In peacekeeping the attention (and pressure) tends to be focused on the military part of the mission, the military “blue helmets” patrolling villages and deterring physical attacks. People often forget that peacekeeping missions also include a huge range of civilian staff who work on activities including monitoring human rights abuses, engaging with communities and fostering reconciliation, analyzing political developments, promoting peace processes, and civilian policing. The list goes on.
The UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) is also developing new civilian tools that help all parts of the mission perform more effectively. The newest members of staff are called Community Liaison Assistants (CLAs). These are local Congolese staff who speak French, English and a number of local languages, and who are tasked with building relationships between the mission (military, police and civilians) and the local communities. Local peacekeeping staff have an understanding of the cultural, political and personal dynamics of each of the communities they work in. They give nuanced insights into the sources of conflict and offer potential partners and solutions that international staff – who are technical experts, but cultural outsiders -- often miss.
The CLAs have been deployed in North and South Kivu for a little over a year, and in that time they have been credited with improving awareness of the prevailing tensions and building trust between local people and the mission. MONUSCO peacekeepers in North and South Kivu are now better placed to prevent violent outbreak, rather than just responding after violence has erupted.
In April, RI Consultant Charlie Hunt and I conducted interviews in North Kivu with civilian, military and UN Police, as well as local authorities and civil society groups. In these discussions we were told that the CLAs “often have more information that the battalion (the UN military), the FARDC (the Congolese military), and the PNG (the Congolese police) combined.” As one CLA told us, “People who are uncomfortable with men in uniform, or who don’t trust outsiders, are comfortable with us. They can help us understand the dangers they are facing.” These small numbers of civilian staff are having a huge impact on the efforts of the peacekeepers to protect people from harm.
With limited resources and difficulty moving quickly in the huge and logistically daunting space of eastern Congo, it is critical that the peacekeepers have a reliable way to identify the range of threats that civilians are facing and prioritize where their resources can have the greatest possible impact. Identifying potential violence allows MONUSCO peacekeepers to take concrete steps to avert it. Through conflict mitigation and the preventive deployment of military peacekeepers, the mission avoids violence, and prevents the displacement, social upheaval and individual trauma associated with violent attacks.
This is an important reminder that the huge UN peacekeeping machine – and indeed the well intentioned efforts of the “international community” – breaks down when it isn’t connected with local communities. Civilian protection is a team effort that needs to include populations at risk. Peacekeepers are most effective and efficient when they are guided by local knowledge and work with the trust and support of the people they have been sent to protect.