Congo: UN scrambles to better protect civilians in wake of mass rape
The UN's largest peacekeeping force failed to prevent mass rape by Congo rebels in July. Now it's pushing to be more proactive – and more innovative – in its mission to protect civilians.
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"The places where civilian protection has worked have tended to be cases where you have a pretty high ratio of troops to area," says Richard Gowan, associate director of Managing Global Insecurity at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. "They tend to be quite small places like Haiti or, beyond the UN, like Kosovo."Skip to next paragraph
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Of MONUSCO, he says, "If you look at the ratio between the soldiers it has and the area it is trying to secure, it's in a very, very difficult position indeed."
Nearly all the civilians at the bustling Friday market in Masisi center – several hours northwest of Goma – said there should be more peacekeepers. They protect the population effectively when they are nearby – their mere presence is a deterrent, several said. But for those like Feza Furaha, who live in remote areas several hours from a UN base, the fear of violence continues.
"To see them here, mingled with the population, it is a very good thing," she says of the troops scattered through the market. "Yet, in my place, Ngesha, people still live in fear."
At 4 p.m. later that day, peacekeepers left their base to patrol a route many would use to head home from the market. Such escorts occur in other areas as well and have for some time. Some draw hundreds who wait to walk with the troops.
A need for standard practices
Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, lauds the UN for trying things in Congo that have not been done elsewhere, such as deploying joint protection teams. These multidisciplinary groups, with members from human rights, civil affairs, and other UN divisions, spend a few days assessing security in especially unstable areas and make recommendations to military personnel.
But the lack of standard operating procedures for regular contact between peacekeepers and the population is a serious weakness, she says. "I think on this the UN has moved far too slowly."
Celine Bullman and Lotta Ahola are trying to improve that integral link. They are civilian observers on a joint monitoring team with UN police who aim to connect with local populations and facilitate communication with peacekeepers to improve security. Unlike the protection teams, they are deployed permanently. The monitoring teams are a "big innovation," says Séverine Autesserre, a political science professor at Barnard College in New York who is living in Goma while working on her second book about Congo.
In the rural hamlet of Karuba, Ms. Bullman and Ms. Ahola met the leaders of several localities on a recent day. They asked about recent threats by armed groups, human rights violations, and the community's relationship with national and MONUSCO forces. They learned of a rape case and a clash between a Congolese soldier and locals that left two people dead. Later that day, Bullman and Ahola reported their findings to the MONUSCO battalion commander in charge of the area.
Both women see their job as central to the UN mission's mandate to protect civilians. "We are sensors in the field and can send signals back to Goma," Ahola says. "We hope to be early warning signs."