The eastern D.R. Congo is closer to full-scale war than it's been in five years. Last week, CNDP rebel leader Laurent Nkunda threatened to turn his insurrection into a country-wide civil war (his spokesperson rushed to say that he wasn't going to actually start a war of that nature on Friday). Predictably, Nkunda's comments threw the diplomats into a tizzy, and the MONUC peacekeeping mission isn't messing around anymore.
The problem, as everyone who follows this situation knows, is that there aren't enough peacekeepers there to secure the entire territory. Critics of the UN will point to the fact that there are almost 19,000 peacekeepers in-country, making MONUC by far the largest peacekeeping operation the UN has ever undertaken. But it took 16,000 peacekeepers to secure tiny Kosovo, and those were well-funded and well-equipped NATO forces. Kosovo's 1/3 the size of Belgium; D.R. Congo's the size of western Europe.
There are also 20,000 rebels, give or take a few thousand as nobody really has an accurate count.
UN officials are asking for more peacekeepers to be committed to the territory, but the UN can't force countries to send troops. The countries that will send troops to a place like Congo tend to be poorer ones with militaries that aren't always the most professionally trained and well-equipped. Wealthy countries' populations won't tolerate the deaths of their soldiers in a foreign country where they see little strategic interest in intervention.
Meanwhile the people suffer. Ethnic tensions are very, very high in North Kivu, and it's only going to get worse.
For some of my job applications, I've written sample course syllabi and outlines. One of my potential courses is about human security issues, that is, issues that threaten human well-being, which includes everything from poverty to war to environmental degradation. In imagining that course, I decided to make one week's discussion be about the ethical questions surrounding humanitarian interventions. The question I want to ask students - the question I've never adequately answered for myself - is whether there's there a moral obligation to intervene when people are suffering when we know the cost will be high, and when we have nothing strategic to gain from intervening.
It's not as easy as it sounds. Do you send one kid to die so that another can live? Do you make people who've pledged to defend their country risk everything for people they never volunteered to save? Do you define the national interest in narrow terms so you can avoid the difficult questions?