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Budgets, mass rape, and the UN mission in Congo

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Katrina Manson/Reuters

(Read caption) A United Nations peacekeeper stood guard last week as a helicopter carrying Margot Wallstrom, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence, arrived in Kitchanga, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Her visit to Congo came after UN peacekeepers were accused of failing to protect civilians following the mass rape of more than 300 in August.

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File the following five paragraphs from a Reuters story last week under "peacekeeping operations don't pay for themselves:"

Budget cuts mean UN peacekeepers in Democratic Republic of the Congo do not have enough helicopters to operate effectively in DRC's unstable east, a UN official said on Wednesday.

Under pressure from Congolese President Joseph Kabila, the U.N. Security Council agreed in May to allow a phased withdrawal of the U.N.'s biggest peacekeeping force (MONUSCO) and a shifting of its focus to reconstruction, training and other aid.

The move triggered a $73 million cut to MONUSCO's roughly $1.3 billion budget, of which $61 million affects the type and number of aircraft available to the force, Paul Buades, head of MONUSCO's logistic support base in Entebbe, told Reuters.

Buades said the cutbacks will make it harder to carry out operations such as the capture on Tuesday of a rebel commander accused of orchestrating a series of mass rapes in Congo.

"We can't support the forces in more robust operations like this," Buades said. "The jungle is the jungle," he said, referring to country's sprawling eastern provinces, which are roughly the size of France.

With all the outrage about the Walikale mass rape situation, it's hard to see how cutting MONUSCO's force size and budget is even remotely justifiable.

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Many people who've not worked in the eastern DRC have a hard time understanding what conditions there are like. Unless you've visited an extremely fragile state, it's really hard to get your head around how incredibly difficult even the most basic logistics can be there.

For example, a lot of people were really upset when they learned that MONUSCO has a base only 12 kilometers from where the Walikale rapes happened. But covering 12 kilometers isn't nearly as easy as it sounds.

On a good day, that might take less than an hour. On a bad, rainy one, it could take two or three times as long. Many parts of the DRC aren't even accessible by road; particularly in Walikale, it's not uncommon for human rights researchers to have to fly to an airstrip, drive to the end of the road, and hike for several days to reach victims and record stories. Inaccessible doesn't even begin to describe it.

Then there are the communication issues. As you probably know by now, UN forces actually traveled through the town where the mass rapes took place while they were going on. They didn't stop to intervene because they weren't told that anything was going on.

I have no basis for knowing whether that's true or not, but I don't doubt that the soldiers patrolling the area had no idea what was going on. An issue that doesn't get talked about much is the fact that most of the peacekeeping troops working in the eastern DRC can barely communicate with the people they're trying to protect. Why? Because they come from non-Francophone and non-Swahiliphone states.

The most significant battallions come from, among other places, India, Bangladesh, South Africa, Nepal, and Morocco. Like most troops in most countries, the soldiers are not highly educated. They speak their national or local language and not much else. Only a few – usually officers – speak English.

This leads to a lot of problems, to put it mildly. While the UN certainly has people who can translate between English and French, when a group is on patrol in a place like rural Walikale, the odds of finding villagers who speak either are pretty slim. As are the odds of having a fully qualified translator on the patrol. I have no idea what happened in Walikale in July, but whatever was or was not reported to those troops, it's hard to see how they could have understood what was going on.

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That's not to excuse MONUSCO's failure to protect those civilians. The UN has admitted as much. Clearly, the lack of communication about the situation led to even more suffering on the part of the population.

Jason Stearns has further analysis about what went wrong and how similar situations could be prevented in the future.

But it really comes down to this: an undersized force comprised almost entirely of under-equipped soldiers from developing countries can't do everything. The UN in Congo is burdened with an almost impossible task. If the budget and size of the force continue to be cut, we're likely to see less civilian protection, not more.

-- Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, who blogs at Texas in Africa.


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