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U.N. Admits Congo Crisis Beyond Its Limited Capacity

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 6 2010 (IPS) - Amid accusations that most U.N. peacekeepers turned a blind eye to the recent “mass rape” of more than 300 civilians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted that the mounting problems in the sprawling, crisis-stricken country are virtually beyond the capacity of the world body.

“We must be realistic,” Ban told reporters Wednesday, “Bluntly put, the sheer geography is too large, the number of peacekeepers too small, our resources too limited.”

Still, he said, the United Nations is improving its civilian alert system despite enormous constraints – in financial resources, personnel and military equipment.

“The international community must engage more fully with Congolese society to address cultural and political issues that contribute to this horrific pattern of abuse,” Ban warned. He said sexual violence was one of the greatest obstacles to peace in the DRC. Unchecked, it could destroy the social fabric of the country.

The rapes took place between July and August, mostly in eastern DRC, by some 200 members of three armed groups – despite the presence of peacekeepers in one of the biggest and most expensive peacekeeping missions undertaken by the world body.

According to the United Nations, the known victims include some 235 women, 52 girls, 13 men, and 3 boys – some of whom were raped multiple times.

“The size of the DRC is almost the same as West Europe,” Ban said. “We have only 18,000 soldiers there. So, you can just imagine the proportions of difficulties and limitations which U.N. peacekeepers [face].”

Still, he pointed out, he was not going to be defensive about the atrocities committed in the DRC. “We are committed to protect the civilian population as much as we can,” he added.

The original peacekeeping force – the U.N. Organisation Mission in the DRC (MONUC) – was created in November 1999 and ended its mandate last June.

In July, the Security Council folded MONUC into a new peacekeeping mission – the U.N. Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) – as a result of the changing political and military situation in the country.

The mandate of the new mission was to protect civilians and consolidate peace. The authorised strength of MONUSCO was 22,000 peacekeepers, but it has fallen short by over 4,000.

The cost of maintaining MONUSCO during June 2010 through July 2011 is estimated around 1.4 billion dollars.

Ban told reporters he was “concerned about the increasingly limited resources” committed to the MONUSCO operation.

DRC President Joseph Kabila has requested the United Nations withdraw MONUSCO by the end of next year.

But during a visit to DRC recently, and also during a meeting with Kabila last month in New York, the secretary-general proposed that any further withdrawals from MONUSCO should be based on a joint assessment of the situation on the ground.

“We have already withdrawn 1,700 soldiers,” Ban said. “And some troop contributing countries have withdrawn their helicopters, and we have an acute shortage of critical assets.”

A series of meetings have been planned with member states to discuss both the shortage of funds and the need for “critical assets” – including helicopters that are urgently needed for rapid reaction.

“We are now trying to make up for all these losses of critical assets, but it is going to be quite a difficult operation,” Ban cautioned.

Meanwhile, the United Nations is also in the process of distributing mobile phones to the villagers or village leaders, so that they can easily communicate with MONUSCO in case of emergencies.

Ban is planning to convene a strategy meeting shortly with his senior advisors in order to grapple with the growing problems in the DRC.

This will come as part of a wider proposal to try to change “the mentality and culture of impunity – very prevalent in the DRC.”

“We are going to expand this to all U.N. peacekeeping operations,” Ban added. “Wherever peacekeepers are stationed, we will try to do exactly the same thing, but more focused on DRC, where we have seen such tragic incidents.”

Last week MONUSCO and DRC government forces launched a major operation in the Walikale area of North Kivu province where the rapes took place.

The military operation resulted in the capture of Lieutenant Colonel Mayele, a commander of the Ma Ma Cheka, described as one of the rebel leaders suspected of being behind the mass rapes.

During a visit to the DRC last week, the U.N.’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallstrom said the capture of the rebel leader was “a victory for justice, especially for the many women who have suffered rapes and other forms of sexual violence.”

The numerous criminal acts committed under Lt. Col Mayeles command cannot be undone, but let his apprehension be a signal to all perpetrators of sexual violence that impunity for these types of crimes is not accepted and that justice will prevail, she added.

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