NAIROBI (AlertNet) – The United Nations could begin withdrawing troops from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the biggest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, as early as June this year, officials have said. The move follows a call by the Congolese government for the nearly 22,000 peacekeepers with the United Nations’ MONUC force to leave, over a decade after they were deployed throughout the country to maintain peace and order. A 1998-2003 war and the ensuing humanitarian disaster have killed an estimated 5.4 million people, many due to disease and dirty water. Though the $1 billion-MONUC mission has come under criticism for failing to bring peace in Congo’s volatile north-east, observers fear that President Joseph Kabila’s call may be premature. Ten years after the deployment of MONUC, mineral-rich provinces in northeastern DR Congo are still a war theatre, with several armed groups jostling for power and influence and with 1.8 million people displaced. AlertNet interviewed three experts about the current situation in northeastern DR Congo, post-MONUC scenarios and their thoughts about how to avoid a return to war. AlertNet spoke to Guillaume Lacaille, senior analyst on Central Africa for the International Crisis Group, Alex Vines, head of the Africa Program at Chatham House, and Andrew Phillips, spokesman for Amnesty International. What are your views on the current situation in northeastern DR Congo? Guillaume Lacaille: State authority has not been extended to the entire country, especially to the northeast. The groups that were fighting have totally maintained a parallel chain of command and taxation. There is so much ethnic tension and illegal natural resource exploitation – undermining factors that mean the restoration of peace in the Congo will continue to fail. Alex Vines: The situation in eastern Congo is not contained and it’s pretty volatile there. With armed groups still maintaining their structures and arms, the situation remains potentially explosive. Andrew Phillips: Although the government and some parts of the U.N. say there are improvements in northeastern DR Congo, it’s difficult to see those improvements. You still have got regular attacks on civilians and an army that is still abusive to the population. Almost all problems at the root of the conflict have not been addressed. Armed groups have not been properly disarmed and demobilised and ethnic tensions in north Kivu remain very high. We don’t think this request has been made by the government with the best interests of the Congolese people at heart. Can DR Congo do without MONUC? Guillaume Lacaille: The government wants to demonstrate, one year after the 2011 elections, that they can do this by themselves. But without MONUC, this election period we are now getting in to will be very chaotic. MONUC helped carry out those elections in 2006. Without MONUC, credible elections will be impossible to hold. Alex Vines: This is politics and President Kabila Junior is feeling more assertive and is making these sorts of statements. The situation in DR Congo is not yet contained. It would be premature to see a full pull-out of MONUC. This is a kind of posturing position by the Kabila administration ahead of the 50th anniversary of Congolese independence from Belgium. Andrew Phillips: I think it’s a very reckless request to be made by the government and I am worried that the U.N. is not going to be robust enough to say no. They have already agreed to a phased withdrawal and this could have very grave risks for the civilian population. You just need to know who the civilian population turns to when they are attacked – it’s the U.N. How can peace be achieved while retaining DR Congo’s sovereignty? Guillaume Lacaille: Just like the head of DPKO (UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations) suggested to the Congo government, there should be benchmarks before MONUC leaves. The DPKO is trying to engage the government and the presidency in this kind of discussion but it’s not easy. They need to bridge that discrepancy because if they don’t there will be more trouble along the way. Alex Vines: In the long-term, Congo won’t need U.N. operations. MONUC had its problems but there is a vacuum and a lack of alternatives. There are things MONUC can still contribute to. Progress in security sector reform and stabilisation of eastern Congo remain problematic areas that may still warrant the expertise of MONUC. But I also understand that Congo cannot have MONUC there indefinitely. Andrew Phillips: The government has resented the degree of political influence held by MONUC and the international community. I think we need to get the African Union more involved in Congo. It is inconceivable to contemplate the withdrawal of MONUC, when there are a sizeable number of armed groups in northeastern Congo. People need to address the protection challenges that remain, to make sure that there are reforms in the security sector. The Congolese army and the police must be capable of ensuring security and ensuring maximum respect for human rights. Part of this role is currently being played by MONUC.
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