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?

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.