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Jean-Marie Guehenno is Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations of the United Nations.

By Jean-Marie Guehenno

NEW YORK -- The U.N. intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a risky one. French troops arriving over the weekend in Bunia in the northeast of the country were reminded of that when they found themselves in the middle of a battle between militias for control of the town.

Many things could go wrong. The incoming force, just 1,400 men, could find itself too small to be effective. Or the rival militias could just melt away and wait out the new force -- its mandate from the Security Council runs only until Sept. 1. Or fighting could die down in the areas where the French-led force deploys, only to break out elsewhere. There are already ominous signs. As I write this, fighting continues to the south, in the area of the Kivus.

Yet U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has argued in the Security Council for this operation. And, even before that, in consultation with the government of Uruguay, he authorized the deployment of a lightly armed Uruguayan battalion to eastern Congo, knowing that they were out-numbered, and out-gunned, and without the mandate to adequately provide security to Buniafs citizens.

There are two reasons for this.

The first is that, if we do nothing, people die. And they sometimes die in enormous numbers. In the last several weeks, thousands of civilians, some of them mauled by machetes, have sought sanctuary in the U.N. compounds protected by the Uruguayans. And there is every reason to believe that many of these people would now be dead if the Uruguayans had not agreed to protect the U.N. bases in Bunia.

When genocide broke out in neighboring Rwanda almost a decade ago, there was no support in the Security Council for the deployment of forces armed or configured to take on the genocidaires, and a decision was taken to reduce the U.N. operation in that country to a symbolic presence. As many as 800,000 people died in the three-month orgy of violence that followed.

The situation across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo today is not so different. Credible reports say that 100,000 or more could die if fighting is allowed to spiral downward in Ituri, the region where Bunia is located. And Bunia is only a small town in a very large and unstable country. What happened in Rwanda must not be allowed to happen in the DRC.

The second reason for supporting this operation is more positive. Although a shocking number of people have already died in the DRC -- reportedly some 3.5 million in five years -- the armed groups waging the war are not strong. Most of those who have died have been civilians, murdered, raped, burned, sometimes even eaten. The rest were killed by disease in a country in which the state has disintegrated and the economy is largely reduced to subsistence and barter, HIV is rampant, and the law is literally that of the jungle. Relatively few have died in real force-on-force military engagements.

The belligerents are poorly trained, poorly disciplined, poorly led and poorly supported. If they can be weaned off their supporters both in the DRC and in neighboring countries, and confronted with a modern, mobile force, many would just melt away.

We also must bring to justice those who are culpable for many of the crimes. Impunity cannot be allowed to continue. Again, the DRCfs neighbors and those responsible must be held accountable by the international community.

There is, in other words, a real choice. One path -- inaction -- leads to increased violence and possibly to mass killings. It may also trigger a wider regional conflict. Some of the neighbors have already clashed over access to the DRCfs vast natural wealth, which continues to be plundered.

The other path -- action -- is risky. But it carries with it the opportunity for a pause in the fighting during which the stuttering peace agreement can move ahead and the Congolese can demonstrate their genuine commitment to peace and begin the long-prepared process of disarmament and demobilization.

The five permanent members of the Security Council put aside their differences over Iraq to launch this intervention. If they can now use their influence to rein in the Democratic Republic of Congofs predatory neighbors, and to push ahead with implementation of the peace agreement, a greater horror may be averted.

(c) 2003, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 6/10/03)