The United Nations Secretary General has warned armed rebels in Eastern Congo that the organisation's new “intervention brigade” would prevent any repeat of the fighting which has driven thousands of refugees out of camps this week. In a visit to the embattled lakeside city of Goma, Ban Ki-moon said the 3,000-strong force which has begun deployment will “enforce the peace”.
Fighting between Congolese government forces and the M23 rebel group has reached the outskirts of the eastern trading hub, putting Mr Ban's visit in jeopardy. The UN and the Congolese government suffered a major reverse in November when the rebels, who are accused of being backed by neighbouring Rwanda, overran the largest city in the east of the country.
They later withdrew and a tense ceasefire held for six months until this week's clashes erupted. As well as sparking a humanitarian crisis, the November setback forced a major rethink of the UN's peacekeeping operations. The result was a new mandate for an intervention brigade to be equipped with attack helicopters, surveillance drones and a mandate to engage and fight armed rebel groups.
The UN's mission in Congo is already has the world's largest peacekeeping operation in Congo, with 17,000 personnel. But in a country the size of Western Europe they have been overstretched. Blue-helmeted forces in Eastern Congo have been frequently outmatched by “superior rebel forces” said Mr Ban, who successfully sued the Security Council for a tougher mandate and more funding.
This week's high-level visit, which went ahead despite the fighting, included the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, who committed $1bn in development funding to back a new peace effort across the region.
“The UN is bringing troops and we're bringing dollars” said Mr Kim, a Korean American doctor who argued that new roads, jobs and healthcare would create the space for peaceful reconciliation in the region.
At Goma's Heal Africa hospital which has treated tens of thousands of victims of the sexual violence that has marked this conflict, demonstrators called for more help from the UN.
“We're tired with this war, the UN intervention needs to come,” said Beth Mapendo a women's rights activist. Mr Ban indicated that the UN brigade would have engaged with M23 rebels during recent fighting had it already been in position. “It would have been different (this week),” he told The Independent. “And had there been an intervention brigade in November it would have been much different.”
The Secretary General hailed the new force as “unprecedented in the history of UN peacekeeping”. But it remains unclear when it will be fully deployed with only 100 personnel so far on the ground. Troops from South Africa and Tanzanian will be in position from mid-June but Malawian forces are not expected until late July. A £10m fleet of drones, which will be used in a peacekeeping operation for the first time, are still caught up in the red-tape of UN procurement, an official said.
Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Eastern Congo, where a string of conflicts dating back to the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide in 1994 have left more than one million people in refugee camps, centre on a new agreement signed in February. Dubbed the “framework of hope” by former Irish premier Mary Robinson, who is the UN's special envoy to the region, it hinges on persuading Congo and its neighbours Rwanda and Uganda to unravel their conflicting interests in Eastern Congo.
A senior diplomat involved in the peace process described the framework as “thin and fragile” and much hope for it rests on donors' promises of a “peace dividend” and Mrs Robinson's personal history with the countries' three presidents - Rwanda's Paul Kagame, Uganda's Yoweri Museveni and the DRC's Joseph Kabila.
With a weak and corrupt central government, based a continent away in Kinshasa, the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo has become a theatre for armed groups and proxy forces from neighbouring countries. Rwanda and Uganda were found by a UN group of experts to be supporting the M23 rebels, who are led by Tutsis, the same ethnic group as President Kagame. The dossier led to Western donors and multilateral lenders cutting funding to Rwanda which is dependant on aid for 40 percent of its budget.
Meanwhile, the Congolese army, where it has been deployed, has been ineffectual as a fighting force and found guilty of horrendous human rights abuses including mass rape. Mr Ban said he had warned Mr Kabila that his troops must protect civilians and observe humanitarian laws or be held accountable.