The UN must act. Africa is on the verge of another genocide
The UN must act. Africa is on the verge of another genocide
Great Lakes Politics and the Fight for the Eastern DR Congo
Great Lakes Politics and the Fight for the Eastern DR Congo
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

The UN must act. Africa is on the verge of another genocide

After 800,000 men, women and children were slaughtered in Rwanda nine years ago, everyone said never again. But unless the United Nations Security Council moves swiftly and decisively, another African genocide seems distressingly imminent.

The place this time is the small, mineral-rich Ituri Province in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where jammed together live 5 million Hema and Lendu names that may soon become as indelibly inscribed on our collective conscience as Tutsi and Hutu. The war in the Congo has already caused the deaths of 3 million people; in Ituri alone 50,000 people have been killed and 200,000 displaced since 1999. Alarmingly, worse seems likely unless foreign troops are sent immediately.

Ituri's current crisis has its roots in colonial history, with the Hema minority enjoying greater privileges and better education than the majority Lendu. After the collapse of state authority in 1998, the Hema leadership grabbed control of land and key gold mines, enlisting support from Ugandan army officers. Lendu militias retaliated and there has been a downward spiral of violence since.

Since the end of April, Ugandan forces have finally been withdrawing, in accordance with the larger Congo peace agreement signed last September. But in the last few days a Hema group, backed by Rwanda, seized the provincial capital, Bunia, and sent ethnic Lendu fleeing.

The UN mission in Congo, known as MONUC, was supposed to fill the security vacuum as Uganda left, but its 712 troops in Bunia were unable to stop the fighting. Crippled by Security Council delays over troop deployment, it completely failed to exert its authority. And Rwanda, it seems, has been only too willing to humiliate the UN mission and undercut the transition government soon to be formed in Kinshasa.

The responsibility for the present drift and impotence is shared. Britain keeps trying to knock Ugandan and Rwandan government heads together, but also goes on giving them both generous unconditional aid a policy ripe for reconsideration. It is critical that Uganda and Rwanda, whose proxy warfare has already caused so much Congo misery, be put under real pressure to stay out of Ituri for good.

UN efforts have been much hampered by U.S. reluctance to authorize or provide the necessary resources. In December, the Bush administration finally agreed to support a resolution providing an extra 3,000 troops to bolster the UN mission's existing 5,700, but then insisted that the new deployment be split. This means that at best a battalion of Bangladeshi soldiers will reach Bunia by October, by which time tens of thousands of people may be dead.

Nothing much moves these days without Washington's support, and if the Bush administration does not alter its attitude to this crisis it runs the risk of being seen as just as indifferent as the Clinton administration was to Rwanda in 1994. Breast-beating after the event is no substitute for effective action before it.

The UN mission's own performance has been less than impressive and it has to lift its game, fast. While its mandate is minimal to monitor the cease-fire and voluntary disarmament and its troop numbers have always been inadequate, it has often seemed more preoccupied with protecting its own personnel than helping protect Congolese civilians to the extent it has been capable.

The UN mission has repatriated only a few hundred Rwandan fighters out of the 15,000-20,000 in eastern Congo. Last March it completely failed to report the redeployment of unofficial Rwandan forces into North and South Kivu, the other cauldron of continuing Congo violence.

This time there must be no shirking of responsibility by the United Nations, Washington and the rest of the international community. Diplomatic pressure by itself seems unlikely to bring the situation in Ituri under any kind of control. The Security Council must immediately endorse the deployment of a multinational force to Ituri, fully empowered under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, to stabilize the situation, remaining there until UN forces take over the mission in a few months time.

France has indicated it is willing to send troops if others join it. That is very welcome, but there will have to be movement in days or weeks, not months, and in adequate numbers at least a brigade, around 3,000 troops, is required.

The warning bells have been rung about Ituri, and no one can say they haven't been heard. Words of public indignation are not enough. The world must prove that it can do better than stand by and watch as another genocide unfolds.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.