A world without the UN…

It’s surprisingly easy to find fault with the UN.

I spent over a year in Khartoum, brutally savaging the UN and its confusing jumble of agencies, and left the country even more certain of the UN’s flaws than I had been when I arrived. And, in return for my criticism, entries in my blog got torn to pieces by those people working in UN agencies that thought their small contribution was essential for the survival of the country. I wonder if they still think this way.

Now in Goma, I have got the opportunity to see how MONUSCO, the freshly-renamed UN mission here, conducts itself. And, as one might suspect, things aren’t so different.

This morning, I spent about an hour in a local hospital. Fortunately, it was not I that was hospitalised. I was talking to two human rights activists, who had both been kidnapped. One, the head of civil society in Masisi (Sylvestre Bwira Kyahi), had been kidnapped because of an open letter that he had written to President Joseph Kabila, denouncing human rights abuses committed by the national armed forces. He had been intimidated, roughed up and thrown inside a hole with dead and dying people in. He had ugly welts on his arms, testifying to his torture. The other human rights activist – who worked for the human rights organisation, Action Sociale pour la Paix et le Développement (ASPD) – was kidnapped because of a debt, rather than his human rights work. He wasn’t tortured, but was intimidated.

The first guy, Sylvestre, told me that, before his kidnap, he had been threatened with death – and so he had gone to MONUSCO to report this. Even so, it still hadn’t helped. He was kidnapped anyway, and thinks he may be kidnapped again. He is thinking of taking a break from human rights activism. And who could blame him?

Leocadio Salmeron, spokesman for MONUSCO in Goma, afterwards told me that the UN mission here does take all threats extremely seriously, but such an explanation appeared unconvincing when one looked at in from Sylvestre’s point of view. Leocadio then let slip that they had also been taking a keen interest in Floribert Chebaya, a human rights activist who had also been receiving death threats. It didn’t save him, though, and he ultimately ended up in the morgue.

Then of course there’s the big incident of last week, which everyone has been talking about, where hundreds of women were raped in Walikale, just a few kilometres from where a MONUSCO unit was stationed. Leaked emails suggest that MONUSCO was aware of increased rebel activity in the region beforehand, and the potential for something like this to happen.

So, yes, it is exceedingly easy to criticise the UN missions in such a place. Coincidentally, I have just been watching the tail end of an American film about Somalia (I’m afraid I didn’t catch the name). Yet again, a country that the UN managed to screw up by its complete inefficiency and self-obsession.

But then, this evening, I put the whole question of MONUSCO’s ineffectiveness to an ASPD human rights activist.

“Yes,” he slowly agreed, nodding thoughtfully. But then added: “But think how much worse things would be if MONUSCO wasn’t here.”

He was certain that MONUSCO’s powerful presence was not something to be under-estimated, and that, if the organisation (and other international players) were not in the country, then things could be much, much worse. The likes of Sylvestre, from Masisi, might not be here at all.

And that must count for something. The problem is that the effect of this is something very difficult to measure or quantify. But it is certainly there.

So, yes, it is easy to knock MONUSCO and UNAMIS and all these other UN-led operations.

But, if they weren’t there at all? Well, then things could be really terrible.

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