In the gold-rich Ituri district of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), civilians can now do what was once unthinkable: walk down the streets without fearing for their lives. Until recently, the region had been torn apart by anarchy and brutal fighting.
The UN Peacekeeping Mission for the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) played a critical role in bringing a semblance of peace to Ituri, protecting civilians from violence and securing the country for successful democratic elections last November. Despite such progress after years of war, the DRC remains extremely fragile. If the Bush administration pushes for UN peacekeepers to pull out too soon, violence could once again take root.
Four million civilian deaths have been linked to the eight-year conflict in the DRC, costing more lives than any other conflict since World War II. The debate on the decision to extend the UN Mission's mandate, which ends on May 15, has been under way for weeks, but no consensus has been reached on what the postelection peacekeeping mission will look like. An immediate extension through Dec. 31, as requested by the UN secretary-general, should be the minimum time frame.
It is more worrisome that some still want to reduce the number of troops and weaken their ability to keep the peace. Both would be tragic mistakes for a country that already has seen too much tragedy.
This first year following Joseph Kabila's election is crucial for building stability for future generations. However, aftershocks continue to shake the tenuous peace. Just a few weeks ago, fighting broke out in Kinshasa between former vice president and rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba's security forces and the Congolese armed forces. More than 200 were reported killed and many more wounded before the DRC Army restored order. Mr. Bemba, who was elected senator in January, took refuge in the South African Embassy until MONUC secured his departure to Portugal, reportedly for medical care. These recent clashes in the nation's capital demonstrate a fragile peace that needs to be nurtured and strengthened. Now is not the time to hamstring the UN mission.
Former US Ambassador William Swing, who is the secretary-general's special representative to the DRC, has publicly stated that shrinking MONUC will pose an irreversible threat to the country's forward movement. He has also called on the US Congress, which funds about 25 percent of the peacekeeping mission, to ensure that the force is sufficiently funded in the coming year by guaranteeing at least $260 million to sustain its efforts. But the Bush administration has not been listening.
The administration's budget projects a nearly $90 million cut – almost 35 percent – in the US share of the MONUC budget, which it says "assumes a significant reduction in mission size." As Congress looks to fund MONUC in the 2008 foreign operations spending bill, they should listen to what Mr. Swing – and more recently Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon – have said about the urgency of maintaining MONUC's force level. As the DRC government gains experience and its security forces become stronger and more efficient, some reductions will be possible and desirable. Until then, Congress must keep current funding levels intact.
The UN mission has in-creased humanitarian access, making possible the first Congolese elections in 40 years, and it now must build on that peace by taking on security sector reform. Rwandan and Ugandan rebels still operate in the DRC, several thousand Congolese militiamen continue to control isolated areas in the east, and the Congolese Army too often abuses the people it is meant to protect. Chiefs in the lakeside villages of Tchomia and Kasenyi recently told Oxfam that if the UN peacekeeping force were to close its base and stop patrols, the people would leave tomorrow because it simply would no longer be safe – at least not yet.
The International Crisis Group in Kinshasa recently reported that militias indeed need to be fully dismantled, but that demobilization alone is not enough to ensure stability. The full political rights of legitimate opposition parties must also be guaranteed for the infant democracy to flourish. The Bush administration should use all available diplomatic levers to assure a strong MONUC mandate that includes civilian protection, conflict prevention at the local and national levels, establishment of an international donors group, and promotion of political dialogue.
There is one constant lesson in post-conflict peacekeeping: Weakening a UN mandate and pulling troops out too soon almost always guarantees a return to war. This is precisely what occurred in Liberia and in East Timor. Despite enormous suffering and vast remaining challenges, the UN has helped create the space to build peace in the DRC. The country can't afford to lose that treasured space – nor can it afford to lose any more lives.
• Raymond C. Offenheiser is the president of Oxfam America, a nonprofit international development and relief agency. Mark L. Schneider is the senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, an international conflict prevention organization.