In this part of his survey of contemporary UN peace operations, Norrie MacQueen looks at one of the most deadly of the UN’s ventures over the seventy year history of peacekeeping. The operation in Congo accounts for a sharp upward spike in peacekeeper fatalities over the past years. There were fifty-six deaths across UN operations in 2017 alone, and more than four hundred over the past five years.

The Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo resounds with historical echoes. The UN’s involvement there almost sixty years ago marked a traumatic milestone in the evolution of peace operations. The borderline between ‘traditional’ peacekeeping and military enforcement first crossed by the UN in the Congo the early 1960s confronts the organization there with many of the same problems today.


In the thirty years since the end of the Cold War, there have been fifty-four UN peace operations compared with just eighteen over the previous forty years. Twenty-seven of these later missions – exactly half of the total – have been in Africa. Some African countries have been host to more than one operation during this time – Angola, Somalia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone among them.

The explanations put forward for this concentration of peacekeeping commitments are many, complex, and contested. Is it the legacy of crudely drawn imperial boundaries which have forced together mutually hostile ethnicities inside post-independence states? Is it the outcome of Africa’s uniquely terrible levels of poverty? Has it been to do with ‘corrupt’ and inadequate political processes, and hopelessly weak state structures? Does neo-colonial interference from the global North lie at the root of Africa’s conflicts?

All of these and more have been thrown into the debate. The place occupied by these factors in the overall hierarchy of the causes of conflict in Africa is fiercely debated. What is beyond dispute, though, is the extent and consequences of the violence that’s been generated over the past decades.

There’s an uncomfortable symmetry in the historical narrative of United Nations peacekeeping in Africa. The first peace operation in the continent was in place for four years, from 1960 to 1964, in the newly independent ex-Belgian country of Congo. In 2018, one of the most intractable, bloody, and costly UN operations ever mounted is underway in the same country, now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Meanwhile, the intervening years have seen some grave peacekeeping ‘failures’ elsewhere in Africa – most luridly perhaps in Angola, Somalia, and Rwanda.


In Congo, the UN is embroiled in a complex ethnic and religious conflict where there is no end in sight on the ground, and no exit strategy in place for the UN.

Yet there have been clear successes too. UN missions played an essential role in the independence of Namibia in 1990, and in ending the civil war and ushering in a democratic transition in Mozambique in the early 1990s. Mostly, though, peace operations have had less clear, more qualified outcomes – as in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Burundi, for example.

Elsewhere, the jury has yet to return a verdict. This is the case in the ongoing African operations we’ve looked at in CABLE’s Blue on the Map series so far, in Western Sahara, Sudan, and South Sudan. Outcomes are still far from clear in the mission we’re exploring here in the DRC, and in the Central African Republic and Mali that we’ll look at next time. In Congo, the UN is embroiled in a complex ethnic and religious conflict where there is no end in sight on the ground, and no exit strategy in place for the UN.

PROTRACTED, COMPLEX, AND DANGEROUS

It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en RD Congo) is in a very real sense a continuation of that first engagement by the UN in Africa fifty-eight years ago. The UN Operation in the Congo (ONUC – Opération des Nations Unies au Congo) was deployed in response to a general breakdown of governmental control just weeks after the vast country’s independence from Belgium in July 1960. The problems of the Congo, then as now, were multilayered and involved regional discontents, inter-ethnic conflict, and economic neo-colonialism.

In the 1960s ONUC was a watershed for the UN’s entire peacekeeping project. Hitherto, certain ‘golden rules’ had governed the undertaking. In the Congo, however, these tenets – consent, neutrality, and non-use of force other than in self-defence – were exposed as utterly inadequate. The gap between principle and reality in the Congo operation rebounded on the United Nations itself with a vengeance.

In September 1961, the UN’s Swedish secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, was killed on Congo’s border in an air crash while attempting to manage a crisis in the operation. To this day the incident is still debated: was it an accident or was his plane was brought down by hostile fire? The following year, the UN was using offensive force, including airpower, against white mercenaries who had been recruited to support the breakaway southern Congo province of Katanga.


Dag Hammarskjöld on his last trip to the Congo, 1961. Image: daghammarskjold.se

In New York, the Security Council became deadlocked to the point where the UN as a whole faced an existential threat. Soviet anger at what it saw as the UN’s pro-western bias in the Congo led Moscow to propose a complete restructuring of the organisation which would have abolished the office of secretary-general. Unsuccessful in this, the USSR then refused to pay its assessed dues for peacekeeping, contravening an International Court of Justice opinion. This put the Soviet Union formally in breach of its membership commitments, jeopardising its voting rights in the General Assembly. If the threat of this had been carried through (it wasn’t; common sense prevailed), the USSR would almost certainly have withdrawn from the entire UN system.

The irony here was that peacekeeping – a concept designed to prevent local conflicts being sucked into Cold War rivalries – had done precisely the opposite. The peace operation itself had provoked a major crisis in superpower relations.

THE UN RETURNS TO THE CONGO: MONUC

ONUC and the next UN peacekeeping intervention in the Congo, MONUC (Mission de la Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo) which began in 1999, were linked by one individual. Joseph Mobutu – or as he later renamed himself, Mobutu Sese Seko – had been the Congolese army commander in the 1960s when the UN first intervened. A shadowy figure during the worst of the crisis, he rose to the presidency soon after the UN departed in 1964.


Mobutu Sese Seko and Richard Nixon in Washington DC, October 1973. Image: J.E. Kightlinger [National Archives and Records Administration, public domain]

Mobuto’s rule over Zaire (he renamed the country as well as himself) in the following decades was one of spectacular corruption and misrule. Zaire became the original African ‘kleptocracy’. Yet like many of the same stamp in Africa and elsewhere during the Cold War, he was a useful tool of western interests and this guaranteed his survival. But as east-west competition declined, so did Mobutu’s external support. In 1997, ill and now friendless, he was forced into exile.

The Democratic Republic of Congo which emerged in the wake of Mobuto-era Zaire was led by a veteran resistance figure, Laurent-Desire Kabila. The re-titled state was born into acute instability. The new regime struggled with the chaos left behind by Mobuto. But it was also confronted by some of the inherent problems that had plagued the Congo from its independence in 1960.

Following the basic rule of post-imperial Africa, the Congo insisted on retaining the territory and frontiers of the colonial era. This made the DRC the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa with a land area of 2.4 million square kilometres and a population of about 78 million. The capacity of any central government to successfully administer such a large, physically difficult, and ethnically diverse country from the capital Kinshasa would be doubtful; it was certainly far beyond the competence of Laurent-Desire Kabila.


Following the basic rule of post-imperial Africa, the Congo insisted on retaining the territory and frontiers of the colonial era. This made the DRC the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa with a land area of 2.4 million square kilometres and a population of about 78 million.

If these intrinsic problems weren’t enough of a challenge to Kabila’s incompetent government, the DRC – like the old Congo before it – was a victim of that paradoxical affliction, the so-called ‘resource curse’. The breakaway of Katanga in 1960 had been driven by the determination of European companies to keep control of the province’s copper and iron ore mines. In the later period, the mineral wealth was less traditional but even more valuable: cobalt; coltan; cassiterite; tantalum.

In both periods, instability grew from the greed of foreigners for this wealth. But in the 1990s and 2000s, it was the DRC’s close neighbours rather than European post-imperialists who sought to enrich themselves from the low-hanging fruit. As a result, between 1998 and 2003 the country was in a state of general conflict.

A major factor in this was the aftermath of the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda and the regime change there that followed it. The Tutsi-Hutu conflict fought out in Rwanda continued across the border in the DRC after 1994, where chronic instability allowed it to grow into a full-scale regional war. Rwandan, Zimbabwean, Namibian, and Angolan forces took sides – and sometimes switched between them – in a struggle for control of the Congolese state and its resources.


Rwandan, Zimbabwean, Namibian, and Angolan forces took sides – and sometimes switched between them – in a struggle for control of the Congolese state and its resources.

For eleven years after 1999, MONUC struggled to manage this complex set of interventions by neighbouring states and their local proxies. Even after the end of the fighting between the international actors, the UN faced a fragmented insurgency – partly regional, partly ethnic – against the government in Kinshasa by a spectrum of rebel groupings, some loosely interlinked, some entirely unconnected.

Not least among the UN’s problems was the fact that the regime itself was far from being a model of honest and democratic governance. In 2001 Kabila, who had presided over an increasingly chaotic and criminal government, was assassinated by his own body-guard. He was replaced by his son, Joseph but there was no discernible improvement in the standards of government. The younger Kabila has clung to power from the beginning of 2001 up to the present, using all means available to him.

MONUSCO: PEACEKEEPING OR PEACE ENFORCEMENT? 

By 2010, the UN Security Council judged the situation in DRC to have changed to the point where a new operation with a new mandate was called for. MONUC was replaced by MONUSCO. The largest UN peace operation then currently deployed, MONUSCO was directed to concentrate its military efforts on the eastern part of the Congo where the greatest violence continued. The problems here were closely connected to the borders with Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. In the calmer western part of the country, MONUSCO was to concentrate on the consolidation of the relative peace now established there.


Thousands of families, fleeing for their lives, arrive at Kibati camp on the edge of Goma, DRC. August 2012. Image: Marie Cacace/Oxfam [CC BY 2.0]

The more focused efforts of MONUSCO in eastern Congo have had limited success. Not only has the UN had to confront brutal and ill-disciplined rebel groups but also elements within the Congolese national army as well. The UN itself reported that these supposed guardians of the state were sowing general chaos in order themselves to profit from illegal mineral extraction. This, of course, is the army with which MONUSCO is supposed to be cooperating.

In 2013, the UN effort changed gear with the creation of a 3000-strong ‘intervention brigade’ within MONUSCO. This was authorised to use force against specific named rebel militias, including the M23 group and the Ugandan-based Lord’s Resistance Army. The brigade was to act either on its own or – tellingly – in cooperation with Congolese national forces. In the words of its Security Council mandate, it was to do so ‘in a robust, highly mobile and versatile manner’.


Can coercive enforcement be accommodated within the concept of peacekeeping?

While this appeared to mark a positive change of direction for the UN, it was in some respects a sign of the shortcomings of MONUSCO. The original mandate for the larger force had been issued with reference to Chapter VII of the UN Charter which authorises the use of force. The problem was that many of the contributing states (the TCCs – Troop Contributing Countries) had been reluctant to exercise these powers available to them to take offensive action. This was, in part, a natural reluctance on the part of TCCs to get in harm’s way in a conflict in which their own national interests were not obviously present  – as we have discussed before, this is a recurring problem in peace operations.


Congolese National Armed Forces reinforce their positions around Goma as they engage M23 forces, 21 May 2013. Image: MONUSCO [CC BY-SA 2.0]

But in part too there was a resistance among TCCs to the idea that, having signed up for a ‘peace operation’, they should be required to take on a battlefield posture. This emerges from a kind of ‘philosophical’ conundrum. Can coercive enforcement be accommodated within the concept of peacekeeping? Moreover, can coercive enforcement by the UN on behalf of, and in cooperation with, the forces of a contested regime be justified under any concept?

LONG SPOON NEEDED: MONUSCO AND THE REGIME 

At least the earlier episode of UN enforcement in the Congo in the 1960s had a specific outcome: the ending of the secession in Katanga. Today, in the absence of one such clear objective, the achievements of the intervention brigade are more questionable. To some extent, it’s had the worst of two worlds. Little advance has been made against the complex insurgency in eastern Congo – but the UN’s counter-insurgency posture has created an unhelpful perception of an alliance with a widely disliked central government.

Reflecting this, peacekeeper casualties have been high, as we’ve seen. In one single incident last December, fourteen (mostly Tanzanian) UN troops were killed and more than fifty wounded in an attack by a rebel group in North Kivu province.


United Nations Stabilisation Mission in DR Congo (MONUSCO)

First deployed: 2010 (follow-on mission); Total strength (2017): 17,207; Contributing states (2017): total = 54 >100 personnel: Bangladesh, Benin, China, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Malawi, Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan, Senegal, South Africa, Ukraine, Tanzania, Uruguay; Fatalities (since 2010): 144


The issue goes to the heart of the operation’s difficulties – and more broadly the dilemma of UN peace operations which in part are mandated to support regimes in power in conflict zones. Kabila was constitutionally bound to leave the presidency after two terms at the end of 2016 – yet he has stubbornly refused to do so.

Since then, thousands have died in the instability created by the crisis he’s unleashed. According to the UN, some 5000 people were killed in southern Kasai province alone in the conflict between the government and its opponents between mid-2016 and mid- 2017. In December it was reported that 1.7 million people had been displaced by fighting during 2017. Yet, almost by default, MONUSCO is tied to the fortunes of the regime.


US Secretary of State John Kerry and President of the DRC Joseph Kabila address reporters in Washington, 4 August 2014. Image: US State Department

After offensives by MONUSCO’s intervention brigade, the M23 group was weakened to the point where elements of it surrendered and were then integrated into the national army. This was in line with the now-standard peacekeeping process of demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR). But these elements appear to have been specially selected by Kabila for use against his political enemies. This clearly cannot be considered a victory for peacekeeping.


Kabila was constitutionally bound to leave the presidency after two terms at the end of 2016 – yet he has stubbornly refused to do so. Since then, thousands have died in the instability created by the crisis he’s unleashed.

The issue of operations in support, direct or indirect, of the incumbent authority is now a central problem for contemporary peacekeeping. How far should the UN go in positioning itself as an ally of contested state power? The answer to this question, as we’ve suggested, is intimately connected with casualty rates. It’s not actually very complicated: when ‘peacekeeping’ becomes counter-insurgency, the insurgents are going to target those countering them.

Frankly, there’s little cause for optimism over the UN’s efforts in the DRC. This latest involvement in the Congo (MONUC and MONUSCO) is not far short of its twentieth anniversary, but it has little to celebrate and there are few signs of it having made any real progress towards resolving the manifold conflicts in the vast country. Nor is there any prospect of salvation through increased resources; in March last year the UN agreed, under pressure from the Trump administration, to reduce MONUSCO’s force numbers.


The issue of operations in support, direct or indirect, of the incumbent authority is now a central problem for contemporary peacekeeping. How far should the UN go in positioning itself as an ally of contested state power?

In the meantime, MONUSCO’s complex role as both a supposedly ‘neutral’ peacekeeper and as backstop to government authority continues to throw up problems. In March of last year, two of the UN’s human rights investigators were murdered in the course of their work by elements almost certainly associated with the regime. There have been accusations that the UN itself has been slow to reveal the findings of its own enquiries into this. And while the United Nations navigates its own awkward political course, both the European Union and the United States have applied targeted sanctions against key figures in the government whose authority MONUSCO’s mandate requires it to support.

While conditions in the west of the country remain relatively tranquil, this stability will be tenuous as long as the rest of the country is in a state of more or less permanent warfare. The prospect – though it’s only that – of a change of government leadership in the coming months should be encouraging. But given the history of the Congo since its independence in 1960, optimism is a commodity which must be used sparingly.

For the UN, the long engagement with the Congo in its various incarnations is a persistent reminder of the limits of both peacekeeping and of its less reputable relative, peace enforcement.


Norrie MacQueen is the author of several books on the United Nations, peace operations and humanitarian intervention. He is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations which has recently appeared in paperback, and he is on the editorial board of the Journal of International Peacekeeping. He was part of the Democratic Governance Support Unit of the UN integrated peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste during 2012 in the final phase of the operation. Norrie is a Contributing Editor at CABLE. He is on Twitter at: @NorrieMacQueen Mail him at: nm47@st-andrews.ac.uk 


Feature image: A MONUSCO armoured personnel carrier passes a contingent of FARDC soldiers on their way back from the front line in the Beni region, DRC. 13 March 2014. © MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti [CC BY-SA 2.0]