In a Worsening DRC, How Can the Security Council Keep Focus on Protection of Civilians?

MONUSCO blue helmets interact with civilians while on patrol in the zone of Miriki, North Kivu, DRC, on January 8, 2022. (MONUSCO Flickr)

In the coming weeks, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) will likely pass a resolution renewing the mandate of MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The resolution is an opportunity for the UNSC to provide new direction to MONUSCO and respond to broader protection challenges facing the DRC.

The mandate renewal takes place at a challenging moment in the Congo. The M23 armed group has taken over significant territory in the DRC’s North Kivu province, consistently repelling the Congolese military (FARDC). The latest round of violence, which began in late October, has displaced at least 200,000 people, tens of thousands of whom are living in makeshift camps for internally displaced people outside Goma, the provincial capital. Despite a November 23 ceasefire between the DRC and Rwanda (which has been widely accused of supporting M23), violence has continued. Thus far, there is little indication that FARDC—even with MONUSCO support—has the capacity to defeat the armed group.

The recent fighting broke out in an already dire protection context. Communities across eastern Congo contend with the presence of over 100 armed groups, weak or non-existent state authority in certain areas, and ineffective or abusive security forces. Armed conflict continues to exacerbate a catastrophic humanitarian situation. Currently, the DRC faces one of the world’s largest displacement crises, with over 5.9 million Congolese displaced. Across the country, more than 27 million people are facing acute food insecurity.

Both the devastating impact of conflict and the perception that the mission is not adequately protecting civilians have fueled anti-MONUSCO sentiment. In July 2022, protesters calling for MONUSCO’s departure attacked mission bases in several cities—over 30 Congolese civilians and four peacekeepers were killed. Following the protests, the Congolese government announced it would “re-evaluate” the 2021 Joint Transition Plan, a document drafted by MONUSCO and the government to guide the mission’s drawdown from the DRC.

The UNSC will need to respond to these and other developments. Notably, a new regional force under the auspices of the East African Community (EACRF) has begun deploying into the DRC. Given that the force is comprised of troops from east African militaries, several of which have previously conducted operations in the DRC, it faces a mistrustful public. Additionally, planned elections in 2023 could trigger new rounds of fighting.

A single UNSC resolution cannot resolve these challenges. But by renewing the mission’s mandate—and in doing so, promulgating a new binding measure of international law—the UNSC can help prioritize protection in the DRC, both by mandating changes to MONUSCO and by responding more generally to the protection crises affecting the country. For example, the UNSC could reiterate MONUSCO and the government’s obligation to include civil society organizations in the mission’s transition process and clarify the importance of a conditions-based MONUSCO drawdown. As discussed below, a progressive withdrawal that effectively includes civil society will reduce the likelihood that MONUSCO’s drawdown will exacerbate an already fragile context. Secondly, the Council could insist on minimum standards for information-sharing and deconfliction between MONUSCO and the EACRF, both of which are critical to either force’s efforts to respond to protection threats. Finally, the Council could call for the immediate cessation of regional support to armed groups in the DRC. Such support, which largely fuels the violence that continues to devastate Congolese communities, is fundamentally incompatible with a brighter future in the Congo.

Civil Society Inclusion 

Civil society organizations (CSOs) are often embedded within—or are themselves from—the conflict-affected communities that peacekeeping missions are mandated to protect. CSOs are well-placed to contribute to the protection of civilians, including through monitoring security trends, liaising between security forces and civilians, and managing early warning networks. Peacekeeping transition processes that include CSOs will be more responsive to the context and better capitalize on local protection capacities. Including CSOs may also help missions earn the trust of civilians, who often have limited awareness of a mission’s mandate and limitations.

New CIVIC research highlights steps that MONUSCO has taken to include CSOs in the transition process. In Tanganyika, for example, MONUSCO included civil society in the working groups tasked with implementing the mission’s withdrawal from the province and is credited with strengthening CSOs. As one civil society leader in Tanganyika explained, “MONUSCO has taken account of our opinions and that is reflected in the plans which were proposed.”

But replicating the mission’s success in Tanganyika has proven difficult. In Kinshasa, the capital, working groups overseeing the Joint Transition Plan do not include civil society. Moreover, there has not been a sustained effort to share the plan with civil society in eastern DRC, leading to frustration and misunderstanding. Said one MONUSCO civilian official, “We treated the transition plan like something we dust off and reference every three months [prior to reporting against the plan’s benchmarks to the UNSC]. But it should be a living document that is socialized to the Congolese public in general, and we have failed to do that.”

Creating civic space for civil society leaders could also help the mission respond to allegations that it seeks to remain in Congo indefinitely. Over the past few years, MONUSCO and the UNSC have taken steps toward drawdown. In 2016, for example, MONUSCO had over 100 military bases, a troop ceiling of over 19,000, and field offices across the country. Presently, the mission has a troop ceiling of 13,500, fewer than 45 military bases, and field offices in only three provinces: North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri. But, partially due to limited strategic communication and CSO inclusion, awareness of the drawdown is limited. As one CSO leader explained, “We saw MONUSCO leave the Kasais, but other people didn’t know that MONUSCO is leaving. No one knows about the MONUSCO transition plan.”

MONUSCO’s current mandate encourages the UN and the Congolese government to work “in liaison with civil society.” Particularly given the vital importance of civil society inclusion for the protection of civilians, this language could be strengthened by stressing the critical importance of civil society in planning and implementing MONUSCO’s transition. 

A Conditions-Based MONUSCO Drawdown

The 2021 Joint Transition Plan represented a key step toward a gradual MONUSCO drawdown. The plan includes benchmarks on an array of subjects—including the protection of civilians—and offers criteria for how the mission can safely withdraw.

But actors have different interpretations as to whether MONUSCO’s drawdown is timebound or tied to the achievement of benchmarks. Though the plan itself conditions MONUSCO’s drawdown on improvements in the protection environment, some interlocutors interpret the plan as requiring a 2024 departure. A government official noted, for example, that “it wasn’t easy to get MONUSCO to agree to depart in 2024.”

Clarifying the nature of MONUSCO’s drawdown is particularly important given the Congolese government’s stated intention to “re-evaluate” the Joint Plan following the outbreak of anti-MONUSCO protests in July. At present, it is unclear whether authorities will seek to draft a new transition plan, modify, or maintain the current plan.

Given anti-MONUSCO sentiment, the government and the UN may face popular pressure for a fast exit. But drawdowns in other contexts have demonstrated that peacekeeping transitions disconnected from realities on the ground can lead to greater risk for civilians.

During an uncertain moment, the UNSC should clarify that MONUSCO’s drawdown must be contingent upon protection-related improvements. The UNSC should take particular note of UNSC Resolution 2594 (2021), which stipulates that: 1) peacekeeping mission transitions ought to “measured through clear, realistic and measurable benchmarks” and; 2) mandates should be based on “a realistic assessment of threats against civilians.” By making clear that the mission’s drawdown must be tied to the protection context, the UNSC can reduce the likelihood of a rapid withdrawal which could exacerbate the protection threats confronting Congolese civilians.

EACRF: Information-Sharing, Deconfliction, and IHL Compliance

At the request of the Congolese government, the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) has progressively deployed into eastern DRC over the course of 2022. Composed of battalions from different east African militaries as well as the FARDC, the EACRF will potentially undertake operations against armed groups, including in areas where MONUSCO maintains a presence.

The EACRF could have a positive impact, such as if its presence supports political negotiations and the disarmament of armed groups. But the force faces widespread skepticism from civilians, particularly given that some of its troop-contributing countries have already undertaken operations on Congolese soil and, in certain cases, are accused of supporting armed groups in the DRC. “For me, yesterday’s persecutors cannot bring us peace tomorrow,” explained one civil society leader. “They cannot bring us justice.”

As recent history demonstrates, the EACRF’s relationship with MONUSCO also needs clarification from the Council. In December 2021, the Ugandan military (UPDF) deployed in North Kivu province with Congolese government authorization, and began joint operations with the FARDC against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) armed group. Since then, MONUSCO has struggled to receive information from, or coordinate with, FARDC-UPDF operations. UN officials have asserted that lack of information-sharing has negatively impacted the mission’s protection efforts in the Beni region, where protection threats are high.

To prioritize protection, the UNSC can respond to the EACRF deployment in two ways. First, given the growing number of forces in the DRC, the UNSC can mandate that MONUSCO establish information-sharing mechanisms with the EACRF and encourage the forces to coordinate and deconflict. This step is necessary for MONUSCO’s civilian protection efforts and could lead to more effective operations, and support to political processes, by both entities. While there have been initial discussions between MONUSCO and the EACRF, sustained coordination will be needed going forward.

Secondly, the UNSC should encourage the EACRF to comply with international humanitarian law (IHL) and take steps to mitigate harm to civilians caused by its presence and operations, including civilian harm analysis and tracking, as it has with other multilateral coalitions, such as the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the African Union mission in Somalia, the second of which established a Civilians Casualty Tracking, Analysis, and Response Cell (CCTARC). Such a mechanism could be critical to efforts to avoid civilian harm and more effectively protect Congolese communities.

Condemning Regional Support to Armed Groups in the DRC

As observed by the UN Group of Experts and other organizations, multiple governments continue to support armed groups in the DRC, some of which are responsible for egregious violations of international law. Stated simply, it is not possible to envision a more peaceful future for Congolese civilians—or to achieve the benchmarks in the Joint Transition Plan—unless governments cease providing support to armed groups.

MONUSCO’s current mandate “recalls the commitments undertaken by the region under the PSC [Peace, Security, and Cooperation] Framework not to tolerate nor provide assistance or support of any kind to armed groups.” The UNSC should add stronger language explicitly condemning all support to armed groups by governments across the region. The UNSC could look to the language in the recently negotiated Luanda ceasefire, which requires the “cessation of all politico-military support to the M23 and all other local and foreign armed groups operating in Eastern DRC.” It could also refer to a joint November statement by the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and France, which states that “all support to non-state armed actors must stop, including external support to M23.” By taking a stronger stand against support to armed groups, both in the MONUSCO mandate and elsewhere, the UNSC could potentially help dissuade neighboring states from continued interference on Congolese soil. 

Next Steps

At a time when the UNSC’s role in resolving crises in Ukraine, Ethiopia, and elsewhere is debated, MONUSCO’s mandate renewal is an opportunity for the UNSC to prove its relevance as a protection actor in the DRC­. First, it can insist on civil society inclusion in the mission’s drawdown, as well as underscore the need for a conditions-based drawdown tied to the protection context. Secondly, it can set minimum standards for information-sharing and deconfliction between MONUSCO and the EACRF, while also stressing the need for the EACRF to mitigate civilian harm in its operations.

Finally, the UNSC should take an unequivocal stand against governments’ financial, logistical, and military support to armed groups in the DRC. Until support for armed groups ends, the prospects for peace and security in eastern Congo—and for a sustainable MONUSCO drawdown—are dim.

Daniel Levine-Spound is Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan Peacekeeping Researcher at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC). Wendy MacClinchy is Director of CIVIC’s United Nations Program.