On March 30, the UN Security Council renewed the mandate of the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), known under its acronym MONUSCO. In contrast to last year, it was renewed without the threat of budget cuts or any major changes to its complex mandate.
The mission maintains its two priorities: addressing the tense political and electoral situation, and protection of civilians. It will face serious challenges on both fronts.
Elections should have taken place in November 2016 but have been continuously postponed by President Joseph Kabila in order to maintain his hold on power. They are now scheduled for December this year and, contrary to before, there seems to be a cautious optimism on the part of observers that they will actually take place. A previous wave of optimism after a political agreement between the government and opposition on New Year’s Eve 2016 quickly evaporated when it became clear that the government was not respecting its end of the deal. In the meantime, protests against electoral delays have been repressed, at times with force, and preparations for elections are still marred by distrust and fog. Many Congolese suspect Kabila of creating favorable electoral conditions for his successor of choice.
The protracted electoral delay has undermined President Kabila’s legitimacy and presented MONUSCO, and by extension all regional and international actors present in DRC, with a major dilemma. Should the UN support—politically and logistically—an electoral process marred by closed political space, electoral tampering, and violent repression? Or should it stand on the sideline and risk the blame for further delays by the Congolese government, if not a possible electoral crisis? What are the criteria by which to make such a decision? In the absence of credible elections, there is no clear exit strategy for the mission.
MONUSCO’s mandate was updated to include protection of peaceful demonstrators, as part of its broader mandate to protect civilians. While this is welcome, it presents the mission’s military, police, and civilian components with yet another arena in which they are supposed to intervene. With increased militia activity in the Kivu provinces, renewed violence in Ituri—a worrying situation oddly absent from the resolution—and the risk of renewed escalation in the Kasai and Tanganyika regions, the mission is already extremely overstretched and struggling to become more mobile. This increase in violence has been accompanied by direct attacks against the UN, including the deadliest attack in the mission’s history.
These challenges are unlikely to improve the mission’s ability to protect civilians, its second strategic priority, but also its main weakness during its almost two decade-long existence, and the object of warranted criticism. Research by International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) on recent flashpoints has shown that the mission was slow in responding to the crisis in the Kasai, failed to act when refugees were being killed in South Kivu, and has not managed to halt the violence in Ituri.
The reasons for MONUSCO’s failure to respond adequately and robustly to threats against civilians are similar to those for other peace operations on which IRRI has conducted research.
Underperformance of soldiers from traditional troop contributing countries (TCCs) who have constituted the core of the mission, but also from regional countries of the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), is a recurring challenge to protecting civilians. The UN seems increasingly conscious of this problem. Its leadership seems more willing to engage in difficult discussions with TCCs about performance, and an underperforming battalion was sent home following last year’s budget reductions. The UN has also reinforced capability standards and performance monitoring for uniformed personnel; the new mandate incorporates a mechanism to report on these requirements to “standardize a culture of performance.” It has also promised to resolve existing financial and administrative issues which have hampered the mission’s effectiveness, notably in the Kasai.
The mission’s relations with the government have not been fully restored after an all-time low in early 2015, when the government ceased all joint operations between the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) and MONUSCO and closed its doors to the then head of mission. In reaction to the recent mandate renewal, the government requested MONUSCO to leave in 2020—and often attempts to impose restrictions on the mission’s freedom of movement. Dissatisfaction with MONUSCO also comes from Congolese citizens, who regularly vent their frustration against the mission about its limited results. Despite experiments by the UN over the last few years with ways to better engage local communities, communication with Congolese citizens remains limited.
The mission’s recently appointed new head, Leila Zerrougui, who brings with her considerable experience, faces some difficult decisions in order to convince Congolese citizens about MONUSCO’s added value. She will have to speak out clearly against government repression in the electoral process and the underperformance of peacekeepers, while staying on speaking terms with the host government and TCCs. And she will have to decide how to fulfil her role in “providing good offices” to address the political crisis, and in supporting the electoral process without accommodating a government that has already lost its legitimacy in the eyes of many citizens.
Zerrougui can only make these decisions with the necessary and unanimous backing by all UN Security Council members, including from regional and influential non-western members. The latter seem to be increasingly aware about the risk of further escalation, resulting in a broader consensus in the Council. The Council has to be ready to use its political leverage over the Congolese government, and to defend and reinforce the mission when and where necessary, as foreseen in the mandate. Only when credible elections have taken place and the current rise in violence is overturned, can discussions about troop reductions and an exit strategy come back on the table.
On both of its priorities, MONUSCO will face tough challenges and decisions. Luckily, as the mandate resolution concludes, the Security Council will “remain actively seized on the matter.”
Thijs Van Laer is Program Director: Causes and Resolution of Exile at the International Refugee Rights Initiative. He tweets @Thijsvnlaer.