Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has defied the efforts of international peacemakers for far too long. UN and regional interventions have had only a limited impact on bringing long-term peace and stability to a country that has been wracked by ongoing militia violence, foreign interference, abject poverty, a weak state, and other factors that have combined to create one of the world’s most intractable wars and persistent atrocity situations.
In recent years, eastern DRC has seen the worst of the fighting, most notably in 2012 when the 23 March Movement (M23) rebel group swept through the region, capturing Goma and committing a trail of abuses along the way. The United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) was heavily criticized for its perceived ineffectualness in preventing the onslaught.
Partly as a response to such criticism and with a determination to prevent further suffering of the civilian population at the hands of DRC’s numerous militias, the Security Council passed resolution 2098 authorizing the momentous Force Intervention Brigade (FIB). The first of its kind, the force received an unprecedented offensive mandate and was unambiguously tasked with neutralizing armed groups.
Its rapid victory against M23 temporarily vindicated MONUSCO for its failure to prevent the rebel group’s rise, and has important implications for future peacekeeping missions with a chapter VII mandate to protect civilians. However, the alleged compromise of the UN’s traditional values of impartiality and non-use of force, along with concerns over humanitarian fallout and the long-term effectiveness of FIB have come into question. Such concerns, highlighted below, must be given consideration when assessing the brigade and its potential as a model for similar offensive operations and as a tool for implementing the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP).
The Intervention Brigade after M23
Since the initial victory against M23, the euphoria surrounding the FIB’s accomplishments has dissipated and been replaced with a more cautious evaluation of its role, particularly as it pertains to impartiality, the potential humanitarian fallout, and the long-term viability of such an offensive mandate.
Loss of Impartiality – In a recent article for African Arguments, Christoph Vogel gave an account of the FIB’s performance and warned that, in relation to operations against other armed groups such as the Masisi-based APCLS , “The indirect collaboration with one negative force aimed at neutralising another puts the FIB’s, MONUSCO’s, and more generally, the UN’s impartiality in to question.”
This perception has been further underscored by the many delays in pursuing the Hutu-dominated Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) militia, adding to suspicions that “…the FIB was largely created at the instigation of SADC to help its fellow-SADC member state, DRC, defeat the M23, which was backed by its enemy Rwanda.”
The neutrality of the FIB, and by association, MONUSCO as a whole, was also questioned in a report released by the International Peace Institute examining the legal ramifications of the brigade’s offensive mandate. The report concluded that due to its active involvement in combat activity, the force could indeed be considered a party to the conflict. This effectually renders MONUSCO’s protected status under international humanitarian law null and void. The loss of legal protection is indicated to have implications for the military and civilian staff alike, as both could potentially become legitimate targets for military action and even potential prosecution under international law.
In addition, the report also flagged the fact that the UN mission has generally remained mum over the well-documented human rights abuses committed by FARDC. It states that, “the Intervention Brigade’s mandate can be seen to privilege security issues over impartiality and human rights protection. It focuses on armed groups rather than the FARDC, which is a key part of the “cycle of impunity” and ongoing conflict…”
For obvious reasons, such complications could have serious implications for the mission’s ability to carry out its protection mandate. Accusations of partiality must be addressed if the force is to effectively fulfill its civilian protection mandate without politicization or being otherwise used as a tool to selectively fight the battles of its troop-contributing countries. Furthermore, the implications of being considered a party to DRC’s conflict could have a deterrent effect on states contributing or considering personnel contributions to the peacekeeping force.
Humanitarian Fallout – When the FIB was first announced, there was a flurry of civil society concern over the potential humanitarian impact that increased military activity could have on eastern DRC, including from ICRtoP member Oxfam International, which had one of the largest presences in North Kivu at the time.
Indeed, Medecins Sans Frontieres took an exceptionally tough stance against the brigade’s blurring of military and civilian activities, stating that it no longer wanted any military component of MONUSCO operating near its health facilities for fear of being targeted.
Thankfully, the humanitarian crisis that was envisioned by concerned organizations never came to pass. However, such fears have not been sufficiently assuaged. As long-awaited military operations against the FDLR loom, new calls for protection of civilians have arisen. According to Florent Mèhaule, head of the sub-office of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in South Kivu,
“One of the key issues in South Kivu could be humanitarian access due to both physical constraints and security… such an offensive will probably hamper any kind of access [to] negotiations with armed groups. In addition to difficult access, the weak humanitarian presence in the potential military operations’ areas will make it harder to quickly scale up large humanitarian operations if required.”
Possibilities such as this are reasonable concerns, and reports that OCHA and the UN refugee agency are currently working with MONUSCO, as well as local aid agencies, to develop contingency planning are welcomed.
Long-term solution needed – The final consideration is the degree to which military action is being narrowly viewed as the most important component in the struggle to bring stability to the region. Several NGOs and other experts have been quick to note that placing too much faith in this option could be counter-productive, if not harmful. For example, the Norwegian Refugee Council has stressed that:
“Military operations alone cannot bring much-needed durable solutions to the long-standing problems which have troubled the region and its people for twenty years. The international community must focus on the deeper, uncomfortable issues that have defeated all efforts to bring peace to Eastern DRC until now.”
The organization has called for more investment in non-military measures, such as mediation between armed actors and support to local civil society organizations. Importantly, NRC and other groups have pointed to the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework (PSCF) for the Great Lakes Region as an important referent for addressing the conflict’s root causes. A coalition of NGOs working in eastern DRC have made calls for an national oversight body to ensure Congolese authorities implement its commitments to the PSCF, further adding that:
“The operations of the new MOUNSCO Intervention Brigade” should be “clearly linked to the realization of the PSCF. This should include encouraging the UN Security Council to seriously consider suspension of the Brigade if it does not perform well or if the Congolese government does not make sufficient progress in implementing its PSCF commitments, particularly the development of a national security sector reform map.”
A Model for Future Intervention?
As the deadline that SADC and the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region set for disarmament of the FDLR has come and gone, it is now said that military action to neutralize the group is “inevitable.” Given that the FDLR has been accused of numerous atrocities, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, proactive action to end this threat to DRC’s civilians is a positive use of peace enforcement under RtoP.
The FIB itself is a potentially useful model, given the effect that providing it with a unique and unambiguous mandate had on defeating M23, as well as in its less noted contribution to victory against the Ugandan Islamist Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Indeed, in his recent strategic review of MONUSCO the Secretary-General called the force “indispensible” in protecting civilians when Congolese authorities failed to do so.
Recalling the Office of Internal Oversight Service’s report released in March 2014, if the Security Council decides to pursue a similar option in the future, it could be an answer to the report’s findings that UN peacekeepers almost never use force for the protection of civilians, due to reasons such as unclear mandates and a lack of resources.
However, MONUSCO must be cautious in utilizing this tool. The concerns highlighted above represent real discomfort with the UN taking such an aggressive approach – a sentiment that has been shared by many UN member states that are leery of abandoning the organization’s traditional focus on consent, impartiality and the non-use of force.
In the DRC context, recommendations for monitoring and ensuring compliance with human rights standards, contingency planning to mitigate humanitarian fallout and to maximize civilian protection, as well as linking the FIB’s activities with broader peace efforts, should be heeded. On a more systemic level, the upcoming Secretary-General’s High-Level Review of Peacekeeping Operations, offers a chance to further assess the FIB’s performance, gleaning the positive lessons learned and reconciling them with the legitimate concerns held by many NGOs and UN member states.