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Amid violent insurgency, UN’s costly Congo peacekeepers charged with making a bad situation even worse

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Nov. 26, 2012 - Rebels patrol around Congo's Central Bank in Goma, eastern Congo. (AP)

A United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has so far spent $12.8 billion, has been charged by critics with ineptitude and unwillingness to protect civilians from murder, rape and other atrocities.

Skepticism about the 19,000-strong U.N. force, known since 2010  as MONUSCO, has swelled to the point that some critics are questioning the wisdom of using the U.N. to prop up Congo, which is engaged in a bloody struggle with a rebel group known as the March 23 Movement (M23).

Meantime, the U.N. continues to spend roughly $1.4 billion a year on MONUSCO, with the U.S. responsible for 27 percent, or $380 million, a year. Over the life of the variously named Congo peacekeeping force, the U.S. contribution is nearly $3.5 billion — or roughly 2.5 times what the city of Chicago estimates it will rake in next year in local tax revenues.

“The peacekeeping force in Congo is fundamentally ineffective,” says Brett Schaefer, an expert on U.N. affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. “It is not solving anything. It’s not clear they have an understanding of what their role is there.”

“The peacekeeping force in Congo is fundamentally ineffective.”

- Brett Schaeffer -- Heritage Foundation

Whatever that role is, it changed dramatically in mid-November, when the M23 rebels launched a sudden offensive in the mineral rich provinces of  North and South Kivo, on Congo’s frontier with Rwanda.

M23, largely composed of defectors from the army of President Joseph Kabila, fought Kabila loyalists backed militarily by the U.N. peacekeepers — until Kabila’s forces fled the area, leaving the peacekeepers isolated as the insurgents swept into the North Kivu capital of Goma, Congo’s second-biggest city, on November 20.

The U.N. force “fought hard,” according to its website, to back Kabila’s vanishing forces, including with helicopter gunships.

But when Kabila’s army melted away, the peacekeepers decided to avoid fighting in Goma “to avoid collateral damage,” according to the head of the U.N. blue helmets, Brigadier General Patrick de Grammont. The U.N. force still has 1,500 troops in Goma, according to a peacekeeping spokesman, with “many more” stationed further north of the capital.

Over the weekend, amid much international maneuvering, the rebels left Goma for a nearby “neutral zone,” but remained within easy striking distance. They threatened to retake Goma if the Kabila government did not begin negotiating with them over such things as the freeing of political prisoners and the dissolution of an election commission which oversaw presidential voting, widely described as riddled with fraud, last November. (According to U.N. documents, MONUSCO provided $90 million out of a $240 million budget for the commission.)

An estimated 100,000  Congolese began returning to their ravaged homes or refugee camps established during previous eruptions of violence, over and above the 600,000 displaced in recent years of upheaval, while the U.N. forces, according to a spokesman, continue to patrol in small groups, and within Goma “show as firm and strong a capability as we can.” 

That capability does not seem to be all that firm or strong, though a spokesman for the U.N. forces told Fox News  they have helped to airlift out about 180 people at “articular risk of attack” by the rebels —I ncluding magistrates, government officials and “journalists and human rights defenders who have been critical of the actions of M23.”  The U.N. presence, he said, was a “deterrent factor.”

That was not how some of those on the ground saw it. On November 26, the website of Time magazine carried an article jointly signed by its local correspondent and by Time’s Africa bureau chief, Alex Perry, reporting that Congolese civilian mobs surrounded  U.N. peacekeeper positions and threw stones at aid workers for failing to protect them.

According to the Time correspondents, the U.N. peacekeepers have long been averse to risking themselves in their humanitarian efforts. “TIME has seen in repeated trips to eastern Congo how, at the first sign of trouble, blue-helmet peacekeepers habitually barricade themselves into their bases, leaving crowds of several thousand refugees who tend to gather outside to fend for themselves,” the correspondents wrote, offering further anecdotes as evidence of MONUSCO’s “callous ineffectiveness,”

CLICK HERE FOR THE TIME ARTICLE

For the U.N.’s part, a peacekeeping spokesman in New York strongly disputed the magazine’s “sweeping” account, and said that the Time reporters had not contacted peacekeeping headquarters in New York for a reply. The spokesman’s own efforts to reach Time to provide a reply to the article, he said, had been unavailing.

While the debate may continue to rage over the U.N. force’s effectiveness, there is no doubt at all that it is costing a lot of money, and so far has led to little substantial change for the better in Congo’s stability.

Indeed, the Congo peacekeeping force is a classic example of mission creep. It began in 1999, after a three-year rebellion against Kabila’s father, which was also backed by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda. Then named MONUC, for “United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” its main aim was to supervise a cease-fire. Total cost for the initial year: $55 million.

Within four years, the cost had increased ten-fold, and hit the $1 billion mark in the mission’s fiscal year ending June 2003. Since then the mission’s cost has continued to climb, albeit more slowly, while the number of  peacekeeping troops and police rose, to a high of 22,000 in 2007, even as Kabila ostensibly consolidated power.

In 2010, after $8.7 billion had been spent, the mission changed its name to MONUSCO, standing for “United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

By then, the force’s mandate had swollen to include, among other things, supporting “the efforts of the government to ensure the protection of civilians, including children, from violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses; support national and international efforts to bring perpetrators to justice; implement the United Nations system-wide protection strategy; support the government’s efforts to create an environment conducive to the return of internally displaced persons and refugees; support the government’s efforts to bring ongoing military operations against various armed groups to a completion; support the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of Congolese armed groups or their effective integration into the army, as well as disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, reintegration and resettlement of members of foreign armed groups."

Each year, thereafter, the budget has hovered between $1.3 billion and $1.4 billion, including for the fiscal year that ends next June.

MONUSCO’s current military and police strength is about 19,000. But equally striking is its civilian staff, which stands at about 970 budgeted U.N. “international” personnel and about 2,900 local staffers.

Yet that relatively small number of civilians cost MONUSCO roughly $250 million per year, vs. about twice that amount annually for the military and police personnel.

While military and police personnel may be paid relatively low salaries, the same goes for local civilian staffers, meaning that the hundreds of “international” staffers, paid according to U.N. worldwide salary scales, may be expensive indeed.

One piece of evidence for that likelihood is the so-called “post adjustment multiplier” for U.N. positions in the Congo, which in 2011 stood at 52.1 — meaning that U.N. official salaries in Congo were boosted by that percentage above where they stood on formal U.N. pay scales.

Meantime, the cost of “facilities and infrastructure” for MONUSCO has also been ballooning, from about $90 million in 2009 to roughly $140 million in 2012, or a 55 percent increase.

The ballooning costs and marginal effectiveness of MONUSCO, argues Heritage’s Schaefer,  are likely a sign that “the U.N. is doing what it does out of inertia.”

“The situation is not much different than it was in 2003,” he says. “There are nearly 20,000 people there doing precisely what? We need a fundamental re-evaluation of our goals in the region. We are wedded to an idea of the Congo without much viability as a functioning state.”

Schaefer’s concerns were echoed in an article over the weekend by J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank that fosters closer ties among NATO members. Writing in The New York Times, Pham argues that the U.N. Security Council, in trying to preserve Congo as a single nation, is propping up a “dysfunctional status quo” that has taken a “terrible toll in terms of lives and resources,” while “opting for so-called peace deals with shelf lives barely longer than the news cycle.”

Pham argues for breaking Congo up into smaller “organic units” that would allow the international community to truly devote resources to “humanitarian relief and development,” as opposed to futile state-building.

That, however, is very far from what the U.N. Security Council is likely to do this week, as it once again takes up what to do with MONUSCO and the painful morass in Congo. According to the U.N. peacekeeping spokesman, the Council has asked U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to “come back to it with a range of options for how to further strengthen MONUSCO’s capacity in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

That request, and Ban’s anticipated reply, are rich in irony, as effective January 1, 2013, one seat at the 15-member U.N. Security Council will be occupied for two years by none other than Rwanda. That is the very nation that the Security Council itself, through a Group of Experts report submitted on November 15, named as the direct supporter of M23, and a violator of U.N. arms embargos in Congo.

CLICK HERE FOR THE REPORT

In other words, the nation considered by the Security Council as most responsible for the Congo morass will shortly be overseeing the efforts of the Security Council-mandated force that is supposedly there to help set right the humanitarian disaster caused by — notably — Rwanda.

Meantime, over the weekend, a humanitarian aid worker contacted by Fox News declared Goma to be “surprisingly calm at the moment,” despite widespread devastation, especially in schools and hospitals. According to Elinor Raike, deputy regional director of the International Rescue Committee for the Congo, relief workers were able to deliver food to suffering Congolese, and there was a  sense of “provisional stability.”

But there was also, she said, “a tense atmosphere and a great sense of uncertainty and apprehension over what happens next.”  

 George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell