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Mission impossible

Africa | UN peacekeepers face an intractable dilemma that pits supporting Congolese troops against protecting vulnerable civilians

Five days before the UN Security Council is set to vote on a Dec. 21 resolution to extend its massive peacekeeping mission in the violently spiraling Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Congolese officials were issuing a warning to the council: Don't tell us to stop killing civilians. The threatened consequences of the UN's refusal to heed: expulsion of UN peacekeepers.

The warning from Ambassador Atoki Ileka came one day after the New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a report with a stinging conclusion: The Congolese forces that the UN peacekeepers are assigned to support are killing civilians the UN is supposed to protect.

The report-and the reactions from the Security Council and Congolese officials-reveal a tangled dynamic in one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, and underscore the worsening suffering of civilians and bystanders in a war that has killed some 5 million people in 15 years.

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Fighting erupted in DRC in 1994 when perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda fled to east Congo and began warring with locals. Atrocities on both sides followed, with widespread reports of mass rapes and vicious killings that wiped out whole villages.

In 1999, the UN sent assistance to the Congo, where it maintains its largest force of peacekeepers in the world: some 19,000 workers. The primary UN mandate in DRC is two-fold: Protect civilians and support the defeat of rebels who are warring against the Congolese military and terrorizing civilians.

The mandate to help defeat rebels has meant supporting the Congolese military. But Human Rights Watch reports that both the rebels and the UN-backed troops have committed "vicious and widespread" attacks against civilians the UN is supposed to protect.

The report says UN-supported soldiers have killed civilians, gang-raped girls, and cut off the heads of some young men. The group said it documented the killings of 732 civilians by Congolese forces between January and September. It reported 701 killings by Rwandan rebels in the same time period. The numbers on both sides are likely far greater.

Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Congo, outlined the carnage in a news conference on Monday: "Some chopped to death by machete, some hacked to death, others burned in their homes, some clubbed to death by sticks or bats."

Woudenberg also offered a crucial distinction: "These were not civilians caught in the crossfire. These were not civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. These were civilians who were deliberately targeted." The most common targets, she said, were women, children, and the elderly.

The UN Security Council responded by saying it would consider a resolution demanding that Congolese troops "immediately take appropriate measures to protect civilians" and "immediately stop recruiting and using children." The resolution would require additional training and enforcement of military discipline.

The response from Congolese officials wasn't receptive: They balked. Ambassador Ileka said the UN council could not make such demands of an elected government, and threatened the expulsion of peacekeepers if the measure passes.

Though it's unlikely that Congolese officials would expel peacekeepers, their resistance to the council's admonition to protect civilians is alarming. While Ileka says civilian casualties are the necessary consequence of fighting rebels and ending the war, the reports of targeted torture and murder of vulnerable populations like women and children are deplorable.

Indeed, rape has escalated so sharply in east Congo over the last year, even seasoned veterans of war have been shocked by its prevalence, and the UN has labeled the region the rape capital of the world. One victim told The New York Times: "If [soldiers] meet you, they rape you."

Widespread rape and killings are horrors that peacekeepers may not be able to stop, but human rights organizations say they are atrocities that the UN should at least take care to oppose and not underwrite.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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