Can the United Nations redeem itself, at least in this region? Yes, it can, provided some of its officials are humble enough to admit their mistakes and correct them.
The United Nations does many good things. So it is not beyond redemption. In this region of the Great Lakes, however, the good things are hardly remembered. They have been swamped by a lot of bad ones over the last fifty years.
The UN had its reputation severely damaged in the 1960s when it first got involved in efforts to bring peace to a newly independent but fractious Congo. Its Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold, was caught up and killed in what have since become the country’s intractable conflicts.
Nationalist leaders were killed before a powerless UN. The organisation stood by as reactionary elements in Congo took control of the country and plunged it into a mess it has never recovered from.
More than fifty years later, the UN has not learnt any lessons from its earlier involvement in Congo. Today, the UN is mired in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), propping up an inefficient and incompetent government, standing by as untold horrors are committed against civilians they are supposed to protect and as various armed groups take control of huge chumks of territory. Its reputation is again in tatters.
In neighbouring Rwanda, the story is similar. In the run-up to independence, the majority of Rwandans put much faith in the UN as a guarantor of their quest for freedom from Belgian rule. The UN betrayed this faith. It did nothing as the first massacres of what became periodic pogroms were committed and hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were driven into exile.
The UN was again present in 1994 and did nothing when the genocide against the Tutsi was carried out.
In all instances, the UN has lost its reputation when going against its core mandate and doing the bidding of some of its more powerful members.
In 1960s’ Congo, the UN was essentially being used as an arm of the United States of America and other Western countries. In today’s DRC, it is being used to serve the narrow interests of some countries.
Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold had foreseen this and sought to assert the organisation’s independence against narrow national interests of member states. It is not surprising that he died at the hands of such interests.
It seems successive Secretaries General learnt the lesson: If you want to keep your job and life, don’t stick out your neck. Better still, be the willing errand boy (there is no girl yet) of the big boys. And that’s how it has been since then. We have had pliant UN Secretaries General.
That was the case in Rwanda in 1994. Then Secretary General Boutros Ghali obeyed the orders of the French – from sending a toothless peace keeping force, the bulk of which was withdrawn at the height of the genocide, to authorising a French-only protection force for genocidaires fleeing the scene of crime and allowing them to continue the genocide (the so-called Zone Turquoise).
Now both the UN and the West have an opportunity to redeem themselves. The rebellion in eastern DRC offers them this unique chance.
This is how it can be done. First, they must treat DRC as a country with citizens and not a free-for-all huge mine with no owner. Considering that greed for Congo’s natural wealth has been at the heart of its problems for more than a century, this might be a tough ask. But then redemption never comes easy.
Second, the UN and countries that use it for their own ends should be able to carry out real analysis of situations they get involved in. Its bureaucrats are the best paid people in the world. They must get down to work and earn their money. This means that they must stop sub-contracting their work to so-called experts, who it turns out are not disinterested specialists, but actually biased activists.
Third, they should also stop relying almost exclusively on the testimony of civil society organisations. The fact is that civil society organisations in Africa are not independent and cannot be objective. They get their agenda and are financed from outside – usually by the same international NGOs and foreign governments who come to them for information. As the saying goes, ‘who pays the piper calls the tune”.
It does not come as a surprise that DRC has one of the largest numbers of civil society groups – itself both a sign of a failed state and the cause for failure.
Once all this is done, it will be found that the real problem in the DRC is not Rwanda, Uganda or even M23, but the country itself and its backers.
Finally, with this realisation, the UN and the West should lift pressure and blame from Rwanda and place it where it belongs – on DRC. It must be pressured (and perhaps helped) to establish effective government over all its territory, treat all its citizens the same way and respect agreements. Doing otherwise is counterproductive.
So, the UN and the West are not beyond redemption. But first, they must be penitent. They don’t even have to confess their sins. It is enough that they recognise them and commit to change their ways. Absolution will then surely be given.