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Hey UN Peacekeepers–Congo, we need to talk

Vivek Nemana is a graduate student in economics at New York University and works for DRI.

Jeff Gettleman has an unnerving piece in the New York Times on the inability of UN peacekeeping forces to protect civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In one particularly gruesome consequence last July, rebels gang-raped 242 people (including a one month-old baby and a 110 year-old woman, according to the Guardian) in the village of Luvungi, just 11 miles from where dozens of peacekeepers were stationed. Gettleman writes:

Despite more than 10 years of experience and billions of dollars, the peacekeeping force still seems to be failing at its most elemental task: protecting civilians…many critics contend that nowhere else in the world has the United Nations invested so much and accomplished so little.

On the other hand, David Bosco at Foreign Policy chalks it up to problems of perception:

part of peacekeeping’s image problem is that it’s asked to handle some of the world’s worst conflicts and then given very little credit for moving situations from awful to merely bad.

And Jason Stearns writes in the CS Monitor that while the peacekeeping force may have been negligent, the main problem is corruption within the Congolese army:

So long as … impunity within the army reigns, these kinds of abuses will continue to happen. Just look at all of officers recommended for sanctions in UN Group of Experts reports and various human rights documents. Almost none have been arrested.

These explanations gloss over a simple necessity that MONUSCO, and many previous failed PKOs and aid efforts, fundamentally lacked: a reliable system of communication. Despite $1.35 billion a year and 18,000 peacekeepers, correspondence between Congolese civilians, peacekeeping troops, and UN officials remains deficient. As Shakespeare could have told the UN, failures in communication between the parts lead to easily-preventable blunders which lead to tragedy.

For instance, Gettleman reports that because “there is no cellphone service in the area or electricity, it is not always simple to know when there is an attack. The United Nations…is now trying to install solar-powered high-frequency radios in some villages.”

Could someone please explain why, if there was no cellphone service or electricity, and peacekeepers had been operating in remote areas like Luvungi for 10 years, these radios weren’t installed before the UN embarrassed itself a little earlier?

But that’s not all. Marcel Stoessel, Oxfam’s country director in DRC, told Voice of America that many of the peacekeepers do not speak French, and do not have interpreters. That means that villagers often can’t inform peacekeepers about major threats or problems.

The Guardian wrote that MONUSCO insists it didn’t know about the attacks for more than a week, adding, “Two UN officials in Kinshasa told the Associated Press they heard it from media reports, even though the UN’s small civil affairs office in Walikale is charged with protecting civilians.”

In fact villagers did warn the peacekeepers about a coming attack, but their entreaties were lost in translation – the interpreter-less peacekeepers dismissed it as a false alarm.

While many things can complicate a peace-keeping operation, we shouldn’t excuse the UN for failing on something as simple as installing radios or hiring interpreters.

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  1. cooper wrote:

    It’s more like “Hey UN we need to talk”. The peace-keepers are just another cog in their failing wheel.

    Posted October 12, 2010 at 12:39 am | Permalink
  2. geckonomist wrote:

    Woudln’t it be the task of the Congolese government to protect its civilians?

    Posted October 12, 2010 at 2:53 am | Permalink
  3. How is the UN supposed to do this when member states don’t follow through on their financial commitments? MONUSCO is having to scale BACK its operations due to falling contributions from member states. They can’t be everywhere, and 20K troops isn’t nearly enough to cover the territory.

    Also, the translation issue is way more complicated than just needing more interpreters. Most of the peacekeepers speak neither French nor English. Neither do the villagers. What’s needed are people who can translate between Swahili and Hindi, Swahili and Bengali, and Swahili and Nepalese. As you can imagine, individuals who meet those qualifications and who are willing to work in the DRC are few and far between. There will never be enough of interpreters qualified in those language combinations to accompany every patrol, which is why the radio thing is a good idea – one person who speaks Swahili and English can communicate to the one peacekeeper who speaks English, who can then convey the message to the rest of the unit, which can then deal with the problem.

    There’s no question MONUSCO is failing in their mandate to protect civilians. But they’re not being given the tools necessary to do the job, so it’s hard to blame them as much as the world’s general apathy about these mundane issues.

    Posted October 12, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink
  4. Vivek Nemana wrote:


    Thanks for your comment. I completely agree that the UN faces a lot of difficulties from uncommitted member states — clearly it’s a recurring issue. And yes, Swahili-Hindi translators willing to work in DRC are hard to come by. But MONUSCO did manage to hire more interpreters (I’m assuming for Swahili/French/English) and start building a radio network — after Luvungi happened. I’m wondering why, if they can do this now, they couldn’t do it earlier?

    I get that serious tragedies/embarrassments are what finally free up the capital for simple solutions, and that sometimes these solutions aren’t obvious until something bad happens. But does it have to be like that? A radio/interpreter combo is a great idea, and I’m not saying it’s an easy one to set up, especially in the face of member state apathy. Some MONUSCO workers could have very well been pushing fruitlessly for it for years. But I think there’s enough evidence that bad communication leads to blunders that it should’ve happened sooner.

    It’s a serious problem that the UN isn’t being given the tools it needs to do the job. But I think it’s also important to consider if the UN is making the best use of the tools it has. Even though the fundamental task itself is almost Sisyphean, they shouldn’t miss smaller opportunities to make things a little better, especially when it could save lives.

    But at any rate you know way, way, way more about the DRC than I do, and I seriously appreciate your input. Would love to hear back!

    Posted October 12, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Permalink
  5. Diane Bennett wrote:

    For less than $4,000 per location, they could provide a HAM radio and solar panel/battery combination to numerous villages, manned by radio operators that have linguistic skills, allowing local people to communicate to a central, monitored radio. Radio locations can report routinely, allowing the UN (or DRC government) to monitor peaceful areas and focus peacekeeping activities and manpower in areas of concern.

    This is based on a model used during WWII and we applied it in South Sudan during the civil war with success. Unlike cell and sat phones, air time is free and there are ways to address security issues.

    In this scenario, the UN can protect the people of the DRC as well as value their input at fairly low cost. Unfortunately, this solution is probably not sexy enough to be approved by the UN Dept of Peacekeeping Operations.

    Posted October 12, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  6. Rob Hiffy wrote:

    I was in the Congo earlier in the year. We must remember that, although much needs to be done there – it is only a small part of the country that we see on the TV. I met some really nice people out there, and saw some fantastic work going on.

    Posted October 13, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  7. Vivek, thanks. Diane, I think your point is valid. A major reason for hesitation on radio installation and stuff of that nature has been that the various militias almost always steal equipment right after it’s installed. This is a problem across sectors (health clinics in these areas are looted of their medicines and supplies all the time). The most relevant example is probably in the conservation sector, where one international NGO equipped park rangers with uniforms and equipment, including radios. Many of the rangers had their boots stolen, some were killed, and a large number of the radios were looted as well. A solar-powered radio alert system is a great idea, but not if it’s in the hands of a militia after a few weeks or months. And the presence of these alert systems might actually make some villages a target, unfortunately.

    I think there’s always room for MONUSCO to do better, but they often get a bad rap for events that are sometimes beyond their control. I’m of the view that the mission needs to be scaled up, be much better funded, and to ditch the mandate to work with the FARDC, which is a source of more problems than it’s worth. But those are clearly pie-in-the-sky attitudes and it’s not going to happen. Here’s hoping they can find a way to hide or secure the radio systems so as to prevent these sorts of tragedies in the future.

    Posted October 13, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  8. Manu wrote:

    Installing some radio stations seems more like a desperate PR attempt than a really effective solution.
    In addition to the issues of language and possibility of the equipment being stolen by the militias, it is also just impossible to install such radio stations in every single village. So cases like Luvungi could happen again.

    One of the biggest problems that MONUSCO has is intelligence gathering. What is clear is that they rely way too much on human intel (and installing radios would go along the same direction). The PKO would gain a clear strategic advantage over the militias if they had the possibility to use more technological intelligence gathering tools. Things like signal tracking would for example allow for a better monitoring of militias movement on the ground (like the Ugandan army did for the LRA). Also night fighting/tracking equipment would be very useful to follow militias movement during dark hours.
    And these are far from being the most advanced or costly of equipments, nothing like the drones used in Afghanistan for example (even though they would also be very handy in the DRC).

    Posted October 14, 2010 at 7:21 am | Permalink
  9. Edwin Peters wrote:

    The Great Lakes region is marred in Political corruption, and the fact that the population has never really enjoyed liberty as we know it since the Colonialists from Belgium left, means peace is an ideal.

    The UN Peacekeepers and those from the African Union are complicit in this too… long story not worth revisiting.

    Posted October 17, 2010 at 1:56 am | Permalink

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