Many in Rwanda have been sceptical about the United Nations taking up arms against the so-called Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). They have good reason.
The UN has an unenviable track record in this region of inaction, prevarication, betrayal of people’s trust, dashing their hopes and expectations, and generally being untrustworthy. In fact it has been a hindrance to resolving issues.
For twenty years, UN forces have been camped in close proximity with FDLR fighters and been witness to some of the most horrific atrocities and have done nothing about it.
In fact UN inaction in the region is much longer than that. In Rwanda it goes back to 1959 – from the period of decolonization, through the series of genocide trial runs in the 1960s and 70s, to the genocide itself in 1994.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it can be traced back to the post-independence upheavals of 1960, particularly the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the usurpation of power by Joseph Desire Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Zabanga), and the various rebellions in eastern DRC in the 1960s to date.
Today, many armed groups operate in the area controlled by the bloated and obscenely expensive UN Stabilisation Mission (MONUSCO). You would be excused to think that all these groups operate with the tacit approval of MONUSCO.
Now, another reason for scepticism has emerged from the telling revelations of Ambassador Prudence Bushnell in her just published personal notes. Ambassador Bushnell was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the US State Department in 1994.
Her revelations show that it is not only the UN that will not act in times of crisis, but almost the entire Western world. According to her, inaction is part of standard diplomatic practice. Simply put, the unwritten but widely applied maxim is: do not act but appear to be busy.
In her own words she describes United States policy on Rwanda at the time as, “keeping busy with tasks that lacked impact so we could say we were doing something”.
She goes on to say, “if you don’t want to make a decision, then keep everybody busy. You keep the pot boiling, but you don’t have to make a decision. That’s what we were doing.”
A repeat of that practice – of being busy while doing nothing is playing out today in Eastern DRC with regard to the FDLR. There is much talk about impending military action against the genocidal fighters, but no real movement to attack them.
We are told of preparations being made: rolling up of sleeves, flexing of muscles, a lot of I-dare-you talk, and so on.
There is even a trial run against some little-known Burundi rebels, apparently to get combat sharpness (that’s what we are officially told). We did not see such practice before M23 rebels were taken on.
The British have now offered to train Malawian forces before they can take on FDLR, although the decision to go after all the negative forces in DRC was taken more than a year ago, and it is a month since the deadline for FDLR to disarm ended.
There are other more explicit signs that show that action will not be soon. For instance, MONUSCO has said that they will not go after the FDLR, but will only give support. That task has been left to the Congolese army (FARDC). Everyone knows how that would turn out were it even to happen.
The United States, too, is making the right noises about fighting the FDLR. The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Powers, and US special envoy to the Great Lakes, Russ Feingold, have both been urging military action.
But then Ambassador Powers goes on to put a proviso that such action should ensure that civilians are protected and must be in keeping with the UN’s human rights and due diligence policy.
It is, of course, right and proper that there should be concern for civilians. However, no military campaign ever wants to harm civilians directly. In a sense, therefore, this is an unnecessary reminder.
But given what has been said in the past about the difficulty of fighting FDLR because fighters live within a civilian population, the caution might be interpreted as endorsement of that view and, therefore, an excuse for inaction.
All these, coming after what has been the UN’s dismal record in this region, particularly its apparent unwillingness or failure to pacify Eastern DRC, point to one thing. It is more of the same old story: keep busy, say the right things, make everybody believe that you are doing something, and do nothing.
Ambassador Bushnell’s revelations confirm this but also reinforce scepticism about the international community’s resolve to neutralise FDLR.