The Press & the UN experts’ report

I have been underwhelmed by much of the press coverage of the UN Group of Experts’ report, which was leaked this week to the press. Called into the BBC studio in Nairobi to comment, I quickly discovered that the reporters were focusing on the failure of the UN mission. The initial story on the BBC World Service implied that the main conclusion of the report was that the UN mission was failing to disarm the rebels. After some push-back from within the BBC, they changed the online story to: “UN-backed forces ‘failing’ in rebel fight.” They weren’t alone in assigning blame to MONUC. Reuters led with “UN Fails to Halt Congo Rebels: Experts,” the Times of London featured an opinion piece: “The UN Still Failing to Rid the Congo of Its Killers,” and the Guardian misleadingly wrote, “UN Peace Mission Fueling Violence in the Congo.” RFI broadcast along similar lines.

Guys, please. The report’s conclusion that the Kimia II operations are failing to dismantle the FDLR and that the CNDP maintains military and economic control over large areas of the Kivus. The closest the report gets to criticizing MONUC is this: “The Group also underlines the possible contradiction within MONUC’s mandate to protect civilians on a priority basis, and that of providing logistic support the FARDC, while the latter continues to commit abuses against the civilian population, and conducts military operations in disregard of protection of civilians and for international humanitarian law.”

Yes, one implication of the report is that MONUC should stop supporting Kimia II. But MONUC was never a main party to these operations, which are much more the result of the Kigali-Kinshasa deal early this year than any move by MONUC. The UN, eager to back this detente between Rwanda and the Congo, joined up with Kimia II after the offensive had been decided on. In my view, MONUC’s main strategic error was not to back the operations, but their failure to negotiate strong conditionalities. They provide food, transport, medical evacuation and (rarely) attack helicopter support, but are excluded from all operational planning and are almost never on the front lines, where they would need to be in order to protect civilians. In other words, MONUC gives and gives but gets next to nothing in return.

But the press has featured MONUC as the main culprit in this morality tail – it is a great press story: “The blue helmets who were deployed to protect civilians are actually fueling the violence.” We seem to find pleasure in debunking altruism, in exposing humanitarianism to be just another greedy resource grab. The priest child molester is a juicy scandal; the miscreant child molester is nothing new. But let’s get the story straight: the culprits in the UN report are Congolese, Burundian, Ugandan and Tanzanian businessmen, military officers and politicians who are profiting from the conflict. They are, to a lesser extent, French and American officials who do not want to go the extra mile to provide information on the conflict, and Chinese and Ukranian governments, also for withholding information. MONUC comes a distant last in the list of culprits.

Otherwise, the report was received warmly by the Rwandan The New Times (close to the government), which has demanded the Security Council to take action. The Burundian, Ugandan and Tanzanian government have vehemently rejected accusations that their officials are supporting the FDLR. Watch this space for some words on the consequences of the report in Burundi – my guess is that the report might be most strongly felt in Burundi, where the head of intelligence and one of the most important businessmen have been implicated in FDLR networks. The Rwandan government, which in influential in Bujumbura, is reportedly furious.

In the Congo, the local press did not make as much of the report as one might expect. The Congolese minister of information lambasted the Group of Experts, but focused on allegations that the offensive was failing, not on evidence that Congolese army officers are still backing the FDLR and that the CNDP has not been successfully integrated. The pro-government Digitalcongo.net website called for the “unfair arms embargo” against the government to be lifted, implying that it is this embargo that is keeping the government from getting rid of the FDLR (not their indiscipline or incompetence). This has often been Kinshasa’s reaction – but they seem to neglect that the embargo is only on rebel groups – the only obligation the Congolese government has towards the UN in this respect is to notify the Security Council of military imports.

It was altogether a bad press week, even in Belgium, where Le Soir reported that “The war in the Congo is being financed from Belgium.” That the FDLR has supporters there is clear. That these supporters do business with the FDLR and send them funds is probable. But that the FDLR would receive even a fraction of the millions they make off the minerals trade in the Kivus is absurd.

I will leave you will a picture of the lead author of this report, Dinesh Mahtani, with yours truly in the foreground, in Masisi.