Since the M23 seized Goma in November, a cascade of criticism has rained down on MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo. The opprobrium was widespread and came from Congolese civil society, foreign diplomats and media alike. Why couldn't the 19,000 blue helmets prevent the biggest trade hub in the eastern Congo from falling? Why couldn't they live up to their mandate and protect civilians in imminent danger?
I, too, have been disappointed by the UN, but not for the above reasons. In short: the UN has been stripped of what it does best, brokering a political peace process and has been reduced to what it is worst at--military protection.
UN peacekeepers have never been very good at protecting civilians in imminent danger. In part, this is because it is extremely difficult to do--once the danger is imminent, it is often too late to intervene, especially in a country as vast and infrastructure-challenged as the Congo. (In part, of course, it is also due to poor leadership, as the Kisangani and Kiwanja showed). The way to do civilian protection is through pre-emption, not firefighting, but that requires more risky and aggressive operations, which many of the troop contributing countries (TCCs in UN lingo) did not sign up for. "We don't want to see our men come home in bodybags," is the frequent refrain from the contingents.
Not that these kind of aggressive operations are impossible--in 2005, for example, the UN conducted "robust peacekeeping" in Ituri, declaring certain areas demilitarized and then aggressively shutting down remnant militia there, killing dozens and dismantling entire groups. But even then, the UN military leadership felt that they wouldn't be able to apply the same tactics to the Kivus, with its more battle-hardened armed groups and difficult terrain.[view whole blog post ]