Jim Terrie is a risk management consultant and former Africa analyst with International Crisis Group.
The situation in Syria yet again exposes the UN's limits. The presence of UN peacekeepers has imposed little restraint on the belligerents or relief for those under attack.
This won't surprise those who have observed the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), MONUSCO (previously MONUC). Despite the mission having a much stronger mandate than the one in Syria, as well as approximately 20,000 troops and an annual budget of over $1 billion, it is debatable whether the DRC has improved greatly in the 12 years the mission has been in place.
MONUSCO and UN peacekeeping in general now face a direct challenge to their authority and credibility. A Congolese Tutsi rebel group, 'M23', led by ICC indictee Bosco Ntaganda, is threatening to capture the major town of Goma in eastern DRC. As well as a direct challenge to efforts to establish a modicum of peace and security in the eastern DRC, if carried out, this threat also threatens to worsen the already dire humanitarian situation.
The UN is reinforcing Goma, but if the rebels continue to advance on the town how will it respond? In late 2004, MONUC faced a similar threat and failed. Rebels under the leadership of Laurent Nkunda, with the political and probably material support of Rwanda, captured the town of Bukavu. As rebel forces approached Bukavu, the Swedish general in command of the local UN force planned to block the rebels from entering the town. He had the backing of South African troops under his command and the support of Indian attack helicopters.
However, panic ensued at mission headquarters in Kinshasa and in New York.
The direction given was that the UN should maintain its 'neutrality'. When Nkunda's forces approached the town the Uruguayan troops located at the airport capitulated and handed it over. Nkunda's forces were able to enter Bukavu unimpeded and proceeded to kill and rape civilians. The rebels eventually withdrew under pressure from Rwanda. Subsequently, the Congolese Amy, who reoccupied the town, went on its own round of retribution killings against anyone thought to have been sympathetic to the rebels.
The capitulation of UN forces led to international outcry and a questioning of the whole purpose of the mission. The eventual result was a significant increase in the mission's number, mandate and capabilities. This led to a period of a more aggressive application of force by UN troops, which was sustained for a few years and had some impact. However, this tapered off largely due to institutional resistance from within the UN and troop-contributing counties, and the mistaken belief that the Congolese Army could or should take the lead on security.
The situation in eastern DRC again challenges the UN and the Security Council to think about the responsibilities and capabilities of UN military forces when faced with a direct threat to the mission and the safety of civilians. If Australia is successful in its campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council, will we have a view on these fundamental questions and are we willing to make greater contributions to UN peacekeeping?
Photo courtesy of UN Photo.