The Guardian - Editorial

    If the words humanitarian catastrophe and eastern Congo have a familiar ring to them, it is because the fundamental causes of a conflict that has claimed five million lives and continues to kill 45,000 a month through starvation and disease remain unaddressed. And this despite the world’s largest peacekeeping force, with the strongest mandate – to use lethal force if necessary to protect civilian lives. The 17,000-strong UN force, known as Monuc, has patently failed to do this. In most villages the militias represent the only law, the only protection from rape, crop-raiding and kidnap. The international community’s attempts to restore order have lost all credibility.

    The latest emergency comes with the advance of the rebel general Laurent Nkunda, who yesterday stopped his forces outside the eastern provincial capital, Goma, as government forces fled it. Nkunda claims the Congolese government has failed to protect his minority Tutsi tribe from the Rwandan Hutu militias, which escaped to the Congo after carrying out the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. He called for direct talks with the government and a revision of a $5bn deal which gives China access to the region’s mineral riches in exchange for a railway and highway.

    Goma in particular and the Congo in general have been here many times before. North and South Kivu, the crucible of conflict over land, minerals and ethnicity, are littered with broken ceasefires – almost one a year since peace was established in most other provinces in 2003. Attempts have been made to integrate militias into a national army. Those too have failed. The four constants in all this are the national army’s failure to disarm the Rwandan Hutu militias with which they are closely linked, the routine use of rape, pillage and murder of civilians by all sides (including the rebel forces of Nkunda), the involvement of Rwanda and Uganda in Congo’s affairs, and the general grab for natural resources.

    There are rich pickings for the warriors. The tax levied by armed groups on charcoal alone amounts to $30m a year, and a UN investigation into the access, control and trade of coltan, diamonds, copper, cobalt and gold found that the exploitation of Congo’s natural resources by foreign armies had been systematic. Nkunda says he is fighting to protect the hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in eastern Congo still threatened by the Hutu rebels. His forces are more disciplined than his adversaries. They took only the medicine they needed for their clinics as opposed to the widespread looting of the retreating Congolese army. But the longer this conflict continues, the more the rebel general’s true motives come under scrutiny. It may be that he simply wants a larger slice of the mineral-rich cake.

    Above all, eastern Congo’s continuing misery represents an appalling failure of international will. The UN security council has demanded an end to the fighting, but continues to see Nkunda alone as the primary source of instability. France is talking about sending troops and the EU’s aid chief, Louis Michel, yesterday met the president, Joseph Kabila, to see what could be done. But there is contempt for the UN among the population in Goma and little expectation among those fleeing their homes yesterday that it will stop the displacement, the disease and the rape.

    The UN has the facts. A panel of experts has been investigating the government’s armies’ links with the Hutu militias and the extent to which Rwanda has backed Nkunda. They could use that evidence to pressurise the backers of both sides back to the negotiating table. The governments of both Rwanda and the Congo benefit from large amounts of foreign aid. That too could be used as leverage. What should not and cannot continue is the belittling spectacle of large numbers of UN peacekeepers unable or unwilling to do their job.



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