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Congolese human rights activists are looking forward to the deployment of European Union troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo prior to elections there this summer, but they still fear facing an ugly scenario: that the Europeans will only protect other Europeans from violence.

The planned E.U. force could play an important role if it can systematically protect ordinary civilians from possible clashes between the winners and the losers of the elections, or in other violent situations. The protection of civilians is the biggest challenge for the current U.N. mission in Congo, and the E.U. could provide crucial support, but that would require a “robust” mandate.

So far, though, the mandate of the E.U. force has not been clearly defined: there is mention of deterrence, of support to the U.N. peacekeeping force, and evacuation of foreign nationals. It would be a fatal error to evacuate Europeans to safety during a serious crisis while abandoning Congolese to their fate. Should an E.U. force be deployed, the protection of civilians must be at the core of its mission. This is not as unrealistic as it might sound: the E.U. has established protecting civilians as a goal in its common security and defense policy and it should now act to uphold that policy.

The E.U. troops must also be impartial. But France, which has made no secret of its open support for President Joseph Kabila, will have military command on the ground and therefore play a key role. The E.U. forces must react decisively to attacks on civilians, whether they come from Kabila’s troops or the forces of an unpopular warlord.

In debating a possible E.U. mission, policy makers should not lose sight of the bigger picture: E.U. troops will not be able to resolve Congo’s long-term problems.

Congo’s new army is composed of several former rebel groups and commits grave abuses, such as killings of civilians, rape and torture. The east of the country remains a war-zone, where both the regular army and rebel groups commit war crimes against civilians with impunity.

The Congolese justice system needs to be rebuilt and reformed. Until now, however, the E.U. has been reluctant to make this a true priority. Corruption and the extraction of natural resources are filling the coffers of politicians, warlords and foreign business people, while contributing to an increase in poverty for the population. Unless the E.U. creates a truly solid policy to help rebuild the rule of law, it will simply support a superficial political reform process that is not sustainable.

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