Q&Amp;A: Springboard For Terror?

In a nation plagued by a vicious five-year-old civil war, the northeastern Congolese town of Bunia has become a byword for appalling anarchy--and another tough challenge for the United Nations. The U.N.'s understaffed peacekeeping force, MONUC, has been unable to prevent tribal militias, which often include armed children, from committing acts of genocide, rape and cannibalism. In some cases, fighters are said to wear human organs as talismans.

The U.N. Security Council was due to vote by today on whether to renew and strengthen the mandate of its peacekeeping force in the Central African nation of the Democratic Republic of Congo. That decision has now been postponed until July 30. A source close to the Security Council told NEWSWEEK that the delay was at the request of the United States to give the American delegation more time to consult Congress about the vote. (Although Washington is not expected to send troops to Congo, it will pay more than a quarter of the costs of the mission.) While the debate continues, the European Union has stepped in. A multinational French-led force comprising about 1,400 soldiers--including some from Sweden, Canada and South Africa--is now trying to restore some semblance of stability to Bunia. Some 730 personnel are now in the town, with a similar number deployed at a rear base in Uganda. The U.N. calls the current situation on the ground in Bunia "quiet, but volatile."

In the wake of the divisive Iraq crisis, the EU's Congo mission is both symbolic and politically risky. Francois Grignon, the Central Africa director for the International Crisis Group--a Brussels-based advocacy organization that works to prevent and resolve deadly conflict--warns that token action in Congo may have costly global implications. Not only could it allow genocidal massacres, it could also mean that a country the size of Western Europe could become a springboard for terrorism. Grignon, who recently returned from Bunia, has briefed both the Security Council and the U.S. House of Representatives' International Affairs Committee on the Congo situation. Now in Kenya, he conducted an e-mail interview with NEWSWEEK's Tracy McNicoll on the crisis and what needs to be done next.

NEWSWEEK: Why is resolving the Congo crisis so important?

Francois Grignon: The Congo conflict has often been described as Africa's first continental war. It involved seven African nations at one point and has led directly and indirectly to the deaths of up to three million people. It's one of the world's current worst humanitarian disasters, if not the worst, but has not attracted much attention from world powers or media so far because it does not involve western strategic interests.

Yet the collapse of the Congo state, the destruction of infrastructure and the disappearance of any kind of political authority on vast swaths of territory as big as the state of California, combined with the plentiful presence of gold, diamonds, and other natural resources, could become a major international security concern for the U.S. government. Such territories, which become totally out of control from state authority, usually offer terrorist networks easy opportunities to trade and therefore raise financial resources for their activities.

You recently returned from Bunia, the main city in the resource-rich Ituri province. What was the mood there?

Ituri is currently the victim of fighting between half-a-dozen ethnic based militias, allied to Rwanda, Uganda or the [Congo] government. I visited Bunia just after a fresh wave of ethnic cleansing between Hema and Lendu militias.

It was a ghost town; 80 percent of its 250,000 inhabitants had fled. Eight to 12-year-olds holding AK-47 assault rifles were roaming the streets, demanding anything the remaining civilians could offer for them to buy drugs or alcohol. More than 500,000 people have been displaced since 1999 in Ituri; at least 50,000 have been killed and acts of genocide have been committed by both Hema and Lendu militias, spreading a sentiment of terror among the internally displaced peoples. The level of human suffering and desperation of the populations have led some communities to resort to witchcraft and cannibalism to try to protect themselves against or to carry on attacks.

Why couldn't the MONUC forces stop the rapid deterioration of Bunia?

MONUC was ill-equipped and ill-prepared to face such a situation. Paralyzed in its own bureaucratic contradictions, it completely failed to plan against and prevent the chaos that erupted after the departure of the Ugandan troops. They managed to provide humanitarian aid to a few, but people were kidnapped, women raped [nearby] without them doing anything.

Where does the new, French-led force fit in?

The deployment of an emergency international multinational force is the direct consequence of MONUC's failure to keep the situation under control. The force's mandate is to restore order in Bunia, provide security so that the displaced populations receive humanitarian aid, and prepare the ground for MONUC to take over in September with a stronger mandate and more troops ready for the use of force when necessary.

With the force's mandate limited to Bunia and its airport, isn't its role more symbolic than substantive?

The force's involvement is indeed minimal. It has only 1,400 men to secure the town of Bunia until September 1. It won't have the capacity to intervene outside Bunia and stop massacres if they take place a few kilometers away from Bunia.

But it has important political implications. French President Jacques Chirac is pro-Europe, pro-multilateralism and eager to help Africa. A force like this seems to be in line with that vision.

If indeed Jacques Chirac and his European partners want to show that they can do better and differently from the United States--[by establishing] a peacekeeping mission that saves African lives under a U.N. mandate--they will have to do more. The symbol of intervention and unity could become a symbol of irresponsible spin and impotence if massacres take place under the eyes of the European force and they do nothing.

What is the situation outside the area covered by the emergency force's Bunia mandate?

The fighting between militias is going on around Bunia. People are being killed [or] displaced and children are being recruited and rapidly trained to participate in the next onslaught.

Given both the political symbolism and the chaotic situation, why is there such a narrow mandate and relatively few troops?

It's a highly complex mission. Ituri is an extremely politically fragmented and extremely militarized environment. Moreover, it is not easy to shoot children. Peacekeeping is usually not about shooting children, yet the force may have to do it to protect itself.

The initial limited approach is definitely linked to the willingness of the French to have a clear exit strategy. The French army did not want to be involved in a political quagmire such as the Turquoise Operation in Rwanda in 1994, when they were accused of protecting [those committing genocide] while protecting civilians. This is why the political approach to this intervention needs to be transparent and neutral. All militias need to be treated with the same use of force, the same political access. The Ituri civilian interim administration, which was elected during the month of March during the Ituri pacification commission, should remain the force's sole interlocutor and sole Congolese ally.

What needs to happen now in Bunia?

The full demilitarization of Bunia is absolutely necessary. No militia should remain, so that it can become a safe haven for internally displaced persons [IDPs]. When I talk about Bunia, it includes a 5-10 km [three to six mile] perimeter, where the different suburban residential areas are located. All access roads leading to Bunia should also be secured and the force should de-mine these access roads and patrol them so that IDPs have access to humanitarian relief.

What about MONUC?

[The International Crisis Group] also recommends that MONUC be urgently given the means and mandate to do at least the same job when they take over in September. Otherwise, Ituri will be back to square one and the European intervention will have achieved nothing. MONUC should have the capacity to expand the disarmament and demobilization of the militias throughout the entire Ituri [region.] It does not necessarily mean forceful disarmament. Some incentives should be provided to the militias that put down their weapons. MONUC should also have the capacity to use force if and when necessary.

The U.N. Security Council will soon be renewing MONUC's mandate. Are you expecting it to be made any stronger?

Yes, MONUC must have a more robust mandate and it is time the U.S. government lifts its opposition to the reinforcement of MONUC. MONUC is indeed an expensive mission; it costs $1.5 million a day to run. But a senior American diplomat, Ambassador Bill Swing, is now going to head MONUC and will probably be able to streamline its operations and give it a stronger political role to support the peace process.

The Bush administration has to give one of its own the necessary tools and means to make a difference. In the long run, it is in the American interest that the war ends in eastern Congo and that a viable state is reconstructed before it unleashes another terrorist disaster. Last but not least, the Western world and the U.S. government in particular cannot afford to be once again bystanders to genocide in Central Africa. It's time to show that African lives do also matter--and not only through the support to programs fighting HIV/AIDS.