 of the UN’s total force of 17,000 are based in North Kivu, an obvious flashpoint for more than a decade. (The Security Council is currently considering whether to move troops there from elsewhere in the DRC–it is apparantly due to report back in 2015.) Even if it could protect civilians, MONUC’s reputation in the Congo is in tatters. What expectation of safety would a group of Congolese schoolgirls have in the so-called protection of MONUC blue berets?

It is not surprising to learn that furious and frightened civilians have begun attacking UN offices around Goma.

More than 5 million people have died as a result of wars in the Congo over the last ten years, the largest death toll of any conflict since the Second World War.

One thought on “The problem with MONUC

  1. Hi Richard,

    Good to see you’re back to blogging.

    I don’t know much about the situation in the Congo, but I think it is too easy just to list all the things that went wrong there, including the serious misconduct by the peacekeepers themselves. The question is not what the problem is, but what the solution is. Of course, we all want the international community to send a huge and impressive force, with millions of soldiers that are both fighting machines and of the highest moral character, but that is not realistic. As it is, MONUC already costs one billion dollars a year; it just doesn’t seem realistic to demand that this be changed to a sum that will pay for such a utopian army. It is also not realistic, I think, to give MONUC a mandate that is ‘just doable’, because such a mandate will probably not include the most difficult – but most necessary – task of all: the protection of all the local civilians in the Congo. And finally, to abandon the region entirely is also not an option, I would suggest. All in all, I agree with European leaders when they suggest that peace cannot be imposed on such a huge and inaccessible region, and that we need to convince the local leaders to stop the killing, and if some kind of peace-deal or ceasefire is negotiated, then MONUC can once again monitor the ceasefire agreement. At the same time, the UN (primarily the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR) can provide food and shelter to the refugees. And to avoid any misconduct, the UN should punish those peacekeepers guilty of such misconduct, or waive their immunity from local jurisdiction. The UN does all that already, although it could do so more efficiently. In summary, the current strategy – perhaps not its implementation – may be better than all possible alternatives. Then again: as I said, I am not an expert on the Congo-situation.

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