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?

Andy Mitchell/Wikimedia
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In the Outback, the waiters come from East Grimsby

One of the many great things about Australia is a genuine, if slightly abrasive egalitarianism.

The atmosphere in the Red Ochre Grill is distinctly chilly – not exactly what you would expect in the middle of a desert. There was an early-bird discount of 20 per cent for guests of the attached hotel, if you booked before 6pm for a table before 7pm; but we screwed up by 15 minutes and the maître d’ was emphatic: we’d have to pay full whack. Now I’ve been sitting over the remains of my kangaroo and macadamia salad for a full half-hour, waiting to pay the inflated bill, and my temperature has been plummeting the while. There’s nothing more real than this sort of tourist gouging – and Alice Springs is a tourist town, among other things. A tourist town serviced by tourists: mostly backpackers, most of whom in turn are from Britain.

Last night in Casa Nostra, a Calabrian restaurant sited on the parched banks of the Todd River (it flows about once in an average lifetime), we were served by a nice young man from Aberdeen, and the many miles between the Grey City and the Red Centre were eliminated by his opening remark: “I read something you wrote recently about Scots independence. I myself am not in favour.” Then this morning, at a café in the mall, he popped up again – working a second job, this time with his Edinburghian girlfriend, so they can gather a sufficient sum to keep on truckin’.

All down the Stuart Highway (known colloquially as “The Track”) from Darwin, we’ve been waited on by young folk from East Grinstead and Letterkenny, Dewsbury and Great Malvern. They come on working visas, not available to the nationals of countries which aren’t either historic (Britain) or contemporary (United States) overlords of Australia, and work these jobs out in the back of Bourke, where young Australians are loath to go. To the backpackers the Outback is a mythic realm suffused with wonder, presided over by an ancient people steeped in sorcery who are also wizard at graphic arts – but to most young Australians it’s too much of nothing, while their largely deracinated and welfare-dependent Aboriginal fellow citizens are a source of perplexity, shame and ignorance.

All this is running through my mind as I ask the waitress where she’s from. “Israel,” she replies. “Ah,” I say, “I didn’t know you could get a working visa for Australia on an Israeli passport.” “You can’t,” she says, “but my parents are American and I also have a US passport.” Of course it’s not this young woman’s fault in any way, but there is still something slightly nauseating about this: the Americans have a spy base outside Alice, called Pine Gap. So it is that geostrategic “considerations” and neoliberal “economics” vibrate through the rudaceous rocks of the MacDonnell Ranges as our elders sing up a nightmarish dreamtime.

“Ah, well,” I say, “you must be used to desert country, then.” “Ye-es,” the Israeli waitress bridles a little, “but Israel isn’t as desert as here.”

One of the many great things about Australia – where I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the years, my first sojourn being on a working visa exactly like the waitress’s – is a genuine, if slightly abrasive egalitarianism: the original Digger mentality of mateship suffuses even the 21st-century globalised food industry, such that tipping is frowned on as shameless evidence of a de haut en bas attitude. These young folk are being paid adequately by the establishment, but that’s the problem: they have no incentive to get the tucker to the table quickly, and they aren’t trained. Thus my long wait for the undiscounted bill has become tangled up in my mind with all the world’s woes, and I snap back: “I’ll thank you not to lecture me on geography, young lady. Your state has been snaffling up deserts throughout my lifetime, beginning with the Sinai. Granted, its most recent acquisitions have been relatively piecemeal ones on the West Bank of the Jordan, and only semi-arid, but still . . .”

Later on, my eldest takes me to task for this solecism, bringing the misfortunes of the Middle East into the heart of the great southern continent, but I am unrepentant. True, the parallels aren’t exact, but both Israel/Palestine and Australia are polities that have pursued the old colonialist agenda under modern dispensations; both are states in which there’s a grotesque disparity between the conditions in which the indigenous people survive and those that the expropriating incomers enjoy. The Red Ochre Grill, with its pseudo-gourmet dishes confected out of “native” ingredients (emu, kangaroo and camel meat mostly), is a perfect instance of this phenomenon, a sort of gustatory colonialism, if you will.

Outback of the restaurant, in the sandy slough of the Todd River’s bed, the “Long Grass people” – Aboriginals bushed by the grog – stand in for benighted Palestinians. The rates of alcoholism among them are eclipsed only by those of diabetes. An old Australian friend in Darwin put it to me thus: “As you drive south to the Alice you’re travelling along a broad highway of renal failure.”

True, from time out of mind all sorts of holidays have been taken in other people’s misery. Yet there is something particularly queasy about whites working away in the well-appointed restaurant while, out in the darkness, welfare-dependent blacks are killing themselves with Coca-Cola.

Next week: On Location

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism