It's hard to imagine four words more calculated to provoke a groan from politicians in the developed world than "Democratic Republic of Congo". As a far-off country of which their electorates know little, it hardly invites rescue. It manages to combine all the darknesses and dangers of a failed state with almost none of the reasons of Western self-interest that prompted - say - the invasion of Afghanistan, or the wars against Slobodan Milsovic and Saddam Hussein. It isn't a safe haven for terrorists targeting London or New York. It could hardly be less of a threat to the rich countries of the world.
All of this, of course, helps to explain why perhaps two million people have died there in the last decade or so without decisive international intervention. Now an all-too predictable crisis in the eastern Congo province of Ituri has prompted fresh debate within the UN about how further carnage can be prevented. Uganda, one of two neighbouring countries (the other is Rwanda) which have embroiled themselves, often self-interestedly, in ethnic conflict in the mineral-rich region, has withdrawn its troops, triggering, in a familiar cycle, more killings by the rival factions opposed to those they were backing.
Last week Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International wrote to the UN Security Council. Their letter drew attention to "the mass killings and targeted rapes based on ethnic identity ... yielding a spiral of deadly reprisal attacks". No one expects the fragile ceasefire that followed the overrunning of the town of Bunia by one of the tribal factions after the Ugandan withdrawal to last of its own accord. The letter pointed out that tens of thousands of civilians have fled Bunia to an unknown fate, and a further ten thousand are now sheltering in desperate conditions in and around the beleaguered UN compound in the town. And the letter pressed for urgent reinforcements for the pitifully inadequate, underpowered and undermandated presence of 700 Uruguayan UN troops in the town.
And something at least is stirring in New York. France - conscious of the catastrophe looming in a francophone corner of Africa, but also viewed with suspicion in parts of the region because of its perceived complicity in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda - has offered to field a credible force provided that other countries join them. Tony Blair has indicated that the UK will do so, though whether he will offer more than logistical support remains to be decided. And there will more discussion in the Security Council this week.
Though welcome, it's also terribly belated. For this is not an unexpected crisis. Back in December, when the latest "peace deal" provided for foreign forces to withdraw, a bloodbath was widely predicted by everyone who knows something of the Congo. Rather it has been in large part prompted by renewed media attention, ranging from a powerful call by Fergal Keane a fortnight ago on this page for a serious UN force to be sent to Ituri to a BBC Newsnight film by James Astill which showed, as well as the corpses littering the streets of Bunia, an interview with a shy, smiling and armed 10-year-old Hemas orphan who said he had personally killed 10 members of the opposing Lendu tribe.
What's more, it easy to see why it will be an uphill struggle for Kofi Annan to secure the force he wants in time to prevent a further massacre. When the demand in Afghanistan and even more pressingly in Iraq, where Western vested interests are clear, is that much bigger, and more - preferably international - forces are urgently needed to impose security, how can governments with serious armies be expected to deploy their hard-pressed forces where they have no such interests?
As it happens, that is precisely the wrong question. For the victory that George Bush proclaimed in Iraq suggests an opposite conclusion. In an article in the latestNew Yorker, Philip Gourevitch, who wrote the celebrated book about the 1994 genocide, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda, tellingly points out how the Bush administration, having originally defended US non-intervention in Rwanda, changed its line in the run-up to war in Iraq. Indeed Condoleezza Rice went so far - in an interview with al-Jazeera - as to quote Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president, saying of the UN's failure to prevent a a genocide of a million people that "sometimes the Security Council is not right when it does not act." Ms Rice added: "President Bush believes that too."
If you are going to defend the invasion of Iraq on the Arab world's most watched satellite station by saying the UN should have intervened in Rwanda, you have an inescapable obligation to back UN intervention to prevent what most Africa hands believe has every chance of becoming another Rwanda in the eastern Congo. So far it isn't clear whether the US - which, while paying lip service to fresh intervention, does not intend sending troops - is even prepared to stump up its share of the costs of such a force. But for professed multilateralists there is little choice. Gourevitch argues persuasively that if the supposed rehabilitation of the UN last week around the new consensus on Iraq is to mean anything, then the real test lies in what it does in the Congo - precisely because there is no obvious Western interest there.
We shouldn't be too sanguine about what even a greatly strengthened UN force can achieve in these terribly dangerous circumstances. Clare Short, as International Development Secretary, was energetic in trying to broker agreements between the factions. But the British government has been deeply reluctant to use its leverage as an aid donor to put real pressure on the frequently manipulative Ugandan and Rwandan governments to stop arming the factions in eastern Congo.
Indeed, as Nigel Morris reports elsewhere, it has risked charges of hypocrisy by supplying both countries with arms in the past. Richard Dowden, the director of the Royal African Society, says that because Uganda is a "success story" in distributing aid within its own country, Britain has been reluctant to use the leverage it offers. But, he adds: "The time when it really should have taken a tough line was in 1998" - when Uganda invaded the Congo for the second time.
But securing and protecting Bunia with a serious UN force would be a lot better than nothing. Indeed the main worry at Human Rights Watch is that it will be too late in concluding its deliberations. Tony Blair's unexpected decision to intervene in Sierra Leone was a testament to his willingness to make a reality of his rhetoric on Africa. But two years ago he also proclaimed, in graphic terms, what international action could achieve in the Congo. For all his other preoccupations, he now needs to take the lead in securing the support on the Security Council which such action will need. And if that means embarrassing the US by also publicly pointing out its own obligations, so be it.Reuse content