The UN conundrum in the Congo: Is it a carrot or a stick?

For the first time in years, there is a credible peace process in the offing for the Congo, one that addresses issues that the transition (2003-2006) never did. As discussed on this blog before, the Framework Agreement signed on 24 February 2013 promises a means to address two key divers of conflict: the weakness of the Congolese state, and cross-border meddling between the Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda.

However, there are several problems with the Framework Agreement, evident since its inception. These have enhanced cynicism among Congolese toward the United Nations and the international community, prompting protesters in Goma attacked peacekeepers earlier this month, and discontent with the UN is proliferating among civil society.

Since February, when the Framework Agreement was signed, Congolese have had to deal with a confusion of different processes, some in contradiction with each other––the Framework Agreement does not even address the armed groups in the eastern Congo, the UN-endorsed Kampala peace talks push for a negotiated solution, while the UN Intervention Brigade has a mandate to take attack armed groups in the East.

But none of these processes seem to be working. Negotiations between the M23 and the Congolese government have been left for the Kampala talks, led by the regional ICGLR grouping. These talks, which began in December last year, have gotten nowhere, as the Congolese government––bolstered by the arrival of the UN’s Intervention Brigade––continues to believe in a military solution, while there is renewed evidence from Human Rights Watch and diplomats that Rwanda continues to back the M23.

Meanwhile, many Congolese allege that the UN Intervention Brigade is either not doing enough or actively preventing a solution. They point to declarations by UN Special Envoy Mary Robinson has on several occasions said that she believes in a political solution to the crisis, and protest that the security perimeter set up by the UN around Goma does not go far enough to dismantle the M23. To be clear: It is not true true that the UN peacekeeping mission has interposed itself or prevented the Congolese army from attacking the rebels, and the Intervention Brigade is still not fully functional. But one cannot blame Congolese from despairing at the confused peace process.

So what should the UN do? Push for better peace talks or for a military solution?

Both, and with better synergy. On the diplomatic front, negotiators––from the AU, UN, or ICGLR––need to wrest the initiative away from the Congolese and the M23, neither of whom are apparently willing to make the necessary compromises. We know what the outlines of a deal must be––they include removing the worst human rights offenders among the M23, integrating most of the officers and troops into the Congolese army and redeploying them across the country, allowing the M23 political leadership participate in the upcoming national dialogue, and addressing issues such as refugee return and the dismantling of the FDLR. Critically, this is not a deal that can be struck with the M23, as it will have to submit to its own dissolution––instead, diplomats must engage with Rwanda, which still exercises crucial influence over the M23, but which steadfastly denies any involvement. All of this will require diplomats such as Robinson and the newly appointed US envoy Russ Feingold, but also African heads of state who have been largely bystanders, to propose solutions and muster leverage, not just sit back and allow the Kampala process and Framework Agreement to tread water.

On the military front, the UN has a difficult needle to thread. If it does not go on the offensive, it will disappoint after months of hype building up around the Intervention Brigade. The Congolese government is purposely ratcheting up the pressure on the UN to make it use military force and to position the blue helmets as scapegoats if anything goes wrong. But a military offensive contains plenty of dangers: the M23 could embarrass the UN troops, or UN troops could be complicit in abuses carried out by the Congolese army. Any military action could also upset whatever diplomatic approaches are being made with Rwanda and the M23. Nonetheless, it is important that the UN be seen to be doing more than it currently is, by extending the security perimeter into M23 territory from the south or the north. In addition, the UN troops could offer their services in concrete and aggressive action against the FDLR within the context of a new approach to the Rwanda rebels that would grant exile to those leaders not guilty of egregious crimes and clamp down on the remaining hardcore.

So is it sticks or carrots? It’s not so much about incentives and pressure, but about the process in which these are deployed. At the moment, the process is too confused, disjointed and lacks a clear direction. The UN should step up its own engagement from a mere facilitator to a leader of the peace process, with strong backing from donors. With a strong, new team––that includes US envoy Russ Feingold, UN envoy Mary Robinson, and a new head of the UN mission in Martin Kobler––this is possible but an uphill battle.