Even on a continent full of hellholes, Congo stands out. It has been the site of two vicious civil wars in the past dozen years, both of which dragged in neighbouring countries and regional tribal militias, and resulted in millions of civilian deaths. United Nations officials may now claim to want to intervene in the latest fighting to prevent the death and dislocation of more millions, but over the past decade, the UN has contributed as much to Congo's suffering as it has to its relief. Moreover, it is unlikely UN member nations will agree to add troops to the 17,000-strong peacekeeping contingent already there. And even if they do, it is doubtful the UN would authorize those troops to take decisive military action. The whole sad episode again underscores the body's uselessness in preventing large-scale humanitarian crises. To the list of Rwanda, Darfur, Srebrenica and Kosovo, we can now add Congo's name.
In all, perhaps five million have died in Congo since 1996 as a result of warfare and the privations left in its wake, the most killed by conflict in any single country since the Second World War. Despite the most expensive election in the continent's history in 2006 -- in terms of monies spent by international organizations to ensure fairness -- the winner, President Joseph Kabila, is seen as weak and corrupt. But he's a peach compared to his natural successor, opposition leader and former vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba, who is currently in jail in The Hague awaiting trial on war crimes charges in connection with ethnic cleansing and mass rapes he is alleged to have sanctioned five years ago in the Central African Republic. That leaves rebel general Laurent Nkunda, whose troops last week took over most of the eastern province of Nord Kivu, as the most likely person to step into the leadership void.
But should Mr. Nkunda succeed Mr. Kabila-- by way of coup or power-sharing agreement -- nothing would be solved. Mr. Nkunda, a Tutsi, is backed by neighbouring Rwanda and appears intent on taking over mostly to punish ethnic Hutus who have fled to Congo since they butchered up to 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, another humanitarian disaster the UN sat back and watched happen.
To make matters worse, UN diplomats and soldiers were involved in two horrid scandals in Congo in recent years. Peacekeepers, mostly from Morocco and Uruguay, systematically raped Congolese women, some in their early teens, impregnating at least 140. They then attempted to cover up their crimes, going so far as to hide guilty soldiers from international investigators. UN diplomats, too, were discovered making pornographic movies with girls as young as 12.
When will the UN learn there is nothing much it can do in crises such as Congo except run refugee camps, provide food aid and hope at some point the combatants tire of the fight? Even in those instances when its soldiers are in position to prevent slaughter, torture and rape, its own internal ideological conflicts and institutional spinelessness prevent it from doing so.
The UN is based on a noble ideal, namely that impartial international intervention can end wars before they begin. But this notion was always doomed to fail because it runs contrary to human nature in two crucial ways: First, nationalistic and tribal tension will always exist and will frequently boil over, no matter how vigorously international finger-waggers plead with the two sides to back off. Second, most wealthy countries will never be persuaded to sacrifice their young soldiers to end conflicts thousands of kilo-metres away in which their nation has no perceived commercial or security stake.
This reality makes a farce of the UN's vaunted "responsibility to protect" doctrine. Rather than continuing to delude itself and the world with dreams of a war-free future, the UN should concentrate on mitigating suffering among refugees and other innocent victims of conflict. It does that comparatively well.
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