The current UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has its origins in an observation mission in 1999 at a time when the Second Congo War was in progress and the forces of nine countries and numerous militias were fighting in the country. Then known as MONUC it became MONUSCO in 2010, with its size reaching over 20,000 when uniformed and non-uniformed personnel are taken into account. While it has provided valuable support to civilians in the DRC it has also been beset by failures and controversies, the most damaging being that troops from the UN force have themselves been involved in human rights violations. In 2017 over 600 troops were withdrawn because of allegations of sexual abuse after repeated warnings to their battalion commander. Another low point was the capture of the eastern city of Goma by the rebel M23 group in 2012, which resulted in the creation of a Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) with a mandate to ‘neutralise’ armed groups. This indicated a move from peacekeeping, which is based on consent, to peacemaking, which is based on enforcement. It also led to the demise of M23.
The task of the UN force was never going to be an easy one and, in the case of MONUSCO, its primary aims have been to protect civilians and humanitarians and support the government of the DRC in its stabilisation and peace consolidation efforts. This was based on a flawed assumption that after the the Global and All-Inclusive Agreement ended the Second Congo War and with establishment of the transitional government the phase of armed violence was over and the DRC was now in a post-conflict state. Clearly, this was not the case, and the violence in the east rumbled on while the Congolese Army confronted an alphabet soup of militias, some of whom were fighting each other and supported by external parties, with the Hutu-Tutsi conflict a major factor in ensuring Rwanda’s involvement. This has put a UN force alongside the forces of the government who themselves have faced accusations of war crimes and major human rights violations. What the UN is being asked to do is fact manage numerous micro-conflicts that flare up where there is no UN presence, while at the same time dealing with major groups such as the M23 and FDLR, and at times working alongside a brutal Congolese Army prone to fracture. In effect, MONUSCO is there at the consent of a government that has no real control in the east and whose legitimacy is questioned now that the political conflict between the government and the opposition has escalated. The consequences of the latter have been seen in Kasai Central, as described last week, while the instability in the east is not helped by entrenched ethnic differences and the spoils of war to be gained from mineral deposits. It is a tragedy that in March of this year the UN Security Council voted to reduce the number of peacekeepers by 3000 while massacres continued and Central Kasai was imploding. The United States, for one, had become frustrated at the partnering of MONUSCO with a ‘corrupt government in Congo’ and the UN themselves had been the subject of protests in the east.
One problem is that the population has a mistrust of regionally sourced peacekeepers, whom they see as potentially biased, another that the country has not been effectively demilitarised. The anti-UN protests are most likely borne of frustration that the key role of protection is not being achieved and that, in some cases but not all, the protectors have themselves become exploiters. This is an ignoble outcome for a force that has in fact had a positive impact by providing some security over none and whose under-resourced troops have actively combated rebel groups such as M23. The loss of nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers in 2005 has not prevented Bangladesh from being the third largest contributor of troops to MONUSCU in 2017 (after Pakistan and India). Solutions are not easy to come by, and while military force has proven successful against large groups it is difficult to apply to militias of small size who can easily blend into the population. This requires a different approach more akin to counterinsurgency, which in turn requires effective policing and political reform, itself closer to the original aims of MONUSCU. To be clear, to really work MONUSCO needs more resources, not less, which is effectively asking the UN Security Council to provide more funds for what has become the most expensive peace operation it manages. There also needs to be a clear separation of the ‘blue helmets’ from the Congolese Army in order to engender trust. It is one thing to police by consent, another to actively fight alongside one of the participants in a conflict. Currently, MONUSCO is being asked to do ‘more with less’ when it should be asked to do ‘less with more’.
Ultimately the solutions to the crises besetting the DRC lay within the Global and All-Inclusive Agreement and commitment to an effective political transition to genuine representation. This failed spectacularly in Kasai Central and the consequences were dire in a region distant from the UN focus in the east. Peacekeeping forces are rarely equipped to rapidly deploy to another area and to stop the violence in Kasai would have required a rapid deployment capability that few countries have. It would also have been a military action of the type carried out by the British in Sierra Leone or the French in Mali, both of which were short, and were military interventions not peacekeeping. Peace in the DRC is a long way off, but it begins at the top, with President Kabila and both the government and the opposition committing to free and fair elections and accepting the results. The current situation is adding to the country’s problems, not helping them, and is risking further conflagrations and intervention from neighbouring states. The warnings that the DRC is in danger of further escalation should be heeded and pressure put on the government and opposition to work together. It is long term political reform that will bring the peace for the people of the DRC and a MONUSCO with a clearly defined mission and adequate support will help this, but is not in itself the solution.
Next week: The Africa series, a review.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator