The United Nations’ new intervention brigade in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been fighting M23 rebels for less than a week and it’s already running into major problems. It was announced on Monday that an investigation had been opened into reports that U.N. troops opened fire on civilian protesters in the eastern city of Goma, a charge that could seriously undermine the position of the fledgling campaign.
With one of the strongest mandates ever granted to a United Nations force, the intervention brigade was set to counter long-standing criticisms over the perceived helplessness in the face of rebel violence on the part of the existing 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in the DRC. Saturday’s confrontation in Goma appears to have countered the perception in exactly the wrong way: eyewitnesses are accusing U.N. troops from Uruguay of opening fire on civilians protesting against continued deadly rocket attacks. Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has denied the accusations, though he admitted that troops had fired rubber bullets in order to control the crowd.
The fierce resistance by M23 rebels, who have been relentlessly pounding Goma with rocket and mortar attacks over the past week, would have been enough to dampen expectations ahead of the brigade’s deployment. However, the troubling allegations — along with the finger-pointing that has ensued since — threatens to further undermine the U.N.’s campaign in the DRC while raising the stakes for member-state participants, including South Africa, which has contributed 1,345 troops to the mission. The potential for the fallout from such incidents to reach beyond the world body to enmesh these states is a real one and could singlehandedly jeopardize any future missions of this nature regardless of the eventual outcome of the DRC intervention.
Given the U.N.’s own bad track record on self-accountability, it’s difficult to envision an investigation yielding satisfying results, something which is likely to only fuel growing animosity in eastern Congo against the U.N. mission. And there is a lot riding on this mission’s success for the organization: it is currently the one shining example of the U.N. taking an active role in combatting an armed conflict. With its own past failures in the DRC looming massively in the background, as well as its glaringly impotent response to the ever-worsening situation in Syria, the U.N. is in desperate need of a success story here. With such an inauspicious start, the prospect is already in jeopardy.