Rebels who overran one of Democratic Republic of Congo’s largest cities marched to take control of outlying areas Wednesday, leaving in their wake questions over the apparent ineffectiveness of United Nations peacekeeping in the country.
The UN mission in Congo, known by its French acronym Monusco, is second only to the operation in Darfur in terms of the size of its deployment.
Yet a rebel army formed only seven months ago managed to sweep past dozens of Monusco positions to seize Goma, the UN’s regional mission headquarters, and was Wednesday extending its control unopposed to the west.
“We always knew that the FARDC [Congo’s national Army] were too useless to protect us, but we had some trust that the United Nations would resist the rebels more,” said Joachim Kabori, a travel agent in Goma. “Today we see that these troops just stood by. We can only say that we are lucky that the rebels were not firing and fighting us, because otherwise we would be dead while the UN looked on.”
That, in fact, is not true, and goes to the heart of what Monusco’s spokesman in Goma calls “this difficult problem.”
It may seem absurd that Congo’s force of 19,000 uniformed UN troops, supported by 3,800 civilian staff, could not halt the advance of no more than 1,000 fighters fresh from the bush. But fewer than 1,500 of those peacekeeping soldiers were stationed in Goma when the M23 rebel army arrived.
And those that were there were hamstrung by a Security Council mandate that restricts them to “supporting” the Congolese Army to protect civilians, the spokeswoman says.
The problem was, the Congolese Army, the FARDC, had fled.
“It is not true that there was no protection of civilians, we were patrolling in Goma and around, and were ready to support the FARDC in case of anything,” she said. “But the difficult problem is our mandate is limited to supporting the FARDC, and protecting civilians who in imminent danger.”
If there were direct attacks on civilians, as Mr. Kabori, the travel agent, feared, the blue helmets would have intervened.
In the end, the rebels entered Goma with barely a shot fired, and continued their advance west to seize the town of Sake, 20 miles from Goma, again with minimal resistance.
Efforts to slow rebels' advance
In the days before Goma fell, Monusco said that it sent helicopters to open fire on rebel positions to try to slow or halt their advance.
UN helicopter gunships flew 17 sorties, firing 500 rockets and four missiles in the defence of the town, the United Nations said on Wednesday in a statement giving its account of the battle. Two South African peacekeepers were injured, it added.
Security Council Resolution 1925, adopted in 2010, allows Monusco “to use all necessary means to carry out its protection mandate, including the effective protection of civilians, humanitarian personnel, and human rights defenders under imminent threat of physical violence.”
French urge a review
The risk that future military clashes will spill over into civilian casualties is nonetheless very real, and France led calls for a more robust UN mandate in Congo. “It is necessary that the Monusco mandate is reviewed,” Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said Tuesday.
As M23 forces continued their advance, even boasting Wednesday that they would “go all the way to Kinshasa,” the capital that is 1,000 miles to the west, Amnesty International joined calls for a more robust approach from Monusco.
"UN peacekeepers must do more to avert a looming civilian protection catastrophe,” Salil Shetty, the organization’s secretary general, said in a statement.
At UN headquarters in New York late Tuesday, member states voted to impose sanctions on the M23 commanders.
But analysts questioned what deterrent these would be to a force made up of mutinying Congolese soldiers living in the forests of Central Africa.
In the meantime, as many as 50,000 people who have fled fighting in the region since August now join the long-term population of internally displaced people in eastern Congo that numbers close to three-quarters of a million.
“We’ll just have to continue dishing out the food and the water and the medicines and the plastic sheeting, while the politicians dither and wring their hands,” said one Western aid worker, on condition of anonymity.