In the Congo, United Nations peacekeepers stood and watched as Goma fell to rebel forces

Without US support, UN peacekeepers played a passive role.

It was another of those moments that will come back to haunt the United Nations. Just as its forces stood by during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and in Bosnia’s Srebrenica massacre of 2005, so rebels of the M23 were allowed to walk into the eastern Congolese town of Goma unopposed.

The Congo is the UN’s largest peacekeeping operation in the world, with 19,000 troops and a budget of $1,402,278,300. At the time the town fell, the UN had 1,500 soldiers in Goma, backed by helicopters, artillery and tanks.

Despite having hit M23 with what the UN spokesman, Martin Nesirky, described as "hundreds" of rocket and missile rounds since the M23 attacks on the town began on 15 November, they were unable to prevent it being captured. Nesirky told journalists that the UN force was only there to support the Congolese army. When their poorly paid, ill disciplined troops broke and fled, the UN force commander on the ground decided to stand by as the rebels marched into town.

The real question is why the UN played such a passive role. Here the American position has been critical, particularly in stifling criticism of the Rwandan role in providing troops, weapons and ammunition to the M23. This has been extensively catalogued by UN experts. Their latest report (pdf) could hardly have been more explicit:

The Government of Rwanda continues to violate the arms embargo by providing direct military support to the M23 rebels, facilitating recruitment, encouraging and facilitating desertions from the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and providing arms, ammunition, intelligence and political advice. The de facto chain of command of M23 includes Gen. Bosco Ntaganda and culminates with the Minister of Defence of Rwanda, Gen. James Kabarebe.

Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch told the New Statesman: “The US government has been surprisingly inactive and silent, despite the significant influence they have with the Rwandan government.”

Jason Sterns, a former UN investigator, lays the blame at the door of the Susan Rice, President Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations. Sterns argues that Rice has blocked criticism of the Rwandans. She “…has emerged as a holdout within American foreign policy, a sort of minority report to the prevailing criticism of Rwanda and the M23.” Rice prevented any explicit mention of Rwanda in the latest UN resolution on the Congolese crisis, leaving the text to call instead for “all relevant actors to use their influence on the M23 to bring about an end to attacks.”

Russia, France and – more recently – Britain have been developing a tougher line. This has finally begun to emerge. On 22 November William Hague and Justine Greening put out a joint Foreign Office–DFID press release.

"We judge the overall body of evidence of Rwandan involvement with M23 in the DRC to be credible and compelling,” they said.  “We will be studying the implications of this report in full, but these allegations will necessarily be a key factor in future aid decisions to the Government of Rwanda.” That decision is said to be close to being announced, and could leave Rwanda without British funding – the largest source of foreign aid the country has enjoyed.

Officially, Rwanda, Congo and the Congolese are in agreement on the threat posed by the M23. On 21 November the three presidents met in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. A joint declaration was signed, calling for the M23 to leave Goma.

This was followed by a meeting of the Conference of the Great Lakes, three days later, again in Kampala. This brought together a wider group of leaders, including the presidents of Angola, Tanzania and Kenya.  But on this occasion, significantly, Rwanda’s Paul Kagama was absent. The heads of state again called for the M23 to pull back 20 kilometres from Goma within two days, to allow the deployment of UN peacekeepers and a ‘neutral force.’

If, as the UN group of experts and many others believe, Rwanda, and to a lesser extent Uganda, are behind the M23, what is their long term goal?

This is less than clear, but there are indications that President Paul Kagame has the long-term objective of establishing a buffer state along his western border. Such a state would prevent any further threat from the defeated Hutu Rwandan army that fled into Congo at the end of the Rwandan genocide. They remain an armed presence in the region, in the form of the FDLR. 

There are suggestions that Rwanda plans to establish a "République des Volcans" in the area. This – it is claimed – would be an extension of an ancient Hima-Tutsi empire. Both Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni have been portrayed as descendents of this tradition in the past – accusations they have denied.

Certainly it will require an immense effort for anyone to gain control over the Kivus. They are, today, held by a myriad of rebel movements, which fight for the control of the gold, cassiterite, coltan, wolfram, timber and diamonds to be found in profusion. Nor would the step necessarily receive the support of the Tutsi community in eastern Congo – the Banyamulenge.

The inability of the UN to hold Goma and the failure of Congolese government forces in the face of M23 attacks has taken a terrible toll on the local population. Christina Corbett, in Goma for Oxfam, says 140,000 have been displaced by this round of fighting alone. “We are very concerned that human rights violations – including forced labour, rape and illegal taxation – are taking place so regularly; they are not even being reported any more,” she says.

But international attention is scarcely concentrated on Congo. The fighting in Syria and Israeli attacks on Gaza are always more pressing concerns – even though the numbers of killed, injured and displaced are invariably many times higher. Central Africa is likely to remain a cauldron of conflict for many years to come.

A UN peacekeeper stands on the roadside in the east of the Congo. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

0800 7318496