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The Congo: Might This Be the Re-birth of True UN Peacekeeping?



July 21, 1999

LONDON- After the Congo peace agreement, nothing but an eerie silence. Will they? Won't they? President Bill Clinton made a post Kosovo speech only a few weeks ago promising immediate U.S. intervention the next time lives are at risk. Yet the silence continues. Mention the word Congo and whether it be in Washington, London or Paris, you can hear a pin drop.

Is Washington now prepared to turn the clock back to where it was before the 1993 Somalia debacle when in the flush of good feeling following the end of the Cold War UN peackeeping was not only to be given a new lease of life and a rush of new mandates but more robust guidelines for military engagement? It was all dramatically undermined by a great American panic after 18 U.S. rangers were killed in a firestorm of guerrilla bullets in Somalia. Today it is not so much a question of whether the U.S. should commit its own troops to a new UN African operation- that was probably never a good idea- but whether it will effectively veto a move involving other countries, as it did at the time of the mass genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda five years ago, or simply opt out of the financial responsibility.

These are today's pertinent, unanswered questions. One speech does not a summer make and there is not much sign, anymore than there ever has been with this Administration, of it devoting its energy to educating, wooing and winning over Congressional and public opinion on UN matters. So far the White House has said that, if asked, it would take part in any "internationally recognized" peacekeeping effort for the Congo. Without Congressional support this is just wishful thinking. Where there should be an active, even fervent, policy there is just a grey hole. If nothing is soon done all the patient work of African leaders to resolve Africa's most important and potentially destabilising war will come to naught.

To be fair, there is a case for caution. The UN's last Congo peacekeeping operation, in the early 1960s, immediately following on a rushed granting of independence by an irresponsible Belgian government, is the darkest hour in the annals of the UN. It nearly tore the UN asunder, it claimed the life of the UN's greatest Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold and it resulted in the beating into unconsciousness of Brian Urquhart who was to become head of peacekeeping.

In the end the UN did bring peace to the Congo, in the sense that it ended a civil war fought over the secession of the mineral-rich province of Katanga and provided an alternative to what was in danger of becoming an East-West grab for influence that threatened to turn the Congo into a major Cold War battleground. It succeeded because the disorganized, drunken, pot-smoking Congolese troops and their gung-ho European mercenary back-up were relatively easily put in their places by the highly professional (mainly Indian) soldiers of the UN contingent.

Nevertheless, the operation also revealed the tensions implicit in peacekeeping operations. Various national contingents wanted to use force. At one point the Swedes even took off to start bombing in retaliation for the death of an Italian airman, only to be thwarted by bad weather. Urquhart later wrote in his autobiography, "They simply did not want to understand either the principle involved or the bottomless morass into which they would sink if they descended from the high ground of a non-violent international peacekeeping force...The moment the UN starts killing people it becomes part of the conflict it is supposed to be controlling and therefore part of the problem. It loses the one quality which distinguishes it from, and sets it above, the people it is dealing with."

Since the end of the Cold War there has been immense pressure brought to bear for the UN to forgo its traditional reticence about the use of aggressive force. Yet a more robust peacekeeping, besides being a contradiction in terms, is in danger of undermining its own purpose. In Somalia this robustness ended in alienating the local population and, later, in defeat. The field was simply abandoned. In Bosnia the UN ended up being pushed aside to give way to Nato, having become along the way, with the use of tanks and cannon, a very different kind of peacekeeping force than traditionally deployed.

Political opinion, nevemind public opinion, is largely confused about both the nature and pedigree of peacekeeping. Peacekeeping was "invented" by Dag Hammarskjold as a way of bipassing a big power veto on the activating of Chapter 7 of the UN Charter which permits the UN to use military "enforcement" to preserve the peace. It was a brilliant piece of improvisation, working under the more restrained rubric of the Charter's Chapter 6 that allows for mediation. Over many years of practice, from the Middle East on, it achieved a life of its own, demonstrating in trouble spots as varied as Cyprus, Namibia, Cambodia and El Salvador that UN soldiers were adept at keeping the peace ONCE the antagonists and their backers (in the old days usually the superpowers) had decided they did want peace.

The Congo, beckoning again, could be the right occasion at the right time to resurrect this well tested method of UN intervention. The African leaders have completed peace negociations. Everyone agrees on both what the terms are and what the UN peacekeepers' role is. If President Clinton was serious on his African trip last year in asking for forgiveness for standing on one side while the Tutsis were massacred, this is the time to test his sincerity. If he leads the rest of the world will follow. If he gets cold feet again the UN might as well fold its tent and await another president.



Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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