The conflict in the Eastern Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has intensified since the formation of the armed rebel “23 March movement” or M23, in April 2012. The movement has pursued armed confrontation with the Congolese army (the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or FARDC) and with the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) in the eastern regions of the country.
Things came to a head on the 20th of November, as the advancing M23 forces marched into Goma, a city of 1 million people in the east of the country on the border with Rwanda. They took the city and routed the FARDC without any great effort, right under MONUSCO forces’ collective nose, with not so much as a shot fired. The M23 has since pulled out of the city in an agreement with the government, but continues to represent a real threat, holding position in close proximity to the city.
The outpouring of shock from the international community at the lack of any MONUSCO action or resistance brought new force to some old questions: have the international community’s efforts to stabilize the region been successful? Of what use is the UN mission to the DRC?
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius did not mince his words in giving his answer on the day that Goma fell, calling it “absurd” that a force as large as MONUSCO could cede Goma to the M23. His Belgian counterpart Didier Reynders could not contain his frustration either, exclaiming, “It is the largest United Nations operation in the world! 17,000 men! How is it that this cannot stop a rebellion?” The men added their voices to a growing call to revamp MONUSCO’s mandate in the region, deploring that the UN force, which is mandated only to “protect[…] citizens” and to “assist the [Congolese] government” in stabilizing the region, could not engage the M23 unless it was to protect civilians from imminent danger.
But given the complexity of the conflict and the record of the Congolese government MONUSCO is charged with supporting, elevating MONUSCO’s military role would do little to address the root causes of instability and violence in the Congo. MONUSCO needs to be a force for stability in a diverse field of international actors, and it needs to help provide for a more durable system of civilian protection—one that resonates far beyond the battlefield.
Backing the Wrong Horse
The UN mission in the DRC, for all its faults, has achieved some success in protecting civilians from the bullets of rival factions, and has also contributed somewhat to stabilization projects in the region. The UN force was known as MONUC (the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo) until 2010, when it received a change in mandate and became today’s MONUSCO.
The new mandate kept an emphasis on protecting civilians, but with the added provision that UN forces needed to support the Congolese army in order to achieve this goal. This is perhaps the largest contradiction in this ill-fated African mission. On one hand MONUSCO officials are tasked with protecting civilians and ensuring peace, but on the other they are forced to do so in support of and in cooperation with the FARDC—a military that, according to many reports, actively contributes to insecurity and human rights abuses in the region. Stories of field commanders stationed in the eastern regions getting their personal rations flown in to them from the capital, Kinshasa, are but mild examples of corruption. More serious are the countless allegations of rape, torture, murder, and other human rights violations committed by the FARDC. Elements of the Congolese army also retain control of certain mines in the region, contributing to the smuggling of precious metals used in computers and phones across the border to Rwanda. Under a mandate that requires it to support and cooperate with one of the parties committing these crimes (to be sure armed rebel groups such as the M23 actively commit the same types of abuses), it is unclear how MONUSCO can properly achieve its goal of protecting civilians.
The idea of a stabilization force in support of the Congolese army does not make much sense when larger geopolitical considerations are taken into account either. The M23 is a movement born of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), a pro-Tutsi armed group that took part in the Kivu conflict, fighting Congolese forces before coming to an accord for peace in 2009. But the M23, as a recent UN report states, enjoys the support of the Rwandan and Ugandan governments. In supporting the Congolese forces, MONUSCO finds itself entangled in what is essentially a proxy war.
The current shape of this $1.4-billion-a-year mission is further jeopardized by a lack of cooperation in Kampala and Kigali, but also in Kinshasa—Presidents Joseph Kabila in the DRC, Paul Kagame in Rwanda, and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda have heavily criticized the mission. Kabila, whose government was also recently involved in blocking the transmission of Radio Okapi, a Congolese radio station run jointly by MONUSCO and the Swiss Foundation Hirondelle, has on several occasions called for the UN’s departure.
A Peace-Building Force
MONUSCO has been tasked to cooperate with the DRC to stabilize the region, but neither cooperation nor stability is anywhere to be seen. It is time to rethink MONUSCO and the international community’s approach to the chronic lack of security and development in this region, starting from the old question: What good are peacekeepers when there is no peace to keep?
MONUSCO, with its impressive budget and resources, can set the tone for international intervention emphasizing fundamental changes for solid peace building. This must begin with a couple of concrete changes.
First, MONUSCO needs to put more emphasis on effective and holistic security reform in its engagement with the Congolese government and security sector. The FARDC is an ineffective and disorganized body that has a hard time fulfilling its duty to protect its citizens or territory. It is composed, among other elements, of disparate armed groups, whose leaders have been co-opted and simply absorbed into the army. This engenders a number of problems, chief among which are impunity and predatory behavior. Mvemba Dizolele, at visiting fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, characterized the FARDC as “a patchwork of militias with parallel command structures and no incentives to change.”
The country has seen numerous efforts to reform its security sector over the past 15 years, both from foreign donors and from the government itself. The central problem is a lack of political will in Kinshasa. Although some accounts say the state has made baby steps in laying the groundwork for reform in the army, this is only a fraction of the urgent task at hand. The justice and policing systems in the country are still woefully underfunded, and there is no consensus on any radical steps to reform the armed forces.
But in addition to inadequate funding, the plethora of trainings and programs by donor countries and organizations have not been able to assist the country in carrying out systematic, coherent, and comprehensive reforms. MONUSCO should respond to this by consolidating the individual efforts undertaken by the United States, France, Belgium, South Africa, and others. It should extend the concept of security beyond the armed forces to include more active involvement of the judicial system, the police, and also local communities and civil society. Creating a more accountable and reliable security sector capable of placing the individual at the center of security is one of the most urgent reforms needed in the country, and an area where MONUSCO can make a clear contribution.
International efforts will also have to focus on creating a more accountable and present government in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is closely related to the previous point, and rooted in the fact that the principles of good governance and transparency are needed in Kinshasa as well as in the forests close to the fighting. Basic steps such as examining and adjusting the balance of state powers or boosting the technical capacities of the executive and legislative branches’ oversight organizations are intrinsically tied to stability in the Kivu region. These are areas in which MONUSCO has initiated several programs that have not been given the funding or attention necessary to be carried out effectively.
In order to fulfill its goal of bringing about stability in the region, MONUSCO needs to rethink the composition of its force, reset its budget priorities, and rework its international mandate. Changes must be made to encourage a long-term peace in the region. These changes do not come at the tip of a gun, but rather through developmental work on security sector reform and rule of law. These changes must take the peaceful community and the secure individual as its goal, and not shy away from participatory methodologies and collective efforts to reduce tensions and violence born of land, resource, or identity conflicts.
It is not enough to demand that MONUSCO be able to fire more freely on armed rebel groups. To escape the contradiction of the peace-keeping force, MONUSCO needs to become a peace-building force—a true catalyst for the international community’s support in stabilizing the Congo.