UN considers withdrawal of peacekeepers from DRC

UN discusses withdrawal of peacekeepers from DRC. Burma-North Korea ties create new headache for US. Rise in birth defects in Fallujah may be linked to US weapons. German court jails bomb plotters for foiled attacks. Nigerian rebel group claims attack on Italian oil facility. All this and more in today's security briefing.

A new UN-supported operation against Rwandan rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo was launched at the weekend, according to a statement made by Alan Doss, head of the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC on Wednesday.

The operation, comprising a targeted series of attacks against Rwandan rebel militias such as the Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation de Rwanda (FDLR), active in North and South Kivu provinces, will involve eighteen battalions of Congolese army (FARDC) forces. According to Lambert Mende, minister of information in the Kinshasa government, although two battalions have already begun operations, the remaining sixteen have not yet been selected. MONUC is providing support to FARDC forces in the form of rations, logistics and medical support. According to Mende, the operations are going “very, very well”.

In a related development, Alain le Roy, the UN head of peacekeeping missions, told reporters in Kinshasa on Wednesday that the UN would form a working group to discuss the withdrawal of MONUC from the DRC. MONUC’s mandate was renewed in December 2009 for only five months, a clear signal of UN support for a review the mission’s status and mandate. Le Roy said that the working group has been given one month to assess how MONUC can begin drawing down its presence in DRC. However, questions have been raised about FARDC’s capacity to take over MONUC operations.

The openSecurity verdict: The relatively sudden pressure on MONUC to withdraw from DRC, ramped up gradually over the last few months, indicates that there are clearly problems in the relationship between the Kinshasa government and MONUC. What is less clear is the reason for this sudden disenchantment. The Security Council’s February report on DRC highlights this as an issue to be investigated.

Kabila has been applying pressure on MONUC to begin drawdown preparations in time for the country’s fiftieth independence celebrations on 30 June this year. In November 2009, Congolese diplomats approached the UN about a reduction of peacekeeping forces in what is now the world’s largest peacekeeping mission.

In response to this pressure, the UN Security Council voted through resolution 1906 in December 2009, extending MONUC’s mandate for just five months. According to the UN, this was a clear recognition of the need to address Kinshasa’s growing concerns about MONUC, and an indication of the Security Council’s support for a review of MONUC’s status and mandate. Resolution 1906 also established the mission’s priorities, identified as the protection of civilians, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR), and security sector reform (SSR), focusing on volatile eastern DRC. The latest joint operations announced this week are reportedly informed by these priorities.

While the UN’s responsiveness to the mood in Kinshasa should be seen in a positive light, its decision to begin considering a withdrawal of MONUC might well be premature. In 2008, a UN technical assessment team tasked with deciding how MONUC might draw down its operations in relatively stable western DRC, recommended that such a task could take up to two years to complete.

Furthermore, MONUC’s withdrawal is supposed to be predicated – according to the Kinshasa government – on accomplishing the security sector reforms in the east that the December 2009 resolution highlighted. As many analysts point out, this task remains far from incomplete. The South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) highlights the example of the first rapid reaction battalion, trained by South African forces in 2008, which has now “disappeared from view”. ISS also point to a lack of cooperation between key agencies on these tasks as a key obstacle to these reforms.

In light of these facts, Kinshasa’s claims to have a viable force to take over control of MONUC tasks is debatable, to say the least. The UN’s willingness to discuss withdrawal by 2011 suggests the discussion is taking place on the basis of political considerations, rather than a realistic assessment of conditions on the ground.

But concerns extend beyond the technical capacity of Congolese armed forces, or Congolese determination of the peacebuilding process. On 13 December 2009, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting the deliberate killing of 1,400 civilians and a dramatic rise in sexual violence, perpetrated by certain FARDC units during the UN-supported Kimia II operation and its predecessor. While these chilling statistics clearly show that security sector reform still has a long way to go, they also highlight the very real risks to civilians that will be posed if MONUC pulls out too rapidly, without achieving the rather limited objectives agreed last December.

Growing ties between North Korea and Burma cause concern in Washington

Officials of the United States government in Washington have begun an ‘aggressive campaign’ to persuade the Burmese military junta to cease buying military technology from North Korea. The announcement highlights a growing concern in the US about the increasingly close between the two regimes, and may cement the will to tackle the situation in Burma that the regime’s appalling human rights record has so far failed to generate.

Evidence of the strengthening relationship between North Korea and Burma was seen in public celebrations last month marking the reclusive North Korean leader’s birthday, which were attended by several top-ranking Burmese generals. According to The Irrawaddy magazine, top generals in the Burmese military hierarchy made a secret visit last year to North Korean military installations. The Irrawaddy also reports that military analysts believe North Korea has supplied weapons, military technology and expertise regarding the concealment of military installations.

US fears about the transfer of military technology to Burma were first highlighted last year by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and later by US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Russell in a visit to Burma. The US government fears that, with North Korean help, the Burmese junta may attempt to develop nuclear weapons, using Russian-provided nuclear technology intended for power generation.

Rise in birth defects in Fallujah may be linked to US weapons

According to reports emerging today, doctors in the Iraqi city of Fallujah have noted a rise in birth defects over the last six years, which some are blaming on weapons used by the US army. The birth defect rate is reportedly at least thirteen times higher in Fallujah than in Europe, with cardiac defects, tumours, nervous system problems and other abnormalities reported.   According to a report by John Simpson, the BBC world affairs editor, local doctors have warned women in Fallujah not to have children.

The US army conducted a large scale ground offensive against the city six years ago. However, the military says it is not aware of any studies indicating a link between its weapons and a rise in birth defects. Any such evidence would pile further criticism on an operation that’s immediate destructive impact has already been resolutely damned by many observers. A group of British and Iraqi officials have called on the UN to investigate the claims.

According to the BBC, parents in Fallujah are certain that US weapons is to blame for the birth defects. Iraqi doctors are reluctant to draw direct links between the rise in defects and the American weapons used six years ago in the absence of comprehensive data.

German court jails plotters for foiled attacks

A Düsseldorf court today convicted four men of conspiracy to murder and belonging to a terrorist organisation, after they came close to carrying out a bomb plot in 2007. According to the presiding judge, the men had plotted “a monstrous bloodbath” using car bombs against American targets in Germany, including a military base. The plotters, two of them recent converts to Islam, had intended to time their attack to coincide with a vote in the German legislature on German-US relations. The convicted men, three Germans and a Turkish citizen, were members of a radical Islamist organisation known as Islamic Jihad Union. They were sentenced to between five and twelve years in prison.

Nigerian rebel group claim responsibility for attack on Italian oil facility

The Joint Revolutionary Council (JRC), a coalition of rebels without a history of attacks on oil installations, has today claimed its second such hit this week, against an Agip facility in Tura in Nigeria’s oil-rich delta region.  The group also claimed an attack on a facility belonging to Royal Dutch Shell on Wednesday. Although Shell has confirmed an explosion at its unmanned facility, there has been no independent verification of today’s attack.

The attacks of the last two days represent a potential breakdown in a ceasefire agreement between oil militants and the Nigerian government made last year. Former president Umaru Yar’Adua made bringing peace to the restive delta region a top priority for his administration, after unrest between 2006 and 2009 cut Nigeria’s oil production to less than two-thirds of its capacity. However, Yar’Adua’s subsequent illness and three-month absence from the country have led to increasing agitation from oil militants, complaining that the government is failing to keep its part of the bargain.

These recent attacks come at a time when the current president, Goodluck Jonathan, who stepped up to replace Yar’Adua last month, is desperately trying to stabilise the country after three months of political turmoil. His own status as president has recently been called into question  by the ruling political party, with further obstacles to his government’s ability to quell unrest in the delta likely.