DR Congo

DR Congo: Give peacekeepers political support and an achievable mission

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The UN peacekeeping mission in the DR Congo (DRC) is stretched beyond all reasonable expectations. The force has responded in earnest as several hundred thousand Congolese have fled homes and displacement camps, intent on escaping the violence that has reignited in the North Kivu province in recent days. But the UN force, known as MONUC, will continue to be incapable of protecting civilians and stabilizing the province without greater international military support; a clear, well-resourced mandate; an enhanced ability to interact with local communities; and, above all, the guarantee of sustained, high-level political support.

The Humanitarian and Protection Crisis

Since fighting reignited in North Kivu in August of this year, an estimated 250,000 people have been displaced, bringing the total number of internally displaced people in North Kivu alone to over one million people. UN agencies and humanitarian non-governmental organizations have been scrambling to respond, but the scale of the crisis, coupled with the highly fluid, unpredictable movement of the displaced, has made it difficult to anticipate needs and deliver assistance. A volatile security situation has also meant that aid workers have only limited access to vulnerable areas, and innumerable people have been forced to survive without any support at all.

Many cases of forced return and forced recruitment have surfaced recently in North Kivu, in clear contravention of international law. In the last week of October, many displaced people have returned to their homes, or in some cases, back to their original IDP sites, only to find that they have been looted or burned. People who were forced to flee with little more than the clothes on their backs now find that they don't have anything to return to.

The dramatic increase in internal displacement is just the latest manifestation of the violence, insecurity and massive humanitarian need that have been a constant feature of life in North Kivu for years. In recent days, diplomats and politicians have flooded into Goma in a demonstration of concern for the unfolding crisis. But as is typical with the international response to crises in Africa, their arrival on the scene is late. If those same leaders had remained engaged when the L'Acte d'Engagement signed in Goma in January began to fracture, then the most recent wave of displacement might have been averted altogether.

Protection is not just a short-term proposition. Humanitarian assistance, essential as it is, is nothing more than a temporary panacea, and the international community must not be allowed to substitute short-term humanitarian support for a long-term commitment to the resolution of the root causes of the conflict in the eastern Congo.

MONUC and its Civilian Protection Mandate

MONUC, the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, is currently the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world. It has also been a test case for the multidimensional peacekeeping approach, which seeks to incorporate robust military engagement, civilian protection, facilitation of the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and development of good governance and lasting democratic institutions.

At the core of MONUC's mandate is the responsibility to protect civilians under imminent threat of violence. This is both the most difficult and most controversial aspect of MONUC's mandate, and one that critics are quick to point to as a major gap in its performance. The ongoing vulnerability of civilians to forced displacement and rampant systematic sexual violence is continuously cited as the single largest failure of UN peacekeeping forces in the DRC.

MONUC soldiers have sought to enhance civilian protection this year through increased foot and vehicle patrols in vulnerable areas, the deployment of 39 small forward bases throughout North Kivu, and, in some cases, direct cell phone communication with local protection committees that can inform MONUC commanders directly when there are civilians under threat. However, competing responsibilities and the apparent unwillingness of certain commanders to prioritize protection tasks have left serious gaps in MONUC's ability to keep people safe.

MONUC, as it is presently constituted, faces severe restrictions in its ability to promote stability and protect civilians. The Mission has only about 6,000 troops deployed in North Kivu, which amounts to roughly one soldier for every eight square kilometers. MONUC forces have limited capacity to communicate with the local population, as most of the soldiers, who are drawn from countries around the world, don't speak French or Kiswahili, and interpreters are scarce. Proactive protection and the prioritization of patrols are made difficult by poor intelligence gathering capacity, and even reactive protection efforts are hampered by abysmal roads, densely forested terrain, and limited access to helicopters and appropriate land vehicles.

Further, many MONUC troops have little or no direct training in civilian protection tasks. Constant troop rotation means that MONUC soldiers have almost no understanding of the historical or political dynamics of the conflict, and there are no Civil Affairs or Political Affairs officers permanently assigned to the field sites to provide real-time analysis and to guide the decisions of MONUC commanders.