GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo —When the bulky white United Nations trucks rumble into this dusty, hardscrabble town on the border with Rwanda, cars, motorcycles and bicycles move aside. Passersby gently wave at the peacekeepers — Pakistani soldiers with U.N. blue helmets — on board.
It is a stark change from several months ago, when there were no Pakistanis and certainly no warm greetings for U.N. peacekeepers. Until recently, for the dirt-poor people of the war-plagued Kivu region and the Ituri province further north, peacekeepers were a vivid symbol of international futility: Not only did they fail to protect residents from military combatants, but they also were accused of sexually abusing local underage girls.
The U.N. mission in the Congo — the largest in the world — was in deep trouble. This is a potent illustration of the ills crippling the world body, which critics regularly paint as inefficient, weak kneed and corrupt. But then late last year, the U.N. Security Council agreed to bolster the mandate of the U.N. mission in the Congo and enforce strict guidelines to crack down on sex abusers. Three Pakistani brigades were dispatched to North and South Kivu and to Ituri under the orders of a new two-star Dutch general. The fresh troops, which number about 4,700 in North Kivu, started taking on and disarming militias and providing better protection to the civilian population, gradually earning the trust of the local Congolese — even though the situation remains volatile and U.N. troops are overstretched.
The change in Eastern Congo is part of a shift in recent years toward more robust and comprehensive U.N. peacekeeping. The development has been endorsed not only by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and key U.N. members, but also by the Bush administration, by leading Republicans and, most recently, by a bipartisan Congressional task force chaired by Republican stalwart Newt Gingrich and former Democratic senate leader George Mitchell.
This week, as world leaders gather in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, one of the items included in a package of reforms agreed upon Tuesday is the creation of a so-called “peace-building commission” that would increase the U.N.’s capacity to deal with conflict and post-conflict situations. The main impetus for the proposal is the ever-growing number of U.N. missions — currently 18 — and their increasing complexity. In addition, observers said, the shortcomings of postwar planning in Iraq have underscored the need not only for peacekeeping but also for “peace building” — the very notion that Bush criticized during his election campaign in 2000.
“Peacekeeping has been changing, especially in the past two years,” said Victoria Holt, an expert at Washington’s Henry L. Stimson Center. “It is growing in size, it is becoming more complex, more forward leaning, and it is present in rougher neighborhoods.”
In addition to maintaining peace and security, peacekeepers are increasingly charged with assisting in political processes, reforming justice systems, training law-enforcement and security forces, and disarming former combatants. While many earlier missions were mandated under chapter VI of the U.N. charter, more and more are being carried out under the less restrictive chapter VII, which grants peacekeeping troops greater latitude in using force.
The proposed peace-building commission would advise the Security Council and oversee the traditional monitoring of peace agreements and ceasefires. It also would coordinate the more complex efforts to carry out political and economic transitions, like the ones that have bedeviled the Bush administration in Iraq and the U.N. in places such as the Congo. The commission, which diplomats say could be set up before the end of the year, would comprise Security Council members, Western nations that supply the bulk of the funds and developing countries that provide the majority of the troops, as well as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and relevant U.N. agencies.
America’s ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, has said that the commission should deal only with the immediate aftermath of conflicts and not with longer-term projects. In recent months, however, the Bush administration has offered support for the commission as part of what some observers describe as an increased American willingness to take part in nation building. For example, the Bush administration has authorized a handful of new U.N. peacekeeping missions and even was the driving power behind the international forces currently being deployed in Sudan. In addition, last year the administration set up a small State Department office of reconstruction and stabilization aimed at helping countries in transition. The Pentagon is devoting additional resources to postwar situations.
The administration is also opposing a bill passed by the House of Representatives and sponsored by Illinois Republican Rep. Henry Hyde. The bill would withhold half of America’s dues to the U.N. and block further peacekeeping operations unless the world body enacts a comprehensive list of reforms.
“The legislation could be the last gasp of U.N. rejectionists in the House,” said Lee Feinstein, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the Gingrich-Mitchell panel. “The complexity of the tasks has created an awareness even among core Republicans that strong U.N. peacekeeping is key.”
Earlier this year, the U.N. General Assembly passed a record $3.2 billion peacekeeping budget for 2006, which is expected to reach $5 billion because of additional costs for maintaining existing missions. America covers 27% of the peacekeeping budget, making it the largest contributing nation.
Funding is not the main issue, as U.N. missions become more complex and peacekeepers are dispatched to the world’s most unstable regions, according to diplomats and experts. Instead, they said, the biggest problem is a shortage of troops.
U.N. officials are quick to point out that the troop requirements endorsed by the Security Council are generally not fulfilled.
“Capacity is the main issue,” said Feinstein, who was a senior adviser on peacekeeping at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration. “It is not so much the U.N. per se as the members states which are not providing sufficient support. The only way this will change is if the U.S. leads the way.”
Annan has been actively seeking to bolster peacekeeping after U.N. failures to stop mass killings in Bosnia and Rwanda (he was head of peacekeeping operations during the genocide in the tiny African country). Following the recommendations of a high-level U.N. panel back in 2000, several developments have occurred: U.N. troops have been granted more leeway in using force; coordination between peacekeeping and peace building has improved, and staffing levels were increased for the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations.
Still, U.N. officials and experts agree that much remains to be done, as Annan himself acknowledged when he unveiled his reform proposals in March. The Gingrich-Mitchell panel is calling on member states to make greater financial and troop commitments to the U.N. and is urging the creation of a rapid-reaction U.N. force.
U.N. missions are typically slow to deploy, and the world body often has counted on outside and regional actors to intervene in emergency situations. For example, in 2000, before U.N. peacekeepers were deployed, England sent soldiers into Sierra Leone. France was ahead of the U.N. in sending troops into the Ivory Coast in 2002 and the Congo in 2003. America positioned troops off the coast of Liberia in 2003, before regional peacekeeping forces and U.N. missions took over.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, Western countries have drastically scaled back their military participation in U.N. missions, thus depriving the operations of highly professional troops. This year, the 16 countries that contributed the most peacekeepers were all developing nations. America provided only 375 peacekeepers to U.N. operations, all of them civilian police officers.
The lack of well-trained troops is especially acute in Africa, where missions account for more than 80% of U.N. peacekeepers and 70% of peacekeeping costs.
The reluctance of Western countries to send troops to Africa under U.N. mandate has helped propel the emergence of the African Union as a potential force in peacekeeping efforts. The A.U. sent its first monitoring mission to Burundi in 2003, and now it is leading a monitoring mission in Darfur with financial and logistical support from Western countries, NATO and the U.N.
The A.U. is planning to create a five-brigade-strong African standby force by 2010 to have boots on the ground quickly and help with the transition to U.N. missions. Western countries already have indicated that they would provide financial support for the initiative. The European Union has earmarked some $300 million to support future A.U. peacekeeping operations. In April 2004, America launched a five-year $660 million plan called the Global Peace Operations Initiative. The plan was implemented to train and equip foreign troops — most of them African — for peacekeeping missions in their own regions.
One of the most recent examples of the U.N.’s peacekeeping struggles — and its efforts to improve — is the mission in the Ituri province of Eastern Congo.
France sent a unit there to calm civil strife for three months in 2003 before a larger U.N. unit replaced its troops. The U.N. peacekeepers quickly became embroiled in fighting between local groups and incurred widespread criticism for its tepid response. U.N. officials countered that the limited scope of the mission’s mandate and the lack of sufficient troops were impeding more vigorous action.
As a result, in late 2004 the Security Council significantly enlarged the mission’s mandate by providing more troops — currently 16,7000 — and also by authorizing them to take a more aggressive attitude against militias.
U.N. forces took advantage of their new mandate three months ago, after a militia group killed nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers. In response to the killings, peacekeepers in armored personnel carriers and attack helicopters pounded a militia camp, reportedly killing 60. While sporadic battles continue, the U.N. claims it has disarmed some 15,000 militiamen.
The Security Council agreed to send about 800 additional personnel this week to help the political transition in the war-torn country.
In Goma, Congolese and U.N. officials say the situation is improving. Previously they had criticized the failure of U.N. peacekeepers to protect the nearby town of Bukavu when rebels overtook it last summer, and again when militiamen killed 39 civilians in July. But the officials acknowledge that the new troops sent to the city have restored a semblance of order.
“This time, we feel that [the peacekeepers] are here and they are not afraid,” said Jacques Okono, a shopkeeper, as he watched a U.N. convoy going along Goma’s main thoroughfare. “Let’s hope this is not just for show.”