Today, July 1st, 2011, marks the anniversary of and another year's mandate for the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), the world's largest peacekeeping force. Recently, the UN Security council extended the force's mandate until at least June 2012, citing the continuing need to protect civilians. This is an important development, given previous suggestions by the Congolese Government that the mandate might not be renewed despite continuing attacks on civilians throughout the country's conflict-ridden eastern regions. The mission now operates under one of the most forceful mandates in history, which powerfully instructs peacekeepers to use “all necessary means to carry out its protection mandate.”
The mission was launched in response to the Second Congolese War, which was catalyzed by a massive exodus from Rwanda following the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In what has been called “Africa's World War,” the Second Congolese War involved over five nations in the Sub-Saharan region. Estimates hold that over 5.4 million lives were lost, with 2 million still displaced and hundreds of thousands of rapes associated with the fighting. It was this grim backdrop that catalyzed UN intervention.
As in many states, the formal peace agreement that was signed between the five warring nations in 1999 has not brought true peace--especially for women. Despite the presence of peacekeepers since that time (then called MONUC), targeted attacks on civilians have continued. According to a recent TrustLaw expert poll, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the second most dangerous country in the world to be a woman, due to the high rates of sexual violence. A recent analysis of data collected in 2007 suggests that 400,000 women are raped every year in the Congo--almost one rape per minute. And as recently as last week, more than 170 women were raped by former members of the Congolese army in Fizi town. Although attacks lasted for two days, peacekeepers did not hear of it until many days later. This is yet another chilling reminder of how far we have to go before promises to protect women in Congo are truly kept.
Reflecting upon this tragic incident, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, welcomed the extension on MONUSCO' with measured words: “Given the significant security challenges that remain in the country, it is crucial that the United Nations have a continued peacekeeping presence in the Congo. The recent mass rapes in Fizi in South Kivu highlight that Congo's women are particularly vulnerable.”
To be sure, the force has been involved with a number of activities designed to improve human security in the East. Peacekeepers have helped set up information panels about HIV/ AIDS, created a “Trading Centers” program to combat illegal mining, and worked to create a more effective communication network so villages in need can contact peacekeepers. They are involved with preparations for November's upcoming elections, working to disarm armed combatants (with a special emphasis on children), and helping train Congolese police (which is generally agreed to be incapable of protecting the population, and members of which are often implicated in direct attacks upon civilians).
Although MONUSCO is making strides in the Congo, and is certainly an essential if imperfect actor in the quest to secure peace and human security in the country, it has failed in the most fundamental part of its mission: the protection of civilians. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is by many accounts considered to be a failed state, one that cannot protect its own people. Until the day that it is able to do so completely and credibly, the international community must shoulder that responsibility. The lives and dignity of Congo's innocent civilians depend upon it.