The UN Strikes Back: Intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

It’s been a long time in the making, but the UN has finally bared its teeth. With the recent authorization of an unprecedented offensive combat force, the United Nations Security Council made a major effort to address the menace of armed and violent factions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The MONUSCO peacekeeping force will now have the ability to actively hunt down rebels and other groups committing crimes in the eastern DRC.

Image courtesy of United States Government, © 2009, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of United States Government, © 2009, some rights reserved.

This extension of a greater mandate is extremely important because it gives the UN forces the ability to make a difference in a chaotic area where previously they have been unable to act effectively. Thousands of combatants, and millions of others, have died in conflicts throughout the DRC in the past several decades, and the violence seems to spring up constantly. This is not to say that the DRC is hopelessly violent or doomed, but that the conflict demands the world’s attention, particularly in the eastern part of the country.

In addition to M23, a number of other armed groups, such as the Rwandan Hutu Power group the FDLR, various ‘Mai-mai’ militias aligned with specific villages and warlords, and varied ethnic militias, threaten the security of the eastern DRC. These groups, most of which are descended in some form from the devastating Congo Wars, are in a constantly simmering state of war between each other, the DRC’s army (FARDC), and UN peacekeeping forces. Some of the groups originate primarily within the DRC, while others are from, or at least backed by, other states such as Rwanda.

The UN’s interest in the region is not just political stability: most of the armed groups are guilty of a wide range of human rights abuses. Rape and murder are regularly used by the armed groups to control the civilian populations in their territories, and many use child soldiers as well. The conflicts have created hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced peoples, fleeing in fear of ethnic violence and tyrannical local rulers. The inhumanity of the situation cries out for the UN to dedicate extensive resources to stopping the violence.

Effectively all potential remedies have been tried to alleviate the violence in the region. Diplomacy, power-sharing agreements, and some force were all used to bring an end to the largest conflicts, but smaller armed groups have persisted in violence.

In the past, MONUSCO’s mandate has allowed it to fight while directly protecting civilian populations, but its low levels of personnel and materiel made it incapable of being effective at even that. Late last year, when the advance of M23 Rebels approached MONUSCO’s headquarters near Goma, the peacekeepers fought the rebels back briefly, but eventually retreated out of the path of the rebels, and did not play a major role in M23’s later voluntary exit from Goma. M23 has been suffering from internal infighting recently, but it remains able to threaten Goma, and without an offensive mandate, MONUSCO was powerless to hinder them.

This resolution may be a forlorn hope, but it is because of this that it is such a good resolution. Everything short of offensive peace-making operations has been tried. And failed. The UN resolution creating the Intervention Brigade has gained widespread support, receiving the unanimous vote of the UNSC. The unanimous vote is noteworthy because Rwanda sits on the UNSC. In fact, Rwanda’s seat on the rotating presidency of the Security Council means that it could have substantially slowed the resolution if it had wished.

Rwanda’s presence on the UNSC could have placed something of a damper on efforts to bring more stability to the eastern DRC. M23’s status as a virtual proxy for the Rwandan state means that Kigali has not previously been very interested in stopping them. It is unclear why exactly Rwanda voted for the resolution, but there are several things that may have factored in Kigali’s decision.

It is worth noting that the resolution calls out the FDLR by name in a clause where M23 is the only other armed group specifically mentioned. The FDLR is descended from the groups that carried out the Rwandan Genocide, and was originally used as a DRC proxy force in Rwanda. After the Genocide it generally operated in the DRC, but has carried out attacks across the Rwandan border and on Tutsis in the DRC, for whom Rwanda considers itself partially responsible. By specifically calling out the FDLR, and probably committing to ensure that MONUSCO fights it, the UN probably helped gain Rwanda’s backing.

It’s always unwise to underestimate the value of personal relationships and face-to-face negotiations, and they probably played a role in the intervention brigade vote. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, on the tail end of a trip to the Americas, stopped in New York to meet with the US’s UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Rice has been criticised in the past for being to close with Kagame’s regime, but in this case, that may have been a boon, allowing Rice to convince Kagame to support UN intervention.

No matter the reason for Rwanda’s support for the resolution, it is quite welcome. I have not been very positive about Rwanda’s foreign policy in the past, so this is a good step forward.

Of course, neither an expanded peacekeeping force nor any other efforts are guaranteed to improve the situation in the eastern DRC. The development of a more specific strategy than just giving a portion of MONUSCO more authority will be necessary to make a significant difference. It also remains to be seen whether MONUSCO will have enough personnel and materiel to carry out its mandate. The task will not be easy, but hopefully the UN’s new, fuller commitment to the region will make a positive difference.

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