The UN in Congo: worth the effort?

The UN in Congo: worth the effort?

Without a great deal of attention, one of the world’s largest peacekeeping missions is starting to unwind. Since early 2000, U.N. peacekeepers have labored in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, attempting to end one of the world’s bloodiest recent conflicts. At its height, the U.N. mission involved more than 20,000 troops and hundreds of civilians and police from dozens of countries. By U.N. standards, it was an expensive undertaking, with a price tag of more than a billion dollars a year (by the standards of U.S. or NATO operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, of course, it was dirt cheap). It has also been bloody. Three peacekeepers were killed recently and more than 100 have died in the course of the operation.

Congolese president Joseph Kabila recently demanded that the U.N. force withdraw entirely by 2011, and the Security Council has authorized a smaller and renamed follow-on force. Some U.N. forces have already withdrawn. It has not been a smooth transition. With recent reports of a mass rapes in eastern Congo still reverberating, the U.N. is once again being charged with fecklessness and worse. "Hapless UN fails another test," one typical headline read.

In the light of these attacks, it’s critical to assess what the force has actually accomplished during its decade-long stay. I spoke recently to Severine Autesserre, who’s been watching the situation in Congo for years and who recently published The Trouble with the Congo, an assessment of conflict resolution efforts in the country. She made several notable points.

First, she insisted that, for all its evident shortcomings, the U.N. force helped keep the country in one piece. What was a riven country is now for the most part unified, although the government clearly does not control swathes of eastern Congo. She credits international peacekeepers and diplomats with facilitating that unification process and restraining some of the worst violence. "The situation in the country would have been much worse without the peacekeepers," she says. Even in still violent eastern Congo, the peacekeepers have at times and in places been able to protect civilian populations from rampaging militias.

Her assessment points to one of the key dilemmas that modern peacekeeping missions face: even when they’re moderately successful, they tend to move situations from god-awful to merely bad — and they’re never going to get much public credit for that. One can make a case that the two peacekeeping forces in Sudan have also had the effect of restraining violence but because there are still ongoing atrocities, they are usually labeled failures. The difference between rampant country-wide conflict and state disintegration, on the one hand, and sporadic and localized atrocities, on the other, may be morally and strategically essential but it is often absent in the public debate. 

Autesserre makes another important point that is less favorable to the U.N.: the organization and its key member states are obsessed with election organizing, in large part because it offers quantifiable results and concrete tasks. "The technical aspects of election organizing — moving ballot boxes and registering voters — is very appealing to the U.N. and to donor countries."  In 2006, the U.N. spent millions in Congo to organize an election that produced a government with very questionable democratic credentials. Now, she’s concerned that the stripped-down U.N. force will focus on the next round of elections rather than on more critical tasks.