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Imagine you are a fresh-faced 20-something and have access to some of the most influential thinkers, policy-makers and professionals of our day. What would you want to ask them about the world and how it is run?
The students in Norman Cornett's Special Topics in Religion class often have just that opportunity. Seven seasoned experts met in late March with about 75 undergraduates to sit and talk about United Nations involvement and the role of peacekeepers in Congo
Cornett regularly organizes discussions where well-known and respected guests are invited to the class as dialogue partners with the students, with each group enjoying the opportunity for direct and engaging talks. In this case, Paul Cowan's documentary film The Peacekeepers, served as a launching point.
Since 1999, the UN has been headquartered in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, following a ceasefire agreement between warring groups. The area is known for its warlords, who enlist boys as child combatants for their armies. It is widely believed by many Congolese, as well as members of the international community, that the armed groups are supported by those with financial interests in Congo's valuable gold and mineral deposits. There are presently about 16,700 UN military personnel in Congo mandated to protect civilians and support the transitional government.
The guests in Cornell's class included former UN military advisors General Maurice Baril, chair of Pearson Peacekeeping Centre's board of directors, and Colonel Douglas Fraser, chief of programs for the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre.
Also invited were former Supreme Court justice and Wainwright Research Fellow Charles Gonthier; McGill religious studies professor Martin Rumscheidt, also secretary for the National Board of Project Ploughshares; McGill psychiatry and anthropology professor Ellen Corin and her husband Gilles Bibeau, anthropology professor at Université de Montréal, both of whom are well known for their extensive work in Congo; and, of course, NFB filmmaker Paul Cowan.
After Cornett presented some of the students' comments and thoughts on Congo, he opened the floor for questions. A student expressed her concern that laws were not bringing order to the people in Ituri, Congo, and that force would be needed to prosecute the warlords.
Baril responded that use of force is a particularly delicate issue for the UN since the troops do not belong to the UN but are given by member countries who often restrict how the troops can be used. "You have to be extremely careful with the lives of the men and women under your command. When you use force you've got to be prepared to live with the consequence of the casualties you're going to create because there's never a clean fight. There are always innocent people that are killed. So ‘using force' is easy to say but difficult to do."
Another student said she felt a lot of guilt watching events unfold in Congo and wondered if guilt is the strongest motivator for countries to help. Does the UN presence in Congo make any difference?
"If the UN hadn't stepped in in May of 2003, the situation in Bunia would have gotten worse. Instead of 300 or 400 people getting killed it would have been 3,000 or 4,000 people getting killed," replied Cowan.
Corin added that working within a society and with people from that society is essential to making changes. "When we spoke to our African colleagues, their vision of the whole enterprise was very negative. They see these kind of neocolonizers coming to bring the peace and it's a very difficult thing for the people to accept."
"Corruption is always a problem in peacekeeping organizations such as the UN, as well as within countries themselves. How does it make all of you feel personally and what do you think has to be done to prevent that and to eliminate corruption?" asked another student.
Gonthier said he was in Kinshasa and was part of a group that developed Congo's human rights commission. "One of the things I insisted on was to identify what people think are positive values. Positive values of humanity are essentially the same throughout the world and play out in different ways. You have to identify them, see how you can work on the basis of those values and how you can help the people realize these values as they understand them and as they can commit themselves to them."
Corin added that it is important to also identify positive people in the society, as not everyone is corrupt, and to work with these people to effect changes.
Bibeau said, "If you use leaders who are not involved with the warlords, you may rebuild something. I spent many years in the villages watching the ethical system working. It's not true at all that this country needs another ethical system of human rights framed by the Western world."
Fraser acknowledged that there have been recent reports on the Oil for Food Program and sexual abuses by UN forces in Congo, but said that the corruption scandals have to be put into perspective. "The great majority of UN officials, and forces on loan from UN member states, are not corrupted. They're out there doing a difficult job."
According to Rumscheidt, Project Ploughshares' World Armed Conflicts Map in 2003 showed that 15 of the 36 armed conflicts in the world were in Africa. An OXFAM Canada study said that Africa had 77 percent of the world's deaths due to armed conflict from 1994 to 2004. He pointed out that there is enormous wealth in the forests, water and underground deposits in Africa.
"My work with the truth and reconciliation commission in Africa taught me that the West became interested in dealing with apartheid and the pleas of the Blacks for help only when it became clear that the investment the West had made in South Africa was threatened. When would it move our political leaders to intervene not only so that capitalism can continue to flourish, but also to do it in a peaceful way so that armed conflicts, supported by the international arms race, could be stopped?"
One student was critical of the role of Western countries in contributing to problems. "I felt anger and guilt watching the movie because I knew it wasn't occurring in a vacuum. The UN is trying to put out a fire that the West is dumping gasoline on at the same time. Where are all these diamonds and gold ending up once it gets through all the hands and what are we giving them in return -- basically weapons?"
Cowan said that by the time the weapons reach Congolese hands they have been through so many hands it is hard to track the source. He said there are efforts being made to disarm the young combatants in the region, but "you have to give the people something better to offer in exchange for giving up their guns. Right now the First World is not giving them any reason to give up their guns."
Baril pointed out that while there are criticisms of the resources the UN puts into areas like Congo, it all comes down to the will of the member countries and how much they are willing to commit. "There are a lot of problems with the UN, but the UN is us. It's all of us and we should all take credit for the success of the UN or the blame for the failure of the UN. It's always the international community, which is the UN, that pulls the plug on mission."