UNITED NATIONS — After going to war in Iraq without the United Nations’ backing, the Bush administration is quietly supporting the idea of sending a U.N.-mandated multinational force to try to stop the unfolding disaster in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire.
The U.N. Security Council agreed in principle this week to send a French-led rapid reaction force to Bunia, a town in eastern Congo that has been engulfed by civil strife during the last few weeks, as overwhelmed U.N. forces have looked on. A resolution authorizing the force is expected to be adopted by the council May 30, diplomats said.
The emergency force would clear the way for a formal U.N. peacekeeping force.
The effort was spurred by reports of gruesome interethnic killings and an emotional appeal by Secretary General Kofi Annan, who called on the international community to act decisively.
Fighting in Bunia erupted in the wake of a planned retreat of Ugandan forces from the region as part of a negotiated cease-fire aimed at ending four years of war that have caused an estimated 3 million deaths. The 300 or so U.N. peacekeepers in Bunia have been unable to halt the fighting; refugees have flooded the U.N. compound, and two U.N. military observers were murdered.
The events have brought back memories of one of the first failures of U.N. peacekeeping, in that same country in the 1960s, and of the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.
In Rwanda, an estimated 800,000 people were killed within a few months after the U.N. decided to withdraw from the country. Annan was head of peacekeeping operations at the time; the failure to gather support for a more forceful U.N. action has haunted him and likely helps explain his willingness to act quickly this time.
In mid-May, Annan urged the Security Council to consider the quick deployment of a multinational emergency force to help stabilize the situation in Bunia before the cumbersome process of setting up and dispatching a formal U.N. peacekeeping force is completed. In an ironic reference to the American intervention in Iraq, he called for the force to be composed of a “coalition of the willing.”
More than 5,000 U.N. peacekeepers are deployed in the Congo to monitor a cease-fire and the withdrawal of foreign forces; most foreign troops have withdrawn, but the transition to a local government is still uncertain, especially in the remote eastern Ituri province, where ethnic rivalries have been stoked by foreign troops vying for power and riches.
In Bunia, even though tensions between the Hema and the Lendu groups had erupted over the years and were likely to flare up, only a small contingent of U.N. troops and aid workers were on hand to maintain the peace.
On Wednesday Security Council members agreed in principle to send a multinational emergency force to secure Bunia and its airport and protect refugees and the local population. The new force would have more enforcement powers than the existing one, and its mandate would last until September 1, diplomats said.
Uganda, Rwanda and the government of the Congo have reportedly agreed to the dispatch of the force, and several countries, including the United Kingdom, Belgium, Canada and South Africa, have indicated that they would be willing to participate.
While it has opposed broadening the mandate of the U.N. mission in the Congo, the Bush administration has indicated that it would not oppose the deployment of a new force, although it does not appear to be willing to provide more than logistical support or funding for a formal U.N. peacekeeping mission.
“They have nothing against it,” a Western diplomat said. “But obviously, they are more interested in Iraq than they are in the Congo.”
Washington has shown little interest in sending troops to African hot spots, be it the Congo, Liberia or Ivory Coast. Observers pointed out that the fiasco in Somalia in 1993 is still present in the thoughts of many in Washington.
Last month, the United States opposed a French-backed U.N. proposal to send more than 250 U.N. peacekeepers to Ivory Coast. The country was mired in civil strife until a force of more than 4,000 French peacekeepers and 1,200 West African troops was sent.
But with President Bush planning a trip to the continent and reports of large-scale massacres in the Congo, the administration is realizing that the U.N. might be the best avenue to deal with the issue. The Congo debate is part of a wider one about the administration’s commitment to Africa. While Bush signed a law on Tuesday giving $15 billion to fund the fight against AIDS in Africa, the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have fueled concerns that development aid would slow to a trickle.
Several lawmakers, including California Rep. Tom Lantos and New Jersey Rep. Donald Payne, both Democrats, have written the administration to express worries about the resources allocated to the continent in the 2004 foreign-aid budget.