The United Nations (UN) is about to do something it has never done before. It is going to its first war.
The UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been on the ground since 1999 and over the years the maximum 19,815 personnel mission has seen next-door neighbor Rwanda’s genocide spillover to anarchy, has been silent witness to rebel forces’ taking over Goma, the country’s second-largest city and has recently seen the surging violence of murder and rape of innocent Congolese.
On 28 March 2013, frustrated and exasperated with recurrent waves of conflict, the UN Security Council (UNSC) decided by Resolution 2098, to create a specialized ‘intervention brigade’, with a mandate “of neutralizing armed groups and the objective of contributing to reducing the threat posed by armed groups to state authority and civilian security in eastern DRC and to make space for stabilization activities”, for which it is “authorized to use all necessary means to carry out its mandate.”
In other conflicts, the UN has allowed nations and regional alliances to go to war; however, in Congo, the UN itself and the ‘blue berets’ themselves, under the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), will be responsible for the operational capacities, field operations and the inevitable casualties. The newly-appointed Force Commander Lt. Gen. Carlos Santos Cruz has explicitly indicated that the intervention “starts now!“
The wisdom or even the appropriateness of the action is up for debate, between those who believe that the UN has greater responsibility in protecting the rights and lives of the Innocent versus those who believe that a subjective call of legitimacy of either party’s stance or action is dangerous ground for the UN to tread. While, it is true that innocent civilians are the usual victims of internecine violence between warring factions pursuing their own, ideologically (if any) opposite agenda, it is also true that often both (or more) factions are culpable of the violence meted out to the innocent victims. The March 23 Movement (M23)-led 30-odd armed rebel groups’ violence and impunity have been matched by the Congelese army’s atrocities in the wake of their retreat from Goma.
Of greater concern is the safety of the peacekeeping forces in general – with roles changing from that of the defensive peacekeeper to that of the offensive peace-enforcer. Bangladesh, the cream of UN Peacekeepers, with its highest contribution of forces to the UN peacekeeping missions in terms of military troops and police personnel, has significant cause for worry. With deployment starting in 1988, rising to currently, more than 8,800 soldiers and officers already with the missions and more on their way, Bangladesh has a lot at stake. The nature of the terrain in Congo is such that it is unlikely for Bangladeshi troops to be deployed in the ‘intervention brigade’ anytime soon, with soldiers from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi predominating the contingents. But it is only a matter of time before we will see Bangladeshis engaged in intervention activities, putting themselves in even more harm’s way, whether we want to or not.
The UNSC could be presented with a proposal to classify peacekeeping missions based on the nature of involvement and intervention. This would allow personnel-contributing countries to express their participation interest in providing troops to missions according to classification – a heuristic measure of the acceptability/ perceived justifiability of the mission itself.
Keeping peace often entails taking sides and that inevitably comes at a price, but the goal should be to keep it at a possible minimum.