NEW YORK // A fractious debate over whether to withdraw UN peacekeepers from war-ravaged Congo took a new twist this week, with one of the world body's top investigators warning that a pullout may lead to more civilian murders, rapes and mutilations. Philip Alston, the UN human rights investigator, said rebel troops continue wreak havoc on the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and ordinary civilians are suffering worst. Victims have "had their lips or ears chopped off", he said.
His warnings come only days after UN Security Council members acquiesced to demands from Congolese officials to withdraw peacekeepers - agreeing to pull out 2,000 personnel from a 20,600-strong force by the end of the month. Mr Alston described an upsurge in violence by the Lord's Resistance Army, a fundamentalist Christian militia which has slaughtered at least 400 civilians and abducted or mutilated hundreds more in Province Orientale since his visit at the end of last year.
"It is clear that the major human rights violations which I identified in October have continued to plague the country in the intervening period," said Mr Alston, a special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions. "The alarm that I sounded at the time ... has been largely ignored." Rwandan Hutu rebels likewise conduct brutal retribution raids on villages in the two eastern Kivu provinces, he said. Some militants have been based in eastern Congo since slaughtering minority Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and fleeing their homeland.
He called on Congo's government and the UN to beef up their military presence in Province Orientale, while blasting national forces for failing to arrest wanted war criminals and rid its ranks of commanders who have brutalised civilians. "We have continued to see poorly-planned and under-resourced military operations, reprisal attacks by rebel groups on unprotected civilians, the failure to arrest war criminals serving in the Congolese army, many hundreds of civilians killed, and many more displaced and gravely injured, often at the hands of the very troops whose duty it is to protect civilians," said Mr Alston.
The controversial report comes only days after Security Council members voted unanimously to withdraw 2,000 peacekeepers by the end of the month - coinciding with Congo celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence. Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, has repeatedly called for the world's largest and most expensive peacekeeping force to leave his country - boosting his nationalist credentials and likely to improve his performance in next year's election.
Lambert Mende, the Information Minister, said the UN was pretending "to help a people while trampling its dignity" and accused the world body of trying to seize power from a mineral-rich country replete with copper, gold and coltan. But Security Council members did not act upon Kinshasa's request to totally withdraw from the former Belgian colony by the end of next year, saying instead it will only pull out troops "from areas where the security situation permits".
From the beginning of next month, the US$1.35 billion--a-year operation will change its current name, Monuc, derived from a French acronym, to Monusco, shifting the emphasis of the mission towards "stabilisation" rather than peacekeeping. Alain Le Roy, the UN peacekeeping chief, described a "new phase in the Congo and the situation has improved". But he acknowledged that eastern regions remain blighted by rebel violence and that his soldiers are "not able to protect every single citizen".
When Monusco's mandate expires on June 30 next year, Security Council members will conduct a "joint assessment with Congolese authorities to decide on any further withdrawals", added Mr Le Roy, who will concentrate his remaining troops in the turbulent east. Rebels ousted long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, then turned on each other in back-to-back civil wars across a country the size of Western Europe, spawning cross-border scrambles for minerals that drew in soldiers from a half-dozen African nations.
Peacekeepers arrived in 1999 to observe a cease-fire and the withdrawal of foreign troops, but widespread conflict ensued until 2003 and claimed the lives of as many as 5.4 million. Blue helmet troops helped hold Congo's first democratic elections in 40 years in 2006. Humanitarian groups say every peacekeeper is needed, even though the unpopular UN force has been unable to protect all civilians from rape, abduction and decapitation. Peacekeepers themselves have been accused of sexual abuse, gold trading and corruption.
"Many parts of Congo are still extremely insecure and violence is a daily threat. Any reduction in peacekeepers could be bad news for ordinary Congolese women and men," said Marcel Stoessel, Oxfam's regional boss. "Congo needs each peacekeeper that it has, every pair of boots counts." Oxfam noted almost 2 million people still cannot go home because of Congo's violence, and along with reports of massacres by the hundreds in some areas the UN estimates that 160 women are raped in the Kivu provinces each week.