By Jenna Russo
Violent protests erupted in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in late July 2022, resulting in the deaths of at least three peacekeepers and several civilians.
The United Nations mission in the Congo has long suffered a crisis of confidence among local communities. It has been accused of failing to protect civilians and improve security in the region, despite a presence spanning more than two decades.
This is not the first time protests have broken out against UN peacekeepers in eastern Congo. However, these recent events have brought to the surface the persistent problems facing the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco). It has faced questions on its operational effectiveness, consent of the host state and whether – or how – it can make a graceful exit from the country.
Heightened tensions in the Congo’s eastern region are the result of what is perceived by many as years of peacekeeping failures, resulting in violence, death and the displacement of millions of Congolese.
A great deal has been written about the perils of so-called stabilisation approaches to peacekeeping. These have been pursued in countries like the Congo, Mali and the Central African Republic, and are characterised by efforts to neutralise non-state armed groups and extend state authority.
Both the UN and the African Union increasingly reference stabilisation approaches in policy dialogue and mission mandates. However, such approaches have proven largely ineffective, in part because of their state-centric nature, which fails to take into account local drivers of conflict.
Crisis of confidence
When the Force Intervention Brigade was authorised by the UN Security Council in 2013, it was initially praised for bringing a swift halt to the insurrection attempt by the armed group M23.
Yet, since that time, the brigade has struggled to implement its mandate in the face of the continued proliferation of armed groups in the region and high levels of insecurity. In response to these challenges, the brigade recently received additional support from several quick reaction forces.
Yet, the mission has been unable to stem the violence. The resurgence of the M23 in the past few months has been a stark illustration of the brigade’s shortcomings.
At the same time, militarised approaches to peacekeeping in the Congo have come at the expense of non-violent approaches to peacebuilding, like unarmed protection methods, which may be more conducive to building lasting peace.
The result is that the UN is facing a crisis of legitimacy among the population, despite having invested a good deal of resources trying to manage its reputation. Confidence in the ability of peacekeepers to ensure security is generally low among communities in eastern Congo, and has decreased over time. It’s also notably lower than confidence in state security forces, despite the latter’s egregious human rights violations and lack of capacity.
This raises questions of consent, including whose voices matter when it comes to maintaining cooperation with the host country. Host state consent, a principle of UN peacekeeping, is conventionally interpreted as consent of the host government. However, the recent scenes from the Congo suggest that greater attention ought to be paid to the voices of community members.
While the UN recognises the importance of maintaining trust with local communities, it’s not clear how it can – or should – respond should those relationships deteriorate beyond repair, as may now be the case.
Regional dynamics have further complicated this situation, given the cross-border nature of the conflict, and with Kinshasa’s military accusing Rwanda of using the M23 to invade Congo. Kigali has denied these accusations.
While the UN mission is in a period of drawdown, there is no clear timeline for exit. Withdrawal is instead guided by progress towards a series of agreed-upon benchmarks, including a significant reduction in the threat posed by armed groups.
Some experts have argued that the drawdown should not be bound by time. Progress has been slow, and it is not clear the benchmarks will be met in the near future.
In the meantime, the mission and members of the UN Security Council need to grapple with what to do if they cannot bring security conditions under control, or if the state pushes more forcefully for an early exit.
Protests in the region are likely to continue over the coming months, particularly in the run-up to the Congo presidential elections, which are scheduled for late 2023.
What is needed at this time is a robust regional security arrangement that would ease some of the pressure on the UN mission and make space for a stronger diplomatic response to regional tensions.
The 22 July 2022 agreement by the East African Community Heads of States to deploy a regional force to the Congo may be a timely step in the right direction.
But, as the UN mission’s difficulties have shown, military operations cannot be effective if they aren’t coupled with a viable political process, which has been lacking in the Congo. The current security situation, alongside contentious regional dynamics, is indicative of this.
Jenna Russo is a researcher and lecturer, City University of New York. She is affiliated with the International Peace Institute, an independent, international not-for-profit think tank.