Author: Mats Berdal - Professor and Director of Conflict, Security and Development Research Group, King's College London
Mats Berdal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
An independent United Nations (UN) strategic review has recommended that the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic Congo (DRC) complete a phased withdrawal by 2022. Mats Berdal gives his insights into why this is happening and what the implications could be.
Why is the peacekeeping operation coming to an end?
The UN Organisation Mission in the DRC started off as a small observer force in 1999. It was deployed by the UN Security Council to monitor the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement signed in August 1999. At the time the hope was that this would mark the end of the Second Congo War. It did not. The war was also known as Africa’s World War because, at one stage, it pitted the government of President Laurent Kabila and allied troops from Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia against the rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy, fronting for forces supported by the governments of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. The war officially ended in 2003.
War and profound insecurity in the eastern part of DRC continued to be the norm after 1999, at a horrific cost to civilian populations. By one estimate, more than 5 million people had died as a result of war and violence by 2008.
Continuing instability and violence led to a deepening of the UN’s involvement. The initial observer force grew in size. It’s now the UN’s largest field operation with an overall strength of about 20 000, including civilian staff.
Over time, it also came to assume a much more ambitious mandate. Changing its name to the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC in 2010, the principal mandate of the mission became two-fold: the protection of civilians and the strengthening of state institutions in the DRC.
The Security Council first called for the withdrawal of the mission – or rather a transfer of responsibilities to the government and the UN country team – in 2015. Since then, every mandate renewal (every nine months) has involved calls for plans to be developed for its withdrawal. In March this year, the Security Council ordered an independent review of how exactly a phased, progressive and comprehensive exit strategy could happen. This was presented to the Council in October.
The argument in favour of a progressive withdrawal has long been that the Congolese government, after years of UN involvement and three presidential elections, must now assume full “national ownership” of the peace and stabilisation process.
But this isn’t the only reason. At US$1.1 billion per year, the mission is an expensive peacekeeping operation, and member states have been anxious to cut costs.
After 20 years on the ground, what did the UN mission achieve?
The UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission’s record of achievement in the DRC is mixed.
The independent strategic review noted “significant peace gains” and that after 20 years of UN peacekeeping some two thirds of the country was “stable”. Presidential elections were also finally held in December 2018. After 18 years as president, Joseph Kabila stepped down and Félix Tshisekedi was voted in as President. This could mean a new political direction that would allow the country to move forward.
But, while a measure of stability has been brought to parts of country, intercommunal violence and internal displacement are widespread in Eastern DRC, connected in part to the struggle over control of natural resources. The number of armed groups in North and South Kivu is now well over 100.
Human rights violations perpetrated by the Congolese Army also continue to be a major problem. This reflects a larger failure, after numerous unsuccessful attempts, on the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC’s watch, to undertake meaningful reforms of the security sector.
The mission’s programmes in support of the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of armed groups and the reform of rule of law institutions have fared little better. Critically, the drivers of conflict – specifically those related to issues of land tenure and the management of mining and natural resources – remain unaddressed.
Finally, although the recent presidential elections were relatively smooth, Tshisekedi’s position is weak. Loyalists of Kabila’s are firmly ensconced in networks and positions of power, notably within the security sector.
What could the implications of a withdrawal be?
This all depends on the manner in which the withdrawal is organised and implemented. If it is rushed and doesn’t include a clear political strategy and regional diplomatic engagement, it will result in further instability and a recurring protection crises.
The independent strategic review, now before the Security Council, recognises many of the challenges ahead. But it appears overly sanguine about what can be achieved within a three-year period. Given the profound weakness of the Congolese State, especially the failure to reform the security sector, this timetable is likely to become an operational straitjacket and a potential source of instability.
While the political pressure with regard to timelines is understandable, transitions must be based on meeting realistic targets, not on calendar dates. Particular account must be taken of the indisputable risks to civilians of a precipitate withdrawal. This will likely increase insecurity and violence, especially in Eastern Congo.
Above all, the UN must intensify, rather than scale down, efforts to engage with the politics of post-election DRC. It should help the government build legitimate political institutions while harnessing regional, donor and diplomatic support for the consolidation of peace. All of this is likely to take more than three years.
Even if the UN peacekeeping presence is substantially reduced by 2022, it will be vital for the UN and the international community to remain engaged, in some form, in helping consolidate peace after the formal closing down of the mission.