Can UN troops protect UK investments?

Last week, human rights types were up in arms about this news:

Britain’s new government has signalled its willingness to become “candid friends” of Sudan’s regime and boost trade and business ties, in defiance of US sanctions. Two weeks after the International Criminal Court added genocide to prior war crimes charges against Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, Henry Bellingham, the UK’s new minister for Africa, told journalists in Khartoum that Britain hoped to encourage investment in the country, particularly in the oil and service sectors.

“We voiced our concern about certain issues but we also said we want the relationship to be a strong one and one where UK bilateral trade will increase,” said Mr Bellingham. His comments reflect a broader shift in UK foreign policy under the new coalition government, which wants to prioritise commercial interests. Over the past week, Mr Bellingham has been lobbying on behalf of British business in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

If this is a morally complex issue (and U.S. sanctions on Sudan make business there even more complicated) my instinct on reading this was “this is great for the UN!”

Why so? British firms, even those with cowboy tendencies, will recognize that Congo, Sudan and Uganda are  risky propositions.  The chance of conflict in southern Sudan next year is high, for reasons I alluded to last week.  Northern Uganda, long plagued by the Lord’s Resistance Army, is still at risk of renewed violence, not to mention the recent emergence of Islamist terrorism.  The Congo remains exceedingly fragile.  Is it safe to invest our rather sparse remaining wealth in such places?  The UK thinks so.

The Ugandan Observer reports today that DfID is sinking money into the country:

DFID, the UK’s Department for International Development, has offered 16.6 million pounds to rebuild northern Uganda, and lay a strong foundation for business opportunities. Jane Rintoul, the Head of DFID office in Uganda, estimated that the money will create 20,000 jobs, although such estimates tend to be conservative.

But in Sudan and the Congo, one factor in making investments safe is still the presence of UN peacekeepers – over 20,000 in Congo and  9,000 in oil-rich South Sudan.  Neither force is perfect (I bang on about their imperfections) but both at least provide a bit of a bulwark against future violence.  If they weren’t in place, ministers might be talking about reducing large-scale killing, not boosting investment.

There has been speculation that the Congo force will drawn down under pressure from the government of Joseph Kabila.  There’s been behind-the-scenes diplomacy to dissuade Kabila, but Alice Richard and I recently asked how long this can last:

Some cash-strapped EU governments are starting to ask whether it is still worth ploughing funds into Congo. “Congo is not cool anymore,” says one European diplomat. Other humanitarian crises, from Haiti to Sudan, have priority.

Clearly the new UK government does think the Congo is cool. Let’s hope that this means that Britain will continue to play a constructive role on stabilizing central Africa both through the UN and in the region. UN officials have been talking about setting up a regional political office to help coordinate diplomacy around the Great Lakes – British diplomats are rumored to be skeptical about the proposal. Perhaps they should treat it as a loss-leader in the struggle to advance commercial interests abroad?