Rwanda-Congo move isolates UN mission

Last week's deployment of Rwandan troops to fight rebels in Congo caught the 17,000-strong UN mission by surprise.

T.J. Kirkpatrick/AP
Relevant? Top UN envoy to Congo, Alan Doss, arrived with Congolese Army officials for talks in Goma, Congo, on Sunday.

Deploying a mere 3,500 soldiers, one of Africa's smallest countries last week called into question the relevance of the world's biggest United Nations peacekeeping force.

Rwanda moved the soldiers across its western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo without notifying the 17,000-strong, $1 billion-per-year UN peacekeeping force (MONUC), which is supposed to broker calm, protect civilians, and maintain dialogue with the rebel groups and the governments of Congo and Rwanda, all of whom have a stake in the outcome of the conflict.

Rwanda disrupted that dialogue last week, deploying its troops as part of a secret deal with Congo's President Joseph Kabila to launch joint operations against one of the region's major rebel groups.

"The special envoys in the region, the international community, MONUC, – we did not get any official warning. We were not informed," says Roeland van de Geer, the European Union's special representative to the Great Lakes region.

Mr. Van de Geer says the lack of information was not an oversight but a deliberate move by two former enemies who have found in the past few weeks an alliance more useful than cooperation with the UN.

"[T]he region wants to do it itself," van de Geer says. "They've lost confidence in the UN."

Goal: Root out the Hutu militia

The Tutsi-dominated government of Rwanda wants to dissolve the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu-led armed militia of 6,000 whose leadership is accused of having planned the 1994 Rwandan genocide of more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Several thousand men who participated in the genocide fled immediately afterward to the hills of eastern Congo, where they reconstituted a militia that Rwanda considers an existential threat.

Rwanda and Congo brokered a deal in 2007 to force the FDLR out of the bush. MONUC has been a key player in that deal, as the go-between for FDLR fighters who desert. MONUC says it has disarmed 6,500 FDLR combatants since 2002.

Last year, MONUC also offered Congo's Army tactical training, equipment, and logistical support, preparing the Congolese for a military offensive against the FDLR slated to begin last fall. But renewed fighting derailed the plan.

The Rwandan troop movement will do little to dissolve the FDLR, one member of the UN team that has been working to disarm the group said by phone from eastern Congo. But it might do a great deal to damage the UN's reputation.

"Nothing important will happen, no serious clash…. They will push against FDLR, who will go deeper in the bush," says the worker, who wished to be identified only by his first name, Goran. "And MONUC cannot do anything. It will show that MONUC is useless."

Rwanda's impatience with the UN

Rwanda, which has held a grudge against the UN for its failure to prevent the 1994 genocide, has been impatient with what it considers the UN's slow progress. The FDLR has continued to recruit new combatants, averaging last summer 50 new fighters a month, according to MONUC.

"UN hasn't made any progress whatsoever" since the 2007 peace talks, says van de Geer. "Absolutely nothing has happened on the disarmament of the FDLR. Nothing."

In fact, Rwanda has long been a step ahead of the UN on this particular task, says regional analyst Jason Stearns. "They know these guys [the FDLR]; they know their families…. They have their phone numbers," says Mr. Stearns, who used to work for the UN disarmament unit. "They have infiltrated FDLR to a very high level. They have much better intelligence than the UN ever had."

Joe Felli, head of office for MONUC in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, says the development hasn't marginalized the UN in eastern Congo, where as many as 24 armed groups vie for control over vast and sometimes impenetrable territory. "This does not prevent us from taking action against any of the armed groups once they threaten our mandate, which is chiefly the protection of civilians. The Rwandans are definitely aware of that."

Some observers predict that the joint mission will devolve into a Rwandan civil war on Congolese soil. Rwandan and Congolese forces exchanged fire with the FDLR over the weekend, reportedly killing nine combatants. The fighting raises concerns about the protection of civilians. The FDLR are known to nestle into civilian areas, making it difficult to isolate combatants and avoid injuring civilians. Van de Geer says the UN is the only body capable of providing that protection.

"We feel that the UN should stay involved as much as possible precisely because they are charged with responsibility of protecting civilian population," he says. "That will require muscle, military muscle."

Felli says MONUC is not wavering on its mandate to protect civilians, a task about which he says MONUC "cannot remain neutral."

It's unclear, however, precisely how the UN can protect those who find themselves in the path of the Rwandan Army. Last week, the Rwandan and Congolese armies blocked the UN from delivering humanitarian supplies to the recently displaced.

The Congolese themselves are questioning how valuable the promise of UN protection is. In October, Congolese civilians turned on the UN, hurling heavy slabs of lava rock at MONUC headquarters in the regional capital of Goma and stoning a peacekeeping vehicle.

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