The killing of Italian ambassador Luca Attanasio is a horrible tragedy, but UN peacekeepers should stay the course at a time when the Congolese people are grappling with a dire humanitarian situation.

The World Food Programme (WFP) convoy in Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was attacked by a rebel group yesterday, killing at least three people including the Italian ambassador to Congo.

As of now, there has been no claim of responsibility for the attack.

Ambassador Luca Attanasio, 43, was much loved and cherished by the Congolese people. A local Congolese woman described him to me as “such an amazing and humble person.” Another, overwhelmed by his passing, called it “devastating.” I concur with their sentiments.

Needless to say, Attanasio’s assassination is going to have broader impact across Congo. Will it mark a turning point and lead the WFP to withdraw from Congo, due to violence and insecurity? Or will it place Congo, backed by the international community, on a course toward justice, peace and development?

Congo is teetering on the edge of human tragedy – and it could be of biblical proportions.

Attanasio’s assassination, which took place at 11.30am local time, came just days after a surge of Ebola cases in Butembo, near the scene of the attack. How will WHO officials continue contact tracing or Ebola vaccinations in such a climate?

Across the country, about 6.6 million Congolese are internally displaced because of violence and insecurity. Another 22 million people – approximately 1 in 5 Congolese – are facing starvation, according to WFP.

In a country where more than 5.4 million people were killed between 1998 and 2008 – mostly through starvation or disease – this is catastrophic.

Attanasio’s assassination is a despicable act, and it must be strongly condemned by the whole international community. To quote the UN Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General, David McLachlan-Karr, “those responsible should be identified and brought to justice.”

But it’s difficult for Congolese like me to believe the international community is going to act this time. Not least because behind the ongoing brutal attacks that killed Attanasio is a near total culture of impunity sanctioned by the international community, generating both inescapable violence and a climate of fear among the population.

Indeed, Attanasio’s assassination was predictable. Even I, thousands of miles away in London, knew that attacks against UN or foreign officials in the region had become a matter of when.

In fact, for nearly seven years the Beni Territory, a few miles from the scene of Attanasio’s killing, has been witnessing routine machete massacres which the international community has refused to tackle.

Not the first time

This was not the first callous attack directed at people whose only aim is to assist the Congolese people.

In 2018, the UN security council mandated two experts, an American Michael Sharp and a Swede Zaida Catalan, to investigate reports of four mass graves as well as a video of a mass killing in the Kasai region published by the New York Times. Both Sharp and Catalan were kidnapped in a government–controlled zone and then beheaded.

Their Congolese interpreter, Betu Tshintela, and driver, Isaac Kabuayi, and two unidentified motorbike drivers, are still missing.

UN investigators have since discovered an additional 76 mass graves, mostly in a government–controlled zone. Instead of holding Congo’s now former-president Joseph Kabila accountable for these killings, the international community turned a blind eye; ostensibly in return for a big mining contract.

Will this happen again after the attack on the WFP convoy?

What we know with certainty is Attanasio’s death is part of a systematic pattern of attacks against local people in North Kivu designed to convince Congolese people and those outside the country that the UN’s mission has failed in Congo and there is nothing the international community can do to salvage it.

Indeed, earlier this month, ten people were hacked to death in Beni. It was the seventh such grisly incident since the New Years’ Eve attack. There is real fear that more such attacks will take place in the coming days or weeks. We must not allow them to get away with it, or to determine the future of Congo.

Attanasio long believed that peace begins with justice – a diagnosis and prescription for a stable and functional Congo.

Will the international community support the creation of an international criminal tribunal to trial the unlawful killing of Congolese people - including the crimes Sharp and Catalan were killed for investigating - and end the near total culture of impunity that is fuelling the violence and insecurity that killed Attanasio?

Or, will they once again turn a blind eye in return for lucrative business contracts?

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