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MONUSCO’s military mandate: A red herring?

Much of the debate around the recent mandate renewal of the UN peacekeeping mission was centered on military action. News reports focused on the recent debate about a drawdown of UN troops and operations against the FDLR. But, pace Clausewitz, military action should always be part of a broader political strategy. And what is that strategy?

Yes, it is true, as news media reported, that the mandate renewal came at a time of intense tensions between MONUSCO and the Congolese government. And some of these tensions are indeed military ––the Congolese foreign minister wanted the peacekeeping force cut by 6,000, the Security Council answered with a preliminary cut of 2,000. And then there is the kerfuffle over the anti-FDLR operations: the government had been planning joint operations against the Rwandan rebels together with MONUSCO since last year, only to scrap those plans and go it alone this year when the UN raised concerns over the human rights record of two FARDC commanders. So it was no surprise that the Council reminded the government of the importance of going after the FDLR––it said that any permanent reduction in troops would depend on it––and of collaborating with UN troops.

But the real problem is not military. Yes, MONUSCO’s human rights due diligence policy (“don’t support FARDC commanders with poor human rights records”) has rubbed Kinshasa the wrong way for many years. But it is actually in military matters that the interests of MONUSCO and the government most closely align. While Kinshasa has not always shown a lot of vigor in dealing with armed groups in the eastern Congo (read this recent post by Christoph Vogel on the FDLR), it has always been the threat of a Rwandan proxy that played the most important role in pushing the FARDC into complicity with armed groups. And for now, that threat has disappeared. Despite its lackluster performance against the FDLR, the Congolese army has deployed resources––and lost hundreds of troops––in operations against the M23, ADF, and APCLS in the past two years. So, broadly speaking, MONUSCO and the FARDC both want the same thing: to get rid of armed groups, although sometimes the UN wants it more, and the FARDC is particular about which armed groups.

Where interests diverge crassly is on the political process. The Congo is headed toward an election, possibly the most contentious poll since independence. This election could mark the first democratic  transfer of power between heads of state since independence in 1960. Or it could mark the critical erosion of institutions (constitution, parliament, provincial assemblies, etc.) that the Congolese people and donors have spent the past 16 years building.

The UN wants to play an important role in this political process. The formulation used about twenty times in the mandate renewal is “good offices”––MONUSCO is supposed to use its “good offices” to support institutional reform, democratization, and in dealing with armed groups. With regards to the elections, it says MONUSCO should:

Promote peace consolidation and inclusive and transparent political
dialogue among all Congolese stakeholders with a view to furthering reconciliation
and democratization, while ensuring the protection of fundamental freedoms and
human rights, paving the way for the holding of elections.

But “good offices” do little good if the government refuses to come to those offices. Or shuts them down altogether. Last year, when the head of the UN mission Martin Kobler tried to convene various political parties  to promote consensus around the electoral process, Kabila shut the initiative down. Prior to that, MONUSCO’s attempts to get involved in security sector reform––as requested by the Security Council––and in the demobilization of Congolese combatants met with cold/lukewarm shoulders in government ministries.

This is the era that MONUSCO finds itself in––one in which it has been reduced to what it arguably does worst: protecting civilians in the absence of a broader political process. What it did best was precisely that: help negotiate and the shepherd through a political process during the 2001-2006 period. Since 2006, the UN has been almost entirely marginalized from the political process. It cannot broker peace deals with armed groups, arguably the most important task for the mission. It cannot, although it has tried, try to promote goodwill and consensus around the electoral process in Kinshasa. And it has struggled to play a meaningful role in institutional reform, although it has the mandate to do so.

More and more, UN missions are being deployed into situations without a viable political process. That is the arguably the case in Darfur, South Sudan, and even Mali. Of course, the absence of a political process does not obviate the need for a mission. A lot can still be accomplished––most notably, the ushering in of a political process, but also, as in the Congo, political and human rights reporting, facilitation of humanitarian aid, and a basic check on military and political excesses.

To be blunt: It is a shame that MONUSCO cannot play a role in military operations in the eastern Congo; those operations would probably be more effective and less abusive of civilians. But it is a much greater shame that military force has become the primary remit of the mission. Brute force will not solve the conflict.