Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.A rebel leader was arrested this week for allegedly leading the rape of more than 300 women and children in early August in Walikale, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, just a few kilometres from a United Nations peacekeeping base. Blake Evans-Pritchard, IWPR Africa editor, explains why such atrocities still take place in DRC, despite a supposed peace agreement - and why UN troops find it so hard to protect civilians there. ------------------------------------------------ Given that the war in the DRC is officially over, why do violent attacks like the one on Walikale continue to take place? It will take decades to recover from the effects of many years of conflict in DRC. An abundance of weapons remain in the region and a pervasive culture of war also makes it hard to move on from the past. It is not easy for those that have been so used to fighting just to lay down their weapons, especially when other opportunities in the DRC remain so scarce. Armed militia are still scattered throughout the region. They are responsible for many of the atrocities, while other attacks are carried out by members of the Congolese army, who are used to exerting power over civilians. These various groups all vie for a share of political influence or control of the country's vast mineral wealth. In 1996, Laurent-Dï¿½sirï¿½ Kabila, father of the current president, launched a rebel insurgency against then-president Joseph Mobuto and seized the trappings of power. Many militia leaders hope they will be able to do the same. How did the Walikale attack come about? According to the UN, a coalition of about 200 members of three rebel groups raped civilians as a punishment for colluding with the Congolese army, who launched an offensive in the region last year. On October 5, Congolese authorities arrested rebel commander Sadoke Kokunda Mayele, who had previously served in the national armed forces, for allegedly leading the attack. In the DRC, rape has become a weapon of war - a way of destroying communities in order to win control over a region or territory. Women are often raped in the presence of family members. Afterwards, they are rejected by their communities and seen as worthless. The attacks took place against a backdrop of heavy militia activity, which has been fuelled by a desire for influence over the mineral trade in the region. Walikale, which lies on the western edge of North Kivu, is home to some of the country's most lucrative mines. The region is presently controlled by the National Congress for the Defence of the People, CNDP, a former rebel group that has now been partially integrated into the national armed forces. Rebels operate in the region because they also want a share of the wealth. The rapes took place not far from a UN peacekeeping base. Why does the UN find it so difficult to protect civilians? The Walikale attack has been hugely embarrassing for the UN, which has a base only 15 kilometres away. Moreover, they were reportedly told that rebel activity in the region was on the rise, and yet the UN troops apparently chose to do nothing. As the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world, the Congolese operation, MONUSCO, certainly should have done better, and they have acknowledged this in statements released since the attack. MONUSCO should also be more proactive in its peacekeeping. It is a so-called Chapter VII peacekeeping mission, which gives it the authority to launch pre-emptive strikes if civilian safety is threatened, which it clearly was in this case. This is not to say, however, that MONUSCO's job is an easy one. The DRC is the third largest country in Africa, and huge areas are difficult to access, largely because of continued fighting and rebel activity. The UN may have 20,000 peacekeepers in the country, but this isn't a lot compared to the challenges they face. The Congolese government seems keen to get MONUSCO out of the country as soon as possible. Does that mean they are limited to what they can do? This is a problem for most UN peacekeeping operations. They are usually there only at the discretion of the host government, and the mission's success thus depends on good relations with the latter. This inevitably limits the action it can take. MONUSCO can move around DRC only with government permission, and this is going to hamper the speed at which it can respond to any incident. DRC president Joseph Kabila has made it clear that he would like peacekeepers out of the country before elections due at the end of next year. But for all the criticism often levelled at the mission, MONUSCO is still the only organisation that is able and willing to protect civilians in the DRC. Government troops tend to be unruly, and many senior commanders have been implicated in atrocities. In some more unstable regions, law and order could evaporate overnight if MONUSCO was to pull out. As commentators have noted, there is a good reason why Kabila might be less than happy to have 20,000 UN-affiliated eyes peering over his shoulder during the national election next year. But this points to the second reason why it is important that the UN remains. It needs to continue supporting the development of a properly functioning democracy, after so many years of war and internal strife. Daniella Peled is an IWPR editor in London.
- Posted: 29 November 2013 | Deadline: 16 December 2013 | Job type: Permanent | Salary: TBD | Location: United Kingdom