Peacekeeping in the DRC – Time for a Reality Check

By Caelin Briggs

The recent surge of violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, culminating in the fall of the provincial capital of Goma to members of the M23 rebel group, is first and foremost a human tragedy. Though M23 has now withdrawn from the city and agreed to peace talks, 130,000 people remain displaced, with many forced to flee from camp to camp in search of safety.

But the rise of M23 is also the most recent phase of a conflict cycle that has plagued the Kivus since the mid 1990s. Like the many invasions and atrocities that came before it, this latest phase will likely prompt a great deal of debate about what happened during the takeover of the city, who bears responsibility, and what can be done to prevent a future recurrence. And with new reports of troops massing near Goma and the Rwandan border, that debate clearly cannot be delayed.

In the aftermath of this embarrassing incident, culpability has been assigned to both the Congolese army (FARDC) and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO). While there is blame enough to go around, it is important that we clearly understand the respective roles – and failings – of both groups. Only with that understanding can we make the kinds of reforms that will better protect Congolese civilians and bring stability to the volatile Kivu provinces.

Under international law, the primary responsibility for reining in and disbanding the rebels lies with the Congolese government and the FARDC. Unfortunately, President Joseph Kabila’s control over his troops in North Kivu is only marginal. More than a decade’s worth of attempts at integrating rebel forces into the FARDC in North Kivu have left the army saturated with M23 sympathizers, whose motivation for fighting is limited at best.

To say that the FARDC troops have been ineffectual would be an understatement for the seditious and often predatory behavior exhibited by the Congolese army. Not only has the FARDC become renowned for fleeing in the face of danger, but they have gained equal notoriety for their use of rape and civilian attacks, and for their frequent mass defections to local rebel movements.

Of course, MONUSCO is hardly a paragon of efficacy either. Both it and its predecessor, MONUC, have been publicly criticized for a series of high-profile protection failures, and the UN has now lost much of its credibility with wide portions of the civilian population. Despite this, civilians fearing imminent attack continue to flock to MONUSCO bases, recognizing that whatever its flaws, MONUSCO remains the only source of possible protection in a troubled region.

MONUSCO's current peacekeeping mandate is predicated upon the Congolese government taking primary responsibility for protection of civilians. MONUSCO is not designed to replace FARDC, only to support them. So when we say that MONUSCO failed – as many did when M23 entered Goma without much resistance from the blue helmets – what we're really saying is that their mandate failed.

MONUSCO's mandate is inherently flawed in that it presumes a constructive partnership with FARDC that does not exist. Far from acting as a cohesive, protective force, the Congolese army has all too often been the perpetrator of the very rights abuses the international community so readily condemns. If FARDC does not uphold their mandate, it is impossible for MONUSCO to execute their own.

What is needed now is not an expansion of MONUSCO's mandate or the creation of a new “neutral force”: what is needed is a reality check. Only after we acknowledge that FARDC is not a meaningful force for the protection of civilians can we begin to consider how to better support MONUSCO and its peacekeeping efforts.

The international community’s inaction and incoherence has allowed the FARDC to collapse and, by extension, failed the citizens of eastern Congo. For years, the DRC’s main foreign backers have satisfied themselves with half-hearted security sector reform, instead of pushing for a comprehensive and coordinated overhaul. Rather than forming a united front in their discussions with Kinshasa, they have allowed President Kabila to shop around for military and economic support that carries as few conditions as possible.

There are two crises in the Kivus: the immediate emergency caused by M23, and the long-term, underlying instability that has existed for the past two decades. The fall of Goma highlighted not only the weaknesses of MONUSCO’s protective capacities, but also the scale of decay in the Congolese security sector. Even once M23 has been pacified, there will still be much work to be done before the violence and instability in the Kivus can be truly resolved. For that work to succeed, however, Congo’s international partners cannot relapse into the failed approaches of the past.