UN Congo Mission Leader: 'Unimaginable Human Catastrophes'
In an interview, Martin Kobler, the head of the United Nation peacekeeping force in Congo, discusses the recent success by the blue helmets in the country and why he would like to see Germany take more decisive action to bring stability to the African nation.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Kobler, there has been a UN mandate for a rapid reaction force in East Congo in place for a year now. Your soldiers shoot and engage in combat, and there has since been progress in the peace process. Is such severity necessary to achieve progress?
Kobler: Yes, I believe it is. For 15 years, the international community attempted to bring the situation in East Congo under control, without any success. Then, we began using force against the armed militias where it was necessary. The situation has improved markedly.
SPIEGEL: What has changed?
Kobler: In many areas, there are no longer illegal checkpoints. And farmers can once again plant their vegetables and take them to market in areas previously controlled by a terrorist regime. The provincial administration has become operational, the schools are open again and 400 police officers have been hired. Now we need to make sure things stay this way.
SPIEGEL: Is this a model for other UN deployments?
Kobler: People are certainly looking very closely at the example of Congo. They are closely observing how and with what success we are deploying the intervention force.
SPIEGEL: Does this mean that the UN also needs to intervene on a mass scale in Mali or the Central African Republic?
Kobler: You can't just apply the Congo example to the Central African Republic or South Sudan. However, it is correct that we need to think very precisely about how our goals are to be reached. One of the lessons from Congo is that prospects for success are greater if you go into a deployment like that with a militarily strong force. Just as important, however, is the need for a civilian component and the restoration of state authority.
SPIEGEL: The German government, backed by President Joachim Gauck, has proclaimed it wants the country to take a more active role in the world. Among those goals is a greater engagement in Africa. Does that make sense in your opinion?
Kobler: I am very pleased about the discussion and I want to give it all my support. We're already too late in Mali or the Central African Republic. We needed to be more active on a preventative basis much earlier. But nothing comes at zero cost. We should start where there are signs of hope, like the Congo.
SPIEGEL: A country where several million people have lost their lives in the past 15 years.
Kobler: The human catastrophes taking place there are unimaginable. But very few are taking notice of what is happening. In this respect, I would be very pleased if German politicians would take a greater interest in the issue.
SPIEGEL: Germany has tended to be more reserved when it comes to engaging in Africa. In Mali, we sent trainers and we may also send medevac aircraft to Central Africa. Would German peacekeepers, meaning German soldiers with a robust UN mandate, be imaginable to you on the African continent?
Kobler: If there is a political consensus for it in Germany, then I would very much welcome it. The issue should be addressed with eyes wide open.
SPIEGEL: To be clear: We're talking about combat units that would strike back decisively during any conflict.
Kobler: Sometimes that is the only thing that can help, but military actions aren't sustainable if they aren't followed up by measures to build civil society.
SPIEGEL: German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen says that Germany cannot look away when murder and rape are a part of daily life. Do you share that view?
Kobler: That is absolutely my opinion.
SPIEGEL: Is that an argument for constant intervention? Murder and rape are commonplace in many parts of the world.
Kobler: It is, of course, a question of dimensions. I was recently in Katanga in South Congo, where rebels had just burned three villages to the ground. It still reeked of smoke and burnt wood. I saw the child solders, children down in the mines. It is all unacceptable. You see things there of a dimension that definitely justifies paying more attention rather than looking away. We are doing that there, but we should also be doing so from Germany.
SPIEGEL: So no more chats over coffee between UN peacekeeping commanders and warlords, as often happened in Congo?
Kobler: No. We ended the cohabitation with armed groups in Congo.
SPIEGEL: How could this proximity to murderous militias even develop?
Kobler: When our people are operating in rebel areas, of course they must protect themselves. And they must talk to the rebels. But a change in thinking is now taking place.
SPIEGEL: Meaning, now soldiers will open fire immediately?
Kobler: No. In the city of Pinga, for example, we have negotiated with a warlord named Cheka. We convinced his people to abandon their weapons and then evacuated by air. Not a single shot was fired.
SPIEGEL: And Cheka is now planting potatoes?
Kobler: Unfortunately not. He attacked Pinga again in mid-January together with new people. In retrospect, it was a mistake to negotiate with him. We're still learning here. Today I know that is difficult to make deals with armed groups in these areas, especially if they have a criminal past. What people care about here is gold, mines, weapons -- there are myriad issues. The Congolese army then defended Pinga because our leading principle here is very clear: We're not going to retreat from what we have achieved. Some 15,000 displaced persons have since returned to Pinga.
SPIEGEL: The Congolese army itself doesn't have the best reputation.
Kobler: It has improved much over the past two years. We are only working together closely with units of the Congolese army that we have screened for human rights violations.
SPIEGEL: Your robust performance is supported by a particularly well-armed, 3,000 man-strong intervention force composed of soldiers from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi. You have even succeeded in earning the respect of the rebels. Do you plan to incorporate the remaining 16,500 peacekeeping troops, largely from the Indian subcontinent, to the same extent?
Kobler: That is a central point. We've been present in the country for 15 years now, but we have resolved very little, if anything. One has to be self-critical about it. Instead other issues have arisen. With the new intervention force and its strength, thinking has gradually changed. Many suppliers of peacekeeping troops are approaching it in a more robust way today.
SPIEGEL: So everything is going to go well now?
Kobler: Not immediately, of course. To the contrary, I very much warn against viewing the intervention force and Congo model of peacekeeping as a whole without considering the context. It will all be in vain if military success isn't followed up with a civil society initiative to supplement it. The mission is already costing 1.4 billion ($1.92 billion) a year, with Germany carrying 100 million of those costs. If we don't take decisive action now, then this could go on for years. And each further year will cost another 1.4 billion. What we need right now is to think big, not small. We can't get too obsessed with the military and neglect civil reconstruction. That's why the government in Kinshasa must willingly take responsibility and we have to integrate them.
SPIEGEL: How do you propose doing that?
Kobler: We always have to think about tomorrow, about the next step. If we want to maintain the security that we have thus far achieved, then we need the Congolese army, the police and the state. Good governance is everything. Without security and stability there can be no good governance. That's way I want to lead the discussion away from pure military considerations.
SPIEGEL: It's an honorable plan, but it will also cost a lot of money. Who's going to pay for all the officers, police and judges?
Kobler: Primarily the government in Kinshasa. The international community can help, but responsibility lies with the government. And it also has the means to do so. The international community can step in in places where the means are lacking, but it can never replace the political will if it isn't there.
SPIEGEL: It's a will that hasn't always been present in the capital city of Kinshasa.
Kobler: It absolutely exists. When it comes to keeping the country unified, for example, or developing it or putting its natural resources to use.
SPIEGEL: But that's not sufficient to build up a country and provide it with working structures.
Kobler: The world doesn't change overnight. But we can see a positive trend. There is drive -- and we want to use it. It's now or never. There are no guarantees, but there are good chances.
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