Africa, Civil Society, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

EUROPE: New Push to Send Troops to Congo

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Nov 6 2008 (IPS) - Troops from the European Union should be deployed in eastern Congo in order to protect civilians, human rights activists say.

Fighting between the Congolese army and forces controlled by Laurent Nkunda is to be one of the main topics discussed by the EU’s foreign ministers when they gather in Brussels Nov. 10.

So far no clear consensus has emerged among the Union’s 27 countries about how the humanitarian crisis in the central African country should be addressed. Belgium, the country’s former colonial overlord, and France, the holder of the bloc’s rotating presidency, are in favour of sending EU troops to the region. But Germany and Britain are more wary of doing so.

Comprising 17,000 soldiers, the United Nations force in Congo (MONUC) is the largest peacekeeping force anywhere in the world. Yet with Congo boasting a surface area equivalent to all of Western Europe, the force has proven unable to quell the unrest.

Henri Bentégeat, a French general who chairs the EU’s military committee, has suggested that an elite force or ‘battle group’ could be dispatched to Congo. Each of these 15 groups contain 1,500 soldiers from the national armies of several EU states. But Alain le Roy, the head of MONUC, has requested twice that number of troops in order to bolster his force.

Neil Campbell, a spokesman for the International Crisis Group, which monitors the causes of conflict, noted that no battle groups have yet been deployed by the EU since they reached full operational capacity last year, even though many observers believe they were set up to deal with situations such as the one in eastern Congo.

While Campbell believes that the EU should commit troops, he is adamant that they should not hail from France. According to declassified documents released by the authorities in Paris during 2007, France gave military and diplomatic support to the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, in which one million ethnic Tutsis were slaughtered. The current Rwandan government has also published reports, which allege that late French president François Mitterrand was complicit in the slaughter.

Relations between the Rwandan and Congolese authorities remain fraught to this day. Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi, has recruited hundreds of fighters for his National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) from within Rwanda, particularly from among former soldiers in that country’s army. It has also been alleged that he receives support from the Rwandan government, although authorities in Kigali have denied this.

“French troops would really antagonise the Rwandans,” said Campbell. “This would be very difficult politically as it would create another problem in the region.” Human Rights Watch campaigner Reed Brody concurred. “For political reasons it would be very difficult to have French troops there,” he said.

Brody, who investigated atrocities in eastern Congo for the United Nations in the 1990s, said there is an “urgent need” for a fresh influx of troops in order to reinforce MONUC. “Even getting more UN troops in is going to take a while,” he said. “There is a lot of talk about putting a battle group (from the EU) in on the ground and apparently this could be done within 10 days. That is something we would call for.”

Brody also underscored that attacks on civilians by Nkunda’s troops must not go unpunished. Bosco Ntaganda, the CNDP’s chief of staff, is wanted by the International Criminal Court. He is accused of recruiting children under 15 in 2002 and 2003.

“With very rare exceptions, there has been no real accountability for any of the cycles of crimes” that have taken place in Congo in recent times, Brody says.

Ariane Arpa from the anti-poverty group Oxfam said that “even before the recent upsurge of violence, the Democratic Republic of Congo was one of the worst places in the world to be a civilian.”

Over five million people are estimated to have died as a result of a conflict that erupted in 1998, largely because of the hunger and disease that the war has spawned. Within the eastern part of the Congo, at least a million are internally displaced, while the country has seen some of the most horrific waves of sexual violence on earth. So far this year, more than 1,100 women are reported to have been raped per month, although the actual number is probably much higher, humanitarian workers have said.

“There is no military solution to this conflict, nor can it be solved by providing more troops or military hardware,” said Arpa. “However, if done properly, additional military support could help improve security, enforce the ceasefire (declared by Nkunda in late October but broken in the interim), protect civilians, and allow aid agencies to provide help to all those who desperately need it.”

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