No More Short-term Solutions for the Kivus: The Congo Deserves a High-level International Conference

The finger pointing over the latest crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has only just begun. Attention is rightly directed to the role of Rwanda in supporting the M23 rebel movement and the Congolese government’s failures in both addressing underlying causes of conflict in eastern DRC and defending its territory from this latest incursion. There are also serious questions being asked of the UN peacekeeping mission for its failure to adequately protect civilians and defend a clearly articulated red line of preventing the M23 from taking control of Goma. While each carries a heavy responsibility, the broader international community, and the UN Security Council in particular, must accept a significant share of the blame. If there is any chance of disrupting the current pattern of instability in the DRC, the Council will need to significantly enhance the level of its engagement and rethink its current approach to the situation.

Peacekeeping by Default

For too long, the Security Council has taken a business-as-usual approach to the situation in the DRC. In 2009, Council members deferred to an opaque agreement made between Rwanda and the DRC and committed MONUSCO to supporting poorly-trained Congolese troops (FARDC) in fighting against the FDLR rebel group. Meanwhile, persistently high levels of violence were tolerated in eastern DRC and little pressure from the Council was brought to bear on the Congolese government to undertake a series of much-needed governance and security sector reforms. This was a risky strategy from the start, which was unlikely to succeed in providing long-term security in the region, but Council members were unwilling to commit the necessary resources and political capital to a more comprehensive approach.

Even as evidence mounted in 2010 that the Congolese-Rwandan rapprochement could not be counted on to stem the violence in eastern Congo, the Council barely adjusted its policy of mostly blind support to a process over which it had little visibility or influence. Owing to some combination of distracted agendas, weak political will, and attrition in the face of a complex situation, the Council time and again opted for a path of least resistance at each new challenge facing the country. Members were briefly roused in mid-2010 to resist calls by President Kabila to withdraw the UN mission, but the weakness of the Council’s position was exposed in the process. The reconfiguration of the peacekeeping mission might have been an opportunity to re-adjust its strategic direction, but instead the Council continued the military approach to dealing with armed groups and work on key political and governance issues took a backseat as MONUSCO leadership attempted to rebuild relations with the government. Unfortunately, this posture even persisted through the deeply flawed elections process in 2011, during and after which the Security Council was disconcertingly silent.

In the absence of a real strategy to resolve the conflicts in the DRC, the Council and MONUSCO have taken a minimalist approach that focuses on protection of civilians. They have used the protection of civilians to justify repeatedly increasing the robustness of MONUSCO’s mandate to fight illegal armed groups, including through joint operations with the Congolese army. This approach proved essentially bankrupt by continued human rights violations committed by the soldiers, poor joint planning processes, and ongoing negative impact for civilians. Instead of reorienting its strategy, the UN implemented a welcomed, but too-little-too-late conditionality policy. As MONUSCO rolled back its cooperation with the FARDC, it increasingly appeared rudderless in its mission.  This was a reality that hardly seemed to register at UN headquarters or within the Council in New York.

Another Wake-up Call

The creation of the M23 might have triggered some rethinking in New York and Kinshasa, but MONUSCO’s mandate renewal in June 2012 illustrated the Council’s preference for overly technical approaches to essentially political challenges. In advance of the mandate renewal, advocacy groups called for a greater focus by MONUSCO on SSR and the mission leadership suggested there might be an opportunity for more engagement by the Congolese government on some limited areas of security sector reform following recent elections. This thinking converged with the Council’s unwillingness to consider more comprehensive changes. As a result, MONUSCO’s mandate prioritized SSR among its tasks despite the lack of a political basis for such reforms, which was being starkly illustrated by the contemporaneous unraveling of the Congolese army’s integration process with the formation of the M23.

In the current crisis, MONUSCO’s performance has been inarguably disappointing. A thorough review of the mission’s failings in response to the M23 assault on Goma is certainly required. That the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission could not defend Goma, undermining its already limited credibility with the population as a protection force, raises serious questions about not only capacities and capabilities, but mission leadership. Moreover, that the M23 was essentially left to determine the fate of thousands of civilians inside and around Goma with little likelihood of intervention by MONUSCO suggests a much more realistic assessment of the limits of UN peacekeeping must be taken into account when determining the way forward. As these failings are reviewed and next steps are tabled, the Council’s central failure to put forward and support a credible and comprehensive strategy must not get lost in the discussions over troop-levels, drone deployment, and renewed SSR.

Recent efforts by the subregion, through the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), might be more encouraging if they were linked to a credible and transparent political process. Such a process would need to respond not only the security concerns of the DRC’s neighbors, but address the causes of militia mobilization and factors contributing to the vulnerability of the civilian population, along with the myriad inter-Congolese challenges related to weak legitimate governance and poor extension of state authority. Thus far, the Kampala process has not proved any more transparent than past negotiations. It is unlikely to deliver the necessary political process as long as the Congolese must negotiate from a position of significant weakness in a forum dominated by its neighbors with their own interests in the country. No new international neutral force or enhanced verification mechanism can alone deliver a meaningful shift in the conflict dynamics.

The Way Forward

To be sure, there will be no sustainable peace without serious leadership from within the subregion, but the Security Council must also take its responsibility as the principle organ for ensuring international peace and security. Quick fixes to short-term security concerns, even those premised upon future follow-up with medium- and long-term efforts, have proved ineffectual in the past. International attention has simply been too short-lived to properly follow through. A high-level international conference, bringing together the Security Council, the African Union, and the ICGLR, leading to a comprehensive peace process that puts both short-term and medium-term political and security issues on the table at the same time is needed.

The appointment of a high-level envoy, particularly a joint UN-AU representative, would be a welcomed step in the right direction and could help to mobilize and coordinate this process. An appointment is only a first step and will need to be backed by real political and resource commitment from the international community, especially the UN Security Council. One measure of the level of ongoing support will be the willingness of the UN and partners to support the new stabilization strategy for eastern DRC now under development by MONUSCO. Implementation of stabilization activities will need to be paired with serious engagement with the Congolese government on key national reforms, including decentralization and the security sector.

It is all too tempting to call this crisis another opportunity for action by the international community. In probability, it likely is not. The international community has demonstrated its skill at hitting the snooze button on its so-called wake up calls in the Congo before and there are few indications of a radically different attitude from the key players thus far. While certainly not an “opportunity,” the moment does demand at least honesty from the international community to the Congolese people. If there is no willingness to pursue a genuine effort at addressing the causes of conflict in the DRC, then the scale and appropriateness of international efforts in the Congo should be reviewed, including the future of MONUSCO.

Guillaume Lacaille is an independent consultant and recently completed a term as stabilization advisor to MONUSCO in Kinshasa. Heather Sonner is former Senior Analyst with International Crisis Group in New York.

About the photo: Security Council members vote on resolution 2076 (2012), November 20, 2012. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas