Global Policy Forum

UN Warned not to Join Congo Peace Keeping Operation


In the midst of ongoing violence in DRC, human rights groups accuse Congolese soldiers of pillaging, raping, and murdering the civilians they are expected to protect. The army in question is provided with food and ammunition by the UN.  Furthermore, the Security Council, having learned about these crimes, decided to continue its support for the Congolese army. This New York Times article reveals communications from the UN Office of Legal Affairs to the UN Peacekeeping Department, warning that the UN should not participate in the operations.


By Jeffrey Gettleman

December 09, 2009

United Nations peacekeeping officials were explicitly warned months ago by their legal advisers not to participate in combat operations with the Congolese Army if there were a risk that Congolese soldiers might abuse human rights, internal documents show. But the mission went forward - and the abuses took place as feared.

According to United Nations documents provided to The New York Times, the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs wrote to the head of the peacekeeping department in April and said that peacekeepers "cannot participate in any form of joint operation" with the Congolese Army, "if there are substantial grounds for believing there to be a real risk of them violating international humanitarian law."

The warnings proved prescient. A few months later, Congolese government soldiers, who had been supplied with ammunition and food by United Nations peacekeepers, killed hundreds of civilians, gang-raped girls and even cut the heads off some young men, according to human rights groups.

Many United Nations officials seemed to fear this could happen and the documents from the legal affairs office reveal the level of internal debate - and discomfort - about working hand in hand with the Congolese Army, which over the years has been widely blamed for looting, raping and killing the very population it is responsible for protecting.

"We knew this was a risky operation," said Alain Le Roy, under secretary general for peacekeeping operations, in an interview Wednesday. But, he added, "We have no other option."

He also said that it was the peacekeeping department that sought the legal advice in the first place, because the peacekeepers were aware of potential difficulties working so closely with the notoriously ill-disciplined Congolese Army and they wanted clear legal guidance before military operations began.

United Nations officials in New York are now debating what to do next. The mandate for the Congo peacekeeping mission, one of the world's biggest with 19,000 soldiers, expires in a few weeks and the Security Council is expected to renew it, albeit with stricter conditions on army cooperation.

But it is not clear how long the peacekeepers will stay. The Congolese government has grown sensitive about the perception that it is propped up by foreign forces and has asked the United Nations for an exit plan. United Nations officials are now saying the mandate may be extended for only six months and that the mission would shift from peacekeeping to reconstruction after that.

Clearly, there are no easy answers for Congo. Many analysts say the country has become a sinkhole of foreign aid, with little progress despite billions of dollars poured into it. The central government based in the capital, Kinshasa - essentially on the west coast of Africa - remains dangerously weak while war continues to rage hundreds of miles away in the thickly-forested east. Congolese soldiers often do not receive their pay, decimating their loyalties, while various armed groups, motivated by ethnic, commercial and criminal interests, haunt the hills, preying upon civilians at will.

This has been the situation for years, and the United Nations peacekeepers have an especially difficult task because the two main tenets of their mission - protecting civilians and helping the Congolese Army wipe out rebel forces - often collide.

Recently, the peacekeepers have had to confront this predicament because of the intensity of military activity. A joint Rwandan-Congolese offensive in January against rebel holdouts spurred brutal reprisal killings. Then came the United Nations-backed military offensive, also intended to sweep away rebels, in which the peacekeepers helped plan the maneuvers, resupply Congolese soldiers and transport them to battle zones. Again, hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands displaced. According to human rights groups, it was the Congolese Army that did much of the killing.

"Human Rights Watch documented the deliberate killing by Congolese soldiers of at least 270 civilians," the organization said in a November report. It also said many of the victims were women and children, and some had been chopped to death by machete.

In November, the United Nations cut off support to a Congolese brigade blamed for massacring civilians. But many human rights groups wanted the United Nations to go further, which was also the advice of the United Nations' own lawyers.

"If the violations are widespread or serious," the lawyers wrote in the April letter to the peacekeeping department, the mission "must cease its participation in the operation as a whole" and even use armed force against the Congolese Army to protect civilians.

Mr. Le Roy said on Wednesday that the United Nations, after it learned about the crimes committed by Congolese soldiers, weighed the risks of pulling out of the operation all together.

"It was a dilemma," he said. The operation had succeeded in dislodging the rebels from their strongholds and scattering them in the bush, Mr. Le Roy said, adding that United Nations officials were worried that "if we stopped the operation, they would come back and make reprisals on the villages. That is for sure."

Mr. Le Roy said, "We put all the information on the table," adding that it was the Security Council that ultimately decided to press on with the military operations, which still continue.

The legal department also specifically warned peacekeeping officials not to participate in any combat maneuvers led by Jean Bosco Ntaganda, a Congolese commander wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes charges.

Mr. Bosco, a former rebel widely known as the Terminator, and thousands of other former rebels have recently been absorbed into the Congolese Army in a shaky power-sharing deal. Under it, longstanding Congolese commanders are nominally in charge, but the former rebels control their own territory and even impose their own taxes. One analyst described the situation as "an insurgency in army clothing."

Though the Congolese government had assured the United Nations peacekeepers that Mr. Bosco was not part of the recent military operations, a United Nations panel of experts unearthed documents showing the Mr. Bosco was the deputy commander of the recent operations and thus the peacekeepers were working with a wanted fugitive.

Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, has said that going after Mr. Bosco could provoke more bloodshed and that right now, for Congo, peace is more important than justice.


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.