Fall of Goma Shows MONUSCO's Failings

By Caelin Briggs
A MONUSCO peacekeeper with Congolese children in North Kivu.

At 4:00am on Saturday, the rebel group known as M23 attacked the town of Kibumba in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. Equipped with new night vision goggles and 120mm mortars, the rebels quickly overwhelmed the Congolese army (FARDC) and United Nations peacekeeping forces defending the town, which sits just outside the provincial capital of Goma.

Over the following 24 hours, M23 laid siege to the areas surrounding the capital. As they advanced toward the city, aid agencies evacuated staff, villages emptied as families fled, and FARDC and UN troops retreated. By Sunday afternoon, M23 had reached "the gates of Goma," and despite an offensive push by UN helicopters, the rebels surrounded the airport and appeared poised to enter the city. Midday on Tuesday, they did just that: with the FARDC having fled, M23 entered the city relatively unopposed.

The gravity of this recent wave of violence cannot be overstated. The advanced weapons used by the rebels seem to confirm that they have the support of the Rwandan government – an allegation leveled by a UN group of experts earlier this year. The fall of Goma has severe ramifications for humanitarian assistance as well, since aid operations for much of eastern DRC have been based there. But the loss of the city, and the displacement that has followed, also suggests that the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) cannot achieve its civilian protection mandate.

Directly in the path of M23’s destruction sat Kanyaruchinya camp, the largest spontaneous settlement of displaced persons in the DRC. Three miles from the front line at Kabati, Kanyaruchinya had sheltered between 60,000 and 80,000 internally displaced persons – many of whom had been living in the camp for months. As the fighting drew near however, it became increasingly clear that the UN peacekeepers would not be able to protect the camp. In the face of a seemingly imminent attack, the population fled.

By Monday morning, images from Kanyaruchinya showed a deserted camp, with M23 rebels standing triumphantly on the nearby hilltops. The site had been completely abandoned. Its inhabitants had fled on foot to Mugunga where they hoped to receive protection and aid from the UN Refugee Agency. Unfortunately, information has been slow to reach the displaced, and reports of bombings and artillery in Mugunga suggest that they may be running directly into the line of fire.

This is not the first time MONUSCO has failed to protect civilians in the DRC. Indeed, it is not the tenth, fiftieth, or even the hundredth time. But the scale of this most recent failure demands a rethinking of the way the UN team is implementing its protection mandate. The current system is, quite simply, not working; pretending that it is only serves to make the problem worse.

The UN Security Council must also demand accountability, both from the peacekeepers and from the governments supporting eastern DRC’s various rebel factions. Despite the many challenges, the Security Council must act decisively to defend the rights of civilians to protection. Without a serious commitment from all member states – and especially the veto powers – this crisis could get dramatically worse, with real consequences for the long-suffering Congolese people.