- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2008

A humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Agreements reached in January between the government and Congolese armed groups - most notably Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) - on a cease-fire and on commitments to pursue peace in the region, fell apart in late August. These last few weeks have seen a succession of fighting, cease-fires, advances and retreats, with the only constant being the ongoing suffering of the Congolese people.

The United Nations peacekeeping mission, MONUC, is stretched to the limit and cannot do more than it is doing at present. Recently, the Security Council approved the mission’s request for an additional 3,000 troops. This is a positive step but it is now crucial that our troop-contributing countries respond quickly to our request to get these desperately needed assets on the ground as soon as possible. As this will take several months, some countries are considering deploying a multinational force as a bridging measure. This would be most welcome.

Civilians have suffered from intense and often chaotic fighting, driven from their homes, caught in the crossfire and subjected to direct attacks and reprisals by armed groups and undisciplined elements of the national army. The media images are painfully familiar: Thousands of displaced people are on the move with the few possessions they can carry. One-quarter of North Kivu’s 4 million people are displaced; almost 250,000 since Aug. 28. Many units of the Congolese army, which MONUC has a mandate to support, have collapsed in the face of Mr. Nkunda’s advances. Frightened civilians have fled to Goma and other major towns. Many have sought protection by sheltering near remote U.N. bases. All are at great risk and all desperately need help and all have enormous expectations of the U.N. peacekeeping mission.

The United Nations is making every effort to safeguard the population and persuade combatants to cease fighting. Throughout the province, from more than 30 mobile and permanent bases throughout North Kivu, U.N. peacekeepers are protecting thousands of displaced persons and population centers, as well as key facilities, roads and transportation hubs. The blue helmets are the only force on the ground trying to protect the vulnerable. They are also escorting humanitarian convoys to the Rutshuru area.

By U.N. standards, MONUC is a large mission, with more than 17,000 military personnel. However, compared to the enormity of the tasks it is assigned and the vast expanse of the DRC - roughly the size of the United States east of the Mississippi and virtually without infrastructure - this number is actually rather small. In Kosovo, for example, NATO deployed 40,000 highly-trained and well-equipped troops to an area 200 times smaller than the DRC.

More than 92 percent of MONUC’s troops are deployed in eastern provinces of the DRC. In North and South Kivu, the provinces most directly affected by the current fighting, fewer than 10,000 blue helmets attempt hour-by-hour to provide a measure of protection for a population of 10 million inhabitants - a ratio of about 10 peacekeepers to every 10,000 civilians.

MONUC forces cannot serve as a substitute for the Congolese army to fight a war or impose peace. The U.N. peacekeepers are not an expeditionary or counterinsurgency force. It is difficult to overstate the challenges peacekeepers face in such circumstances, where irregular combatants in mixed uniforms or civilian clothing trade heavy-weapons fire in populated areas. But MONUC troops continue to do their utmost, protecting thousands of civilians every day.

It is clear that civilians were killed in last week’s fighting, both in the crossfire and quite possibly in targeted killings in the immediate aftermath of the fighting in places like the strategically significant town of Kiwanja. The preliminary findings of this very worrying incident warrant in-depth investigation.

The situation in the Congo highlights the dilemma, and limits, of peacekeepers caught in ongoing conflict. MONUC can and must do more, but the mission urgently needs additional troops and resources to help stabilize the region.

Meanwhile, the mission is not simply sitting back and waiting for the cavalry to come. MONUC is reinforcing using whatever assets it can, including attack helicopters and infantry units. However, with more than 20 armed groups operating in the Congo, threats to peace and stability persist throughout the DRC. Indeed, as fighting in North Kivu has intensified, militia activity has increased further north, in Ituri.

And of course, no peacekeeping mission, however large, can substitute for sustained, high-level political engagement, by all those with influence on the parties, to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict in the eastern DRC, including the CNDP threat and the continued presence of the Rwandan ex-genocidaires and other foreign armed groups on Congolese soil.

Ultimately there can be no military solution to the crisis in eastern Congo. Only a political settlement that enjoys the support of all states in the region, as well as the parties in the DRC, will end the fighting.

The illegal armed groups must return to their previous agreements and implement them in good faith. The Nov. 7 Summit in Nairobi was a good signal of increased international commitment to prevent a major escalation of fighting and an internationalization of the conflict.

Millions of people are at risk in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With so much at stake, the international community simply cannot afford to let the Congo slide into the abyss. The time to act is, and indeed must be, now.

Alain Le Roy is United Nations undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations.

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