Saving Congo: Whither the EU?

Madeleine Albright once famously asked then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Much the same could be demanded of the European Union’s nascent military formations, strong on paper but chimerical when it comes to actual deployment. These formations — officially called “battle groups” in a warlike impulse at odds with their record thus far — risk being nothing more than accessories for an organization that seeks to assume the trappings, if not always the responsibilities, of a global player. That risk becomes greater if the EU chooses not to use its military to ameliorate the latest increase in bloodshed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The conflict in the DRC notionally ended in 2003 but continues to smolder. On occasion the violence erupts to levels sufficient to grab world headlines, even in a West otherwise obsessed with the incoming U.S. administration and the ongoing economic crisis. The DRC has suffered an estimated 5.4 million war-related deaths since 1998. It also has seen the deployment of the UN’s largest peacekeeping operation, MONUC. However, as current developments show, this force is all but impotent in a place where there is often little peace to keep. Meanwhile, as before, the fighting in DRC is drawing in combatants from neighboring countries.

Underlying this is the lack of a robust mandate, rules of engagement, capabilities, and unified mindset for MONUC. It’s a force patently underprepared for the task at hand, even if reasonably equipped for most other UN missions. The UN recently voted to increase the number of peacekeepers in DRC by 3,000, to just over 20,000 troops. However, it remains unclear where these troops will come from and how long it will take them to deploy. It’s also far from certain that even an enlarged and empowered MONUC would prove up to the task at hand.

The EU’s Added Value

The EU could bring some real “added value” — to use a phrase much loved in Brussels — with half as many soldiers by dispatching one of its battle groups. These 1,500 troops, along with command and support elements, are drawn from the existing armed forces of EU member states. They were conceived as the smallest deployable, sustainable, and self-sufficient military units, suitable for peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention, and rescue missions, and are theoretically deployable in 5-10 day increments for 30 days initially. If resupplied, they can remain on the ground for four months.

Two battle groups are maintained on rotation at any one time. Currently the on-call groups are French, German, and British. Deploying one of these on-call groups could greatly bolster MONUC, providing much needed protection for civilians and ensuring aid gets to those who need it. Such a dispatch of troops would also breathe life into the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, endorsed by world leaders at a UN summit in 2005. This use of force would not solve the DRC’s problems by any stretch. But it would save lives and buy time while diplomats address the political dimension, where the EU could also play a leading role.

That the EU has such a responsibility to protect is beyond argument. All its members signed on to the concept three years ago. Indeed, given their colonial history in Central Africa, EU members such as Belgium and France arguably have a greater moral responsibility than most to do something about the DRC’s ongoing agonies. In fairness, both countries, together with Spain, have expressed some willingness to provide troops for any such action. The UK also suggested that EU military intervention (if not British) is a possibility. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, meanwhile, led calls for such a move and for strengthening MONUC’s mandate, rules of engagement, and troop levels.

Beyond the EU

Other countries, such as the United States, can and should play a part. Indeed, with people like Susan Rice and Gayle Smith, strong advocates for an increased U.S. role in halting such atrocities, playing key roles in the incoming Obama administration, Washington will likely increase its engagement on the subject.

Although it does have military assets in Africa that could feasibly assist any enhanced peace support operation in DRC — or indeed any EU military deployment — the United States has more than a few other pressing overseas military operations and foreign policy dilemmas. As such, it will likely restrict itself to a mainly diplomatic role. Such U.S. diplomacy could prove crucial in pressuring the DRC’s neighbors to stay out of the conflict, helping bring warring parties to the negotiating table, and addressing the human rights abuses that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon publically identified all sides to the conflict as committing.

Calls for an EU military role in the DRC have heightened in recent days, with a coalition of over 20 humanitarian agencies, human rights organizations, think tanks, labor unions, and faith groups calling on the UK government to support such a deployment.

This plea for EU troops was also recently made in a letter signed by 44 civil society organizations in the DRC’s North Kivu region and addressed to the UN Security Council. Despite such appeals, EU-wide consensus on any move to dispatch a battle group to DRC is still lacking, even if some, like Germany — initially said to particularly oppose such a course of action — now seem to be warming to the idea, with President Horst Köhler calling for European troops to be dispatched. Without such a move not only will the people caught up in the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II continue to suffer, but the credibility of the EU’s security and defense policy risks being seriously undermined.

The EU’s security strategy proclaims grandly that “Europe should be ready to share in the responsibility for global security and in building a better world.” This noble sentiment rings false in the face of the continued failure to dispatch an EU battle group to the DRC. A Europe that will not act decisively to help ameliorate crises such as the one currently underway in Central Africa may encounter significant obstacles to being a major actor in international affairs. Conversely, a Europe that acts can burnish its credentials in this regard. If the moral imperative to intervene is insufficient on its own, perhaps this second consideration will force the matter. Those suffering and displaced in the DRC are unlikely to take exception to such impure motives.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Mark Burgess is the director of the Brussels office of the World Security Institute, an independent security and defense think tank headquartered in Washington, DC.