The United Nations announced a milestone this week. For the first time, a UN-led force helped beat back a rebel group to protect a civilian population. Instead of its usual defense-only peacekeeping, the UN engaged in aggressive peace enforcement – with helicopters, snipers, and artillery.
The Security Council authorized the unprecedented offensive last March for Congo. But the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade only began fighting in August, alongside Congo’s military, against a rebel force known as M23. The group had terrorized the eastern part of the Central African country, even taking the city of Goma last year with its million residents.
This week, the UN declared the rebels are now at their “military end,” having lost key positions to 3,000 UN soldiers from Tanzania, South Africa, and Malawi who are led by a commander from Brazil.
In the past, when the UN sought peace enforcement to achieve a humanitarian objective, it outsourced the task to member nations rather than rely on leadership of its peacekeeping department. In 2001, for example, the UN gave NATO permission to attack Libya to protect civilians. And forces from the African Union have intervened under UN authority in several conflicts on the continent, such as in Somalia.
But the UN operation in Congo raises the prospects that the international body may have found a new legal and moral footing for itself in intervening when a government fails to protect its people or kills innocent civilians.
Ever since the 1993 Rwandan genocide and a 1995 mass killing of Muslims in Bosnia – when blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers stood by, doing little – the world community has slowly and fitfully moved toward a consensus on when to break a state’s sovereignty for the sake of guarding the innocent.
The UN, which is made up of member states, has grappled with the concept that state sovereignty lies first in the sovereignty of the individual. If a state cannot protect individuals or kills them on a large scale, then other countries, preferably under UN authority, can intervene.
In August, after a chemical weapons attack against civilians in Syria, President Obama threatened to strike Syria without UN approval. The threat led Russia to pressure its Arab ally to give up its chemical weapons to a UN-affiliated body. The task is now nearing completion.
Each new case of intervention – or a mere threat of one – brings difficult challenges or sometimes a backlash. Even the UN’s success in Congo remains tenuous while officials wait to see if the M23 rebels can regroup. Since the Libya operation, which led to the killing of that country’s leader, Russia and China have become more inclined to threaten a veto against UN-authorized action.
Still the UN’s success in Congo may have led its secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, to request in mid-October that the Security Council approve more aggressive action in Somalia against Al Shabab. The Islamic insurgents have taken their terrorist tactics into other East African nations.
The idea of the UN itself engaging in offensive combat has long been resisted by its members. But as more mass atrocities have occurred, humanity has shown it has the collective conscience to act in preventing such actions. The UN may not always get it right. But it increasingly knows that it must do the right thing.