Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Twenty Years of Attempted United Nations Peacekeeping

Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Twenty Years of Attempted United Nations Peacekeeping

‘The year 2019 sees the UN’s peacekeeping efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) cross the threshold of 20 continuous years. Violence in the country endures despite numerous mandate expansions of the UN peacekeeping mission to a point where it now allows the use of proactive force for mandate implementation. Proactive force stands in opposition to the original concepts of UN peacekeeping, creating conflicting opinions within the authorising United Nations Security Council. The UN’s 20 years in the DRC tells a story of increasingly desperate measures without a mission completion in sight.’ 

By Matthew Wentworth

Origins of the Conflict

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been engulfed in conflict since 1996. The origins of the current violence lie in the massive refugee crisis and spill-over from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda after which Hutus involved in the genocide fled to the east of the DRC and formed armed groups. In response, opposing Tutsi and other opportunistic rebel groups arose. The Congolese government proved unable to control or defeat the various armed groups, some of which directly threatened populations in neighbouring countries and as a result, in 1998, the Second Congolese War broke out. The United Nations’ (UN) presence began just after the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement was negotiated in August 1999 between the DRC, and five other states in the region: Angola, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. It was the UN’s assumption that the Lusaka Agreement would mark the end of the Second Congolese War and that peacekeeping efforts would be necessary to manage the transition period. To this end, the UN deployed a small peacekeeping mission to the DRC with a mandate to observe the ceasefire, ensure disengagement of forces, and maintain liaison between all parties. This mission was titled the United Nations Organisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC).

MONUC: 1999 – 2010

What followed the Lusaka process however was not an end to the war but rather ‘the disintegration from a “rational” war’[i]into a number of privatised, socially, and economically motivated sub-conflicts situated in the east, mainly in the North and South Kivu region. This region alone held 132 active non-state armed actors, causing insecurity in the eastern part of the country and necessitating that MONUC remain deployed. The mission failed, however, in protecting civilians during the 2002 Kisangani Massacre leaving at least 160 dead at the hands of a Rwandan-backed rebel group. MONUC forces similarly failed to act in 2003 during violence in the Northeastern Ituri region. They were unable to stop the carnage, being unauthorised to intervene, and instead ‘hid in their well-protected bases as hundreds were slaughtered’[ii]. The UN troops were said to be unable, under-resourced, and poorly-equipped to halt the widespread killing, atrocities, and displacements throughout 2003[iii]. Due to this failure in the protection mandate, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan requested an EU Member State to head up a multi-national force to provide security and protection in Ituri. This was a significant move because it amounted to the UN acknowledging the failure of MONUC and requesting that an external body lend assistance. France agreed to be the framework nation and the European Council authorised an Interim Emergency Multinational Force (Operation Artemis). The mission suffered from a restrictive geographic remit of 15km2 (mainly the city of Bunia) which merely resulted in the relocation of the atrocities to the fringes of the towns where killings continued. The Interim European Military Force (IEMF), acting under Operation Artemis, though mandated to operate from June – September 2003, withdrew only three weeks after becoming concerned that the upcoming expiration of their authorised mandate would leave them without legal cover in the case of any incident. Nevertheless, the EU force did make progress with regards to civilian protection and in response, the UN, attributing the success to Operation Artemis’ use of force mandate, authorised in September 2003 an increase of military personnel to MONUC and sanctioned all necessary means to fulfil its mandate in the Ituri district and North and South Kivu. This was both a recognition of the difficulties with peacekeeping in an area where there is no peace and signified a shift towards a robust peacekeeping mandate with a more proactive use of force.

MONUSCO & The Fall of Goma

In 2010, further changes to the mission were made with ‘stabilisation’ being added to the mission’s title meaning it became the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO). The name change was seen by critical commentators to be an attempt at rebranding after criticisms from Human Rights Watch and others over MONUC’s lending of direct operational support to the Congolese Army in spite of their negative human rights record This support weakened MONUC’s legitimacy and tarnished its image in the eyes of the locals. With the updated MONUSCO mandate the UN recognised that the successful protection of civilians necessitated a more proactive use of force nationwide. Yet, in 2012, the ongoing cycle of violence, especially in the eastern provinces, remained. The most humiliating incident for MONUSCO came with the fall of the provincial capital of Goma in November 2012 to forces of the Rwanda-backed M23 rebel group. Goma, the capital of North Kivu, with a population of nearly one million, was overrun in the presence of 1500 UN peacekeepers, highlighting the failure of MONUSCO’s efforts to bring stability to the east. MONUSCO forces were unable to defend the city despite the fact that it had actually begun preparation for the M23 offensive as early as July of the same year, recognising that the fall of Goma would be ‘disastrous’[iv]. This was a massive breakdown of MONUSCO’s mandate implementation, most notably civilian protection and assisting the government in extending and protecting state authority[v].

The Force Intervention Brigade

In direct response to this failure of the UN peacekeeping mission, in February 2013, 11 regional countries agreed on a Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework for the DRC[vi]. This established a brigade-strength Neutral Intervention Force under the support of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and was a move to explicitly cut out the UN. However, with the estimated cost being £165 million it proved an unattainable goal. In a bid to salvage the last remnants of its reputation in the DRC after not being able to stop the M23 with the largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission in the world, the UN made a counter-proposal to establish and fund a Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), composed of troops from the SADC countries. The FIB was subsequently authorised in 2013, and the UN simultaneously mandated MONUSCO to ‘take all necessary measures to “neutralise” and “disarm” groups that were posing a threat to state authority and civilian security’[vii]. The UN was careful to explicitly state that the FIB was established on an exceptional basis in order to avoid creating a precedent or prejudice to the agreed principles of peacekeeping which fundamentally prohibits the use of force except in self-defence. Nevertheless, this assertion did not assuage the concerns of Security Council members who had long been opposed to the mandated use of force by UN missions, most notably China and Russia who warned that ‘what was once the exception now threatens to become the unacknowledged standard practice’[viii]. The two key concerns voiced were that peace-enforcement mandates to UN peacekeeping missions may compromise the impartiality of UN peacekeeping operations and jeopardise the safety and security of peacekeepers. It was feared that the use of force could increase the perception that the UN was taking sides and increase the risk of attacks against civilian and humanitarian personnel of the UN. Nevertheless, then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, labelled MONUSCO’s FIB a ‘milestone that signalled the resolve of the UN Security Council to address the changing nature of conflict and the operating environment of United Nations peacekeeping’[ix].

Despite Ban Ki-moon’s endorsement, concerns continue to grow, including the doctrinal criticism that the mandate to neutralise all armed groups implicitly presumes that all armed groups are hostile to peace processes and cannot or should not be integrated into a political process. Such mandates ignore the fact that there is an interconnected relationship between rebellion, bargaining, and shifting power relations[x], as evidenced by the events in the months following the start of the M23 rebellion. The fall of Goma forced the Congolese government back to the negotiating table in late 2012/early 2013 and resulted in the aforementioned Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework, a peace accord involving national, regional, and international players. The government recognised the dysfunction of the DRC’s state institutions as a root cause of the conflict and committed to substantial reforms to address them, including security sector reform, decentralisation, and democratic reform. 

In 2015, MONUSCO became the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world, its mandate has seen similarly dramatic expansions, including from 2007 onwards the extension of state authority, the protection of civilians, and use of surveillance drones being included in the mandate. The extension of MONUSCO’s mandate continues to push the boundaries of what can legitimately considered UN peacekeeping, but this has not been accompanied by a similar identifiable success in establishing or keeping peace in the country. The continued expansion of the use of force and acceptance of robust mandates has shown very little success for a mission that this year turns 20 years old and remains deployed with no clear path to successfully conclude the mission.

[i]Berdal, M. (2018) ‘The state of UN peacekeeping: Lessons from Congo’. Journal of Strategic Studies, 41(5). Pp.721-750.
[ii]Astill, J. (2003) ‘UN troops wait behind razor wire as Congo’s streets run with blood’. The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/may/23/congo.jamesastill [Accessed 6 June 2019].
[iii]Berdal (2018) ‘State of UN Peacekeeping’.
[iv]Tull, D. M. (2018) ‘The limits and unintended consequences of UN peace enforcement: the Force Intervention Brigade in the DR Congo’. International Peacekeeping, 25(2). Pp.167-190.
iv]BBC News (2012) ‘DR Congo M23 rebels 'enter Goma city'’. BBC News. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-20405739 [Accessed 1 June 2019].
[vi]Karlsrud, J. (2015) ‘The UN at war: examining the consequences of peace-enforcement mandates for the UN peacekeeping operations in the CAR, the DRC and Mali’. Third World Quarterly, 36(1). Pp.40-54.
[vii]Karlsrud (2015) ‘UN at War’.
[viii]UNSC Verbatim Record (25 April 2013) UN Doc S/PV.6952, 2.
[ix]Ban Ki-moon (2014) ‘Remarks at Security Council Open Debate on Trends in United Nations Peacekeeping’. UN Peacekeeping. [online] Available at: https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/remarks-security-council-open-debate-trends-united-nations-peacekeeping[Accessed on 30 May 2019].
[x]Tull (2018) ‘Limits and unintended consequences’.  

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