Mission to DR-Congo: Too little, too late.

Mission to DR-Congo: Too little, too late.

Mission to DR-Congo: Too little, too late.

What the foreign papers are saying.
June 13 2003 3:24 PM

Too Little, Too Late

By most press accounts, the French-led international force arriving in the Democratic Republic of Congo is much too little. It is already too late for the 50,000 people killed in the Ituri region since 1999—a fraction of the nearly 4 million killed across the country in that time. The U.N. Security Council took up the formation of a new international force after a recent outbreak of horrific inter-ethnic fighting, which a U.N. peacekeeper mission already stationed in the region was neither equipped nor mandated to handle. An advance group of about 200 French troops has arrived in Bunia, the capital of eastern Congo's Ituri region. The full force to be deployed is 1,400, with a mandate to stay for three months. Besides the French, troops will primarily come from Britain, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and South Africa. One aid worker said the new U.N.-mandated force is "the proverbial boy running around sticking his finger in the dike."

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Observers are already asking whether the new force will be any more effective than the previous U.N. mission. Britain's Guardian reportedthat while the force is authorized to fire, it is not mandated to disarm the Hema and Lendu tribal factions, long-time rivals whose fighting since early May has killed at least 500 people, left hundreds—including children—nursing machete wounds, and sent tens of thousands fleeing. The Guardian quoted a French military spokesman as saying the force plans to chase militias from the town, not disarm them. "There is no confusion: it's not in our mandate to demilitarise the city." Chasing militias from the town will be a tall order. The papersaid the leader of the Hemas, who recently took over Bunia, declared, "[W]e will not disarm, and will not leave the city we have fought for and won."

While some in Bunia say the French troops' presence is making a difference, primarily in facilitating the distribution of humanitarian aid, chances for real and widespread relief appear meager at best. The Financial Times said that as French troops and U.N. ambassadors arrived in the country, "the scale of any task beyond immediate humanitarian relief appears overwhelming." Conflict engulfs the entire country—which is more than four times the size of France—and the French-led troops have a limited scope. According to Toronto's Globe and Mail, a spokesperson for the force told reporters that troops would be confined to Bunia and its airport. A Congolese aid worker responded, "[U]nless the bigger issue of Congo was addressed as a whole, it will go on. It will be firefighting. You will fix one thing and another will flare."

What the Congolese people need is to see an end to the killing and to reclaim their towns from machete- and Kalashnikov-wielding militias. But the Guardian reportedthat based on a French military briefing paper it obtained, the new force "will have a negligible impact on tribal conflict." According to the document, "France has no specific interest in the area except solidarity with the international community." (When talk of a European force for DR-Congo arose, some observers said French-British cooperation on the effort could help patch up rifts over the Iraq war.) The military briefing paper notes that the force's exit is "firmly established" at Sept. 1, 2003. The Guardian quoted a European military source who has seen the document observing: "This is the most cynical military briefing I've read in my entire life. Everybody is just laughing at it." According to the Guardian, a forthcoming report by the International Crisis Group says, "This intervention, on the face of it, is totally insufficient to meet the needs of Ituri's pacification." ( Le Monde reported that the United Nations and the European Union are meeting this week with Congolese President Joseph Kabila and faction leaders to help bring an end to hostilities and attempt to form a transitional government.)

L'Eveil of DR-Congo gave a more bleak assessment of the U.N. intervention in the country. After the international force's three months is up, the paper said, militias will resume their killing rampages. "To intervene in Bunia for three months, without disarming the Hema and Lendu militias, is a useless effort that will lead to no result." The paper said the United Nations—rather than send a supplementary force—should have equipped and authorized the existing U.N. force for decisive action on the ground. Referring to the U.N. peacekeeping force long stationed in Congo, the paper said the impression thus far is that foreign troops have come for tourism—"to loot the country's resources, to dance and drink champagne, to sleep with our daughters" then to leave when their time is up. "The Congolese people don't need that."

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Whatever the effectiveness of the new international force, it is for the moment Congo's only hope, according to Britain's Independent. The paper notedthat while the force may secure Bunia, it will not be able to go beyond that. "For the embattled residents of Bunia, however, the small French contingent is all that separates them from a return to the horror." An aid worker told the paper, "Now is the moment, it's make or break time. We really need this force to deploy quickly. And if it doesn't work, God knows what will."

Nancy Palus is a freelance journalist currently based in Detroit.