The United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) appears to have disgraced itself once again. In 2004 the reputation of peacekeepers in the country was blackened by reports of UN soldiers sexually exploiting underage local girls. And this week it emerged that UN forces did nothing while as many as 150 civilians – including babies – were raped and assaulted by rebels just 19 miles from their base in the east of the country.
The UN envoy claims that it is unfair to castigate the peacekeeping force on this occasion because locals did not raise the alarm, possibly because of the social stigma of rape. Whatever the truth, the latest incident underlines the immense difficulties of attempting to maintain law and order in a chaotic state like the DRC, where militias roam more or less at will. If peacekeepers cannot prevent mass rapes in the immediate vicinity of their own camps, what hope do they have of imposing stability on a state which is the size of Western Europe?
The short answer is none. International expectations about what can be achieved by a 17,000-strong UN force (down from 20,000 earlier this year) are simply too high. The DRC's problems are intractable and multi-faceted. A better future looks impossible until the DRC's neighbours (Rwanda in particular) stop supporting the militias which crowd its territory and until the Western world bans the import of goods made with the minerals pillaged from the vast country. The best that the UN force can do in the present circumstances is to help stop the country sliding back into the total anarchy of civil war.
That said, the UN mission should be doing a better job. There was clearly a shocking failure of communications over this mass rape. It beggars belief that the attack took place over four days and that peacekeepers passed through the area twice on patrol. The UN is examining ways to improve communication between the UN force and local people. One idea that has been floated is for peacekeepers to assume that there is a problem if contact is not maintained.
The other lesson to be drawn is that the staggered withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping force in the country, in response to the nationalistic demands from President Joseph Kabila, needs to be suspended. This appalling crime clearly demonstrates that what the suffering and vulnerable population of the DRC needs is more UN, not less.