There is a strong case for Europe to intervene in the crisis in eastern Congo. Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, put it powerfully in a letter to European leaders last week. The disintegration of the Congolese army has left UN peacekeepers as the only legitimate force in the region. They are caught between an ambitious warlord supported from neighbouring Rwanda, and an array of murderous militias backed by the Kinshasa government.
Recent fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of Congolese amid an upsurge of massacres, rape and forced recruitment of child soldiers. Although it already constitutes the largest peacekeeping operation in the world, the UN mission is struggling to defend itself, let alone protect civilians. It has insufficient troops, ineffectual leadership and operates across a failed state the size of western Europe. The UN Security Council has authorised reinforcements. But fresh UN troops will take at least four months to deploy. The risk that the conflict will spread meanwhile is great.
An EU bridging force could prevent the collapse of the UN mission and its longer term efforts to rebuild the Congolese state. It would send a clear signal to the belligerents that the world is serious about preventing the violence from escalating. Most importantly it could help save thousands of lives while the UN gets its house in order, which it must.
There are hopeful precedents. One was Operation Artemis, the French-led EU force that stemmed the bloodshed in north-eastern Congo in 2003. Another was Britain’s intervention in Sierra Leone. Both missions involved crack troops coming to the rescue of UN peacekeepers, providing a short period of reprieve in which political initiatives could bear fruit.
This time Britain has refused to send its own troops, which are on the EU’s current battle roster and are supposedly ready for rapid deployment. One reason is that the British army is overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan. Germany has also been obstructive. But there are other European countries willing to take part. Instead of supporting them, Britain has actively discouraged any EU intervention.
David Miliband, Britain’s foreign secretary, talks tirelessly about human rights. But facing atrocities carried out by militias backed – however loosely – by two governments receiving large amounts of UK aid, there is need for more than talk. Lasting peace will not come easily to Congo. But without robust action now, whatever progress has been made risks unravelling.