Faced with a double-barreled crisis over its inability to forge even a semblance of peace in the African jungles of Congo or prevent its soldiers from sexually abusing civilians there, the United Nations' biggest global peacekeeping operation is undergoing a dramatic makeover. The changes may set important precedents, experts say, for UN peacekeeping efforts worldwide.
First, UN Congo chief William Swing, a former US diplomat, may resign Friday amid charges he hasn't prevented things like UN soldiers raping teenage girls or trading sex for bread or peanut butter. The UN may soon let accused peacekeepers worldwide be put on trial where the crime is alleged to have taken place - instead of just shipping them home, where justice can be uneven.
Second, in a rare burst of aggressiveness, the UN Congo team killed some 60 militia members this week, just days after nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers were killed in an ambush. It's a departure from the UN's studied neutrality, which UN critics say has contributed to the world body's impotence and to the slow-burning tragedy of 1,000 civilians dying each day in eastern Congo, according to the International Rescue Committee.
The attacks are an effort to reestablish credibility in the wake of the Bangladeshi deaths by sending "a very strong message that there are limits - that the militias will not be allowed to act with impunity indefinitely," says Suliman Baldo, Africa program director for the International Crisis Group in New York. The UN says it was simply fulfilling its mandate.
Some 13,000 UN troops are currently stationed in Congo, one of 16 UN peacekeeping missions worldwide. The mission, known by its acronym, MONUC, began in 2000 and was designed to monitor a cease-fire between warring factions, protect civilians, and administer humanitarian relief.
But the formal end to a 1998-2003 war that involved troops from six African nations hasn't stopped low-level fighting in the lawless eastern region. Deep ethnic divisions and clashes over natural resources continues unabated, with civilians often caught in the crossfire.
The Bangladeshi deaths brings to 45 the number of UN peacekeepers who've been killed during the mission's five-year history. About 2,000 have been killed worldwide since UN peacekeeping operations began in 1948, according to the UN.
And the Feb. 25 killings may have been the last straw in a series of embarrassments for MONUC. Last June, some 3,000 rebels overran the eastern town of Bukavu, despite the presence of 400 peacekeepers, who were ostensibly there to protect civilians. Then in December came the UN report that chronicled 150 allegations of sexual misconduct, including an apparent pedophilia ring, rapes, and solicitations of prostitutes. All along, there have been unabated killings of villagers by militias of the Lendu ethic group, seemingly under MONUC's nose.
This week, a cordon-and-search operation by 250 Pakistani and South African peacekeepers was designed to secure a camp for internally displaced people in the lawless Ituri Province. During the search, Lendu militia members apparently fired on UN troops, who returned fire - including with attack helicopters - killing about 60.
But UN officials insist that the mission isn't shedding its neutrality. "This is not meant to be the shot heard around the world," says Stephane Dujarric, a UN spokesman. Yet at the same time, he says, it must be made clear that, "We're not there as target practice for the militia."
MONUC's newly robust response - which comes after it got a stronger mandate from the Security Council to protect civilians - may not lead immediately to similarly aggressive UN teams in other world hotspots, says Princeton Lyman, a senior fellow in Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. But maybe it should, he says. "You have to give them more aggressive mandates," he says, "or else they're just bystanders when violations take place."
Yet some observers agree there's danger in more-aggressive stances. "When you take a gun in your hands you have to be prepared for the consequences," says Ross Herbert of the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. After the most recent battle, it's not likely, he says, that militia groups will directly confront MONUC again. But they could embark on an Iraq-like insurgency campaign "to make the UN's life miserable - until it decides to leave."
As for the sex scandal, Mr. Swing's expected resignation is the latest of several steps to try to alter the growing image of peacekeepers as sexual predators.
The UN is reportedly considering a policy change that would allow peacekeepers to be prosecuted locally. And UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette toured West Africa this week, specifically highlighting the new "zero-tolerance" policy against peacekeeper sexual abuse.
Also, two peacekeepers in Haiti were suspended last month and may be sent home after it was discovered they had had sex with a prostitute. Swing is scheduled to meet with Secretary-General Kofi Annan Friday.
But UN staffers say privately that sex is a fundamental issue wherever foreign nationals are plunked down for months at a time, far from home, often where they're earning princely sums compared to locals.
And the scandal has been terribly distracting to the core mission. The UN has spent "a lot of time trying to manage" the sex crisis, says Mr. Lyman, instead of focusing on helping Congo's masses by providing "peace and human security."