By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008
NEW YORK, Nov. 20 -- The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously Thursday to reinforce the beleaguered U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, approving the temporary deployment of more than 3,100 additional personnel to help protect hundreds of thousands of civilians.
The council's vote came weeks after rebel leader Laurent Nkunda launched a major offensive that has driven more than 250,000 civilians from their homes and brought about the collapse of the government's army in eastern Congo. The deployment would bring the size of the U.N. mission to more than 20,000 troops.
The 15-nation council urged the leadership of the U.N.'s largest peacekeeping mission -- which has faced criticism for failing to defend civilians -- to forcefully implement its mandate. But the council has ignored appeals by the U.N.'s special representative in Congo, Alan Doss, to send a heavily armed multinational force to help restore stability.
Doss cautioned this week that U.N. reinforcements, while welcome, would not be sufficient to restore peace in a region the size of France. He said any durable peace would have to be reached in political talks led by the U.N.'s special envoy, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, between the rebels and the Congolese government.
Relief groups have accused the Security Council of moving too slowly to bolster the U.N. force in Congo and have urged European Union nations to send a rapid-reaction force there. "E.U. leaders are dragging their feet," said Erin Weir of Refugees International. "The U.N. Security Council is finally taking a concrete action in response to the growing crisis in eastern Congo, but this is not enough to end the violence or protect the Congolese people."
France, which sponsored Thursday's resolution, and Belgium have been pressing their E.U. allies to send a military force to the provincial capital of Goma to secure the airport and protect roads in order to guarantee the safe delivery of food and other humanitarian goods. Belgium also favors a stronger role for U.N. peacekeepers in preventing the exploitation of the region's valuable natural resources.
France's U.N. ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, said before the vote that the reinforcements "will pave the way for a safer environment for humanitarian workers and humanitarian operations."
Eastern Congo has been the epicenter of two civil wars in the past decade. The most recent fighting has left Goma encircled and has displaced tens of thousands of Congolese. Nkunda, a Tutsi rebel leader with close ties to neighboring Rwanda, insists he has been fighting to protect the region's minority Tutsis from Hutu militias that fled to eastern Congo after Rwanda's 1994 genocide. He vowed recently to "liberate" all of Congo.
The resolution calls for the "immediate deployment" of U.N. peacekeepers. But Doss and U.N. diplomats acknowledged that it may take several months to get the new troops on the ground.
U.N. peacekeeping officials say that they have yet to receive any firm commitments of new troops but that they have asked countries with troops in Congo, including India and Pakistan, to send more. They said they anticipate a struggle securing more advanced assets, such as special forces units and reconnaissance equipment.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has said it would consider sending more peacekeepers. But South Africa's U.N. ambassador, Dumisani Shadrack Kumalo, played down that possibility. "I'm not aware that SADC has that many troops waiting," Kumalo said.