The same day M23 rebels entered Goma on November 20, the UN Security Council issued resolution 2076 demanding their immediate withdrawal from Goma, and requested the Secretary-General to “report on options for possible redeployments of MONUSCO personnel and materiel within the current authorized ceiling in order to better protect civilians” and to “report on flows of arms across the borders of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
Meanwhile, the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo (MONUSCO) and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York tried to explain the fall of Goma and what the UN peacekeepers did and did not do based on their mandate. The UN will soon face many more questions: what should or could it have done differently during the crisis, but also in the run up to it since the creation of the M23 back in March 2012; what should it be doing now that the Congolese authorities are no longer fully in charge in Goma (even if M23 fighters finally withdrew from the city over the weekend), based on its mandate; but also, and maybe most importantly, what it will be doing in the future.
- This was not the first time rebels took a major city in eastern DRC despite the presence of UN peacekeepers. Early UN failures in Kisangani, Bunia, and Bukavu had led to a major reassessment of MONUC (MONUSCO's previous incarnation) towards a more robust approach that prevented rebels from taking Goma in 2006.
- The last time rebels threatened to take Goma in October 2008, this robust UN approach in support of FARDC showed its limits if not accompanied by a viable political strategy. And it was the intense diplomatic pressure-including by the UN, African States, the EU and the US-that led to a ceasefire and a March 2009 political agreement, itself at the root of the current crisis.
The consequences of MONUSCO’s and the FARDC’s role in the fall of Goma this time have yet to be analyzed in detail, but no amount of explaining from the UN will prevent this from further affecting the credibility and efficiency of the twelve-year-old UN presence.
- In this context, redeployments of MONUSCO personnel (along the border) while keeping the current POC and stabilization mandate would hardly be an adequate response. The revision of the UN mission’s mandate could not either simply result from the Kampala Summit ICGLR decisions–endorsed by the African Union–suggesting MONUSCO should now play a buffer role between the FARDC and the M23.
- The future mandate of the UN mission should instead be informed by a critical examination of the fall of Goma, but also by a broader review of its POC mandate and support to FARDC operations, as well as of the stabilization strategy of MONUSCO which political component has been weak.
- This is an opportunity for a more radical change in the UN mission’s presence, mandate, and approach, re-emphasizing the political role it should play–possibly in coordination with a UN-AU special envoy to the region–and which could finally bring about an exit strategy.
- New regional and international strategies will however also be needed in the DRC, and an international donor conference (like for Somalia) could help launch this process.
This was not the first time rebels took a major city of eastern DRC in spite of the presence of UN peacekeepers.
In May 2002, about 100 civilians were massacred in Kisangani, where about 1,000 UN troops were stationed but lacked capacities to intervene; a year later, 500 civilians were killed by militias in Bunia despite the deployment of a UN reserve contingent there. This led the UN to call on a robust French-led EU “Operation Artemis” to restore security in Bunia and the surrounding area in June 2003 for three months to open the way for the deployment of a larger and more robust UN “Ituri brigade” equipped with attack helicopters. In early 2004 Bukavu, South Kivu, fell to rebels led by Laurent Nkunda without resistance in spite of the presence of 1,000 MONUC troops (backed by attack helicopters in the city at the time) which only protected their own premises and about 2,000 IDPs who had taken refuge there.
The lessons from the Ituri and Bukavu crises led to a major reassessment of the UN mission and the extension of the more proactive and robust strategies used under Artemis in Ituri to the Kivus. Resolution 1649 (December 2005) granted 5,900 additional troops to MONUC, now “authorized to use all necessary means… to deter any foreign or Congolese armed group from attempting to use force to threaten the political process, and to ensure the protection of civilians.” When in 2006 Nkunda’s forces threatened to take another major city in eastern DRC, MONUC this time used its attack helicopters decisively to stop Nkunda’s advance towards Goma, killing between 200 and 400 rebels and allowing the FARDC to retake the areas, and, most importantly, creating space for political negotiations.
The last time Nkunda’s rebels threaten to take Goma in October 2008, this robust UN approach showed its limits if not accompanied by a viable political strategy. The UN had unsuccessfully asked the EU to send a rapid-reaction force, and neither MONUC’s attack helicopters nor FARDC troops appeared able to stop the rebel advance. In the end, it was the intense diplomatic pressure–including by the UN, African States, the EU and the US–that led to a ceasefire and a March 2009 political agreement–at the root of the current crisis. As DPKO head Herve Ladsous rightfully pointed out at a November 30 IPI Policy Forum entitled, "Telling the Peacekeeping Story Better: ”peacekeeping is not about waging war;” rather, it is there to create that political space necessary for negotiations.
So how and why did M23 rebels manage to take Goma this time?
MONUSCO and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) have tried to explain the fall of Goma. An early UN statement focused on the fact that the mission did all it could to protect the city–“UN helicopter gunships flew 17 sorties, firing 500 rockets and four missiles in the defense of Goma”–but that rebels grew much stronger in size and capability during the last offensive and used “sophisticated tactics.” DPKO head Ladsous emphasized the fact that “it is not the mandate of MONUSCO to directly hit the armed groups ... they have to be in support of the armed forces of Congo (FARDC)" and that because the FARDC deserted Goma, the UN mission could no longer support them under the framework of “joint military operations.”
MONUSCO’s and the FARDC’s role in the fall of Goma this time have yet to be analyzed in detail. But no amount of explaining by the UN will prevent further increased resentment from the Congolese people towards the twelve-year-old, 20,000 strong UN mission; its legitimacy has plummeted as demonstrated by the events in Bunia and the evacuation of some UN and INGO personnel from the city after the population, probably supported by some militia groups, violently demonstrated their anger against MONUSCO after the fall of Goma. All the more troubling is that MONUSCO had moved reinforcement peacekeeping troops to the city, and communicated multiple times that its POC mandate implied that it would not let the city fall in the hands of the M23 rebels.
To be fair, the UN mission said its 1,500 peacekeepers had to make a "value judgment" once the rebels had arrived at the entrance of Goma: "Do you open fire and put civilians at risk, or do you hold your fire, continue your patrols, observe what is happening, and remind the M23 that they are subject to international humanitarian and human rights law?" This was when it was anticipated that M23 rebels would commit human rights violations once in Goma—and they did—but so did FARDC troops as they fled the M23 advance last week, in addition to letting about 1,000 prisoners escape from the Goma prison left unattended.
So what will the UN mission in the DRC do in the future?
The UN Security Council resolution 2076 issued on the day rebels entered Goma requested the Secretary-General to “report on options for possible redeployments of MONUSCO personnel and materiel within the current authorized ceiling in order to better protect civilians.” Meanwhile, a declaration of the heads of state and government of the member states of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) at the November 24 Kampala summit, endorsed by the African Union (AU) the following day, called on the M23 to withdraw from Goma, but also on “MONUSCO to occupy and provide security in the neutral zone between Goma [which the DRC army FARDC and police would return to] and the new areas occupied by M23” outside of the city.
It also envisaged the deployment at Goma airport of “a composite force comprising of one company-neutral [international] force, one company-FARDC and the DRC army, and one company-M23.” While a representative of the UN Secretary-General, Chef de Cabinet Susana Malcorra, was present at the Kampala summit, the UN Security Council has not yet endorsed the ICGLR-AU plan which would imply a change in MONUSCO’s mandate to be able to play this buffer role between the FARDC (which military operations the UN mission was supporting a few days earlier only) and the M23.
In this context, redeployments of MONUSCO personnel along the border (and/or additional unarmed military observers) while keeping the current POC and stabilization mandate would hardly be an adequate response. The revision of the UN mission’s mandate could not either simply result from the ICGLR Kampala summit decisions, endorsed by the AU. The future mandate of the UN Mission should instead be informed by a critical examination of the fall of Goma—and the events and decisions that led to it—since the creation of the M23 in March. But this should also be the opportunity for a broader review of its POC mandate and support to the FARDC operations, as well as of the stabilization strategy of MONUSCO which political component has been weak. The latter had already been requested by the Security Council in resolution 2053 of June 27, 2012.
This is the opportunity for a more radical change in the UN mission’s presence, mandate, and approach, re-emphasizing the political role it should play (mediation and good offices), and which could finally bring about an exit strategy. A UN-AU special envoy to the region could also support this political reengagement of the UN mission on the ground, particularly if a new political agreement is reached, which implementation needs to be monitored at the national and regional levels. This will also require the sustained reengagement of the international community, including the ICGLR and the AU as well as bilateral donors, which should reflect on the assistance provided to the DRC over the last decade and its limited impact, including in support of defense reform. New regional and international strategies are needed in the DRC to break with past piecemeal and uncoordinated approaches, and an international donor conference (possibly modeled after the Somalia ones) could launch this process.
Arthur Boutellis is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute.
About the photo: MONUSCO in Goma, November 29, 2012. Photo credit: MONUSCO