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UN must avoid past mistakes in new DR Congo mission

Opinion: Support for intervention will evaporate if setbacks occur

The Nzolo refugee camp in Democratic Republic of Congo. Photograph: Iggy Roberts/Crown Copyright via Getty Images

The first UN peacekeeping mission to the Congo, from 1960 to 1964, will be remembered by many as a baptism of fire for Irish peacekeepers.

Fifty years later, the country is still in turmoil with the Congolese subject to unrelenting violence and rights abuses.

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s conflict can be seen as three interrelated wars, the first two of which were fought when neighbouring states sought to overthrow leaders. To stem the current crisis in the east of the country, the UN Security Council has authorised a new “intervention brigade” with an unprecedented mandate to carry out targeted offensive operations.

This is the first time such a brigade has been created within a peacekeeping force. However, it is not the first time the UN has gone on the offensive. The track record does not inspire optimism. In 1961, UN peacekeepers in the Congo, which included Irish Defence Forces personnel, were authorised to use force as a last resort to deal with the civil war and general disturbances .

Subsequently, peacekeepers were authorised to take vigorous action during the campaign to suppress foreign-supported secessionists in the mineral-rich Katanga province. Although the campaign was successful, it proved very controversial.

Black Hawk Down
The infamous Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia which led to the deaths of 18 US special forces and hundreds of Somalis in 1993 is also a stark reminder of how offensive operations can go wrong. The follow-up operations by the UN against warlord Gen Mohammed Farah Aideed led to the withdrawal of all UN forces.

More recently, in 2006, eight Guatemalan special forces were killed by friendly fire when the UN attempted to capture Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. It was a vivid reminder of the perils of offensive tactics.

The UN resolution authorising the new brigade states that it will be established for one year on an exceptional basis and without creating a precedent or any prejudice to the agreed principles of peacekeeping. Only the UN could dream up such a contradictory statement. The real aim is to defeat the so-called M23 rebel group and other armed elements that have wreaked havoc in the eastern Congo.

UN peace operations alone cannot end a war, nor will the robust interpretation of a mandate provide the solution to intra-state conflict.

The use of force by or on behalf of the UN must be resorted to only in the context of a political strategy with clearly defined goals. To be fair to the UN, the secretary general’s recent report on the DRC outlined a multifaceted approach.

It is in this context that Mary Robinson, the special envoy for the Great Lakes region, has a special role. She must work closely with governments of the region to guarantee non-interference in the internal affairs of the DRC.

Illegal trading
This is a critical political role as all the regional states have contributed to the destabilisation of the DRC. Rwanda has been linked to armed groups operating in eastern Congo. However, the conflict has been fuelled by illegal trading by states throughout the region.

Past UN failures to halt advances by armed groups have led to violent demonstrations against the UN. The human rights violations prompted a demand for a tougher response from the UN. Previous UN reports were critical of the “glacial speed” of the response to attacks on civilians. In Bosnia, the rhetoric in the security council did not match reality.

Achieving effective military capability among the participating states will be difficult. The challenge is to establish the intervention brigade in a way that brings a speedy resolution. In the past, UN and national forces have been blamed for abuses. Support will evaporate if this occurs again or if there are military setbacks.

Dr Ray Murphy is professor at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, school of law, NUI Galway. He is director of the LLM programme in peace operations, humanitarian law and conflict at NUI Galway and has served on UN peacekeeping missions