In response to fighting between government forces and rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that threatens regional stability, the United Nations Security Council has authorized an “intervention brigade” – a new kind of international stabilization force – that is expected to become fully operational by the end of July.
The intervention brigade has the unprecedented mandate to “neutralize” rebel groups through targeted offensive operations. However, in its pursuit of armed groups, the brigade risks undermining the U.N.’s broader efforts to protect Congolese civilians in three major ways. First, its mandate to “neutralize” inherently conflicts with the protection of civilians; second, the brigade’s activities may shift the conflict dynamics in eastern DRC in dangerous ways; and third, its operations may interfere with the work of humanitarian organizations.
The relatively new rebel group M23 took over the major eastern city of Goma in the DRC last November in an attack that shocked regional and international observers. After M23 withdrew, regional leaders met and proposed a neutral international force to stabilize the turbulent eastern part of the country. This idea evolved into a U.N.-led intervention brigade to dismantle armed groups.
The intervention brigade – consisting of some 3,000 troops from Tanzania, South Africa, and Malawi – is authorized as an element of the existing U.N. peacekeeping operation in DRC, known as the U.N. Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). Still in its early days, the brigade’s activities have thus far been limited to patrols, but there are outstanding questions about how the brigade will implement its mandate with respect to the protection of civilians once operations begin in earnest in the next few weeks.
If the language of the intervention brigade’s mandate is read one way, all of MONUSCO, including the brigade, will be tasked with the proactive protection of civilians. This would require MONUSCO to prevent deliberate violence by armed actors against civilians through political negotiation and meditation or through the use of force. For example, MONUSCO could insert itself between perpetrators of violence and the vulnerable populations they target.
However, another interpretation is that the proactive protection of civilians will fall to the rest of MONUSCO while the intervention brigade’s role is limited to mitigating the risks that the brigade’s military operations could pose to civilians before, during and after any operations in accordance with international humanitarian law.
Under either interpretation, however, MONUSCO’s long-standing mandate to proactively protect civilians under imminent threat of violence will be compromised. Peacekeeping operations are not neutral, but they are expected to implement their proactive protection of civilians mandate in an impartial fashion, protecting populations under threat regardless of the perpetrator’s political or military affiliation.
If the intervention brigade is tasked with the proactive protection of civilians, it will face a difficult balancing act managing tensions between impartially implementing its proactive protection mandate and its mandate to neutralize armed groups. For example, the U.N. Security Council authorized the intervention brigade to undertake counterinsurgency operations requiring offensive actions that will likely result in civilian casualties. The force’s responsibility is only to minimize them per international humanitarian law.
On the other hand, MONUSCO’s proactive protection of civilians mandate is often misinterpreted as limiting MONUSCO’s use of force to a purely deterrent role and raises expectations that MONUSCO’s military components will create no civilian casualties.
Unfortunately, the likelihood that the intervention brigade’s activities will create significant civilian casualties will be greater if the intervention brigade conducts its operations jointly with the Congolese army. The army not only lacks command and control, but includes large numbers of former rebels integrated into its ranks and is one of the most serious perpetrators of abuses against civilians in the country.
The intervention brigade’s mandate to neutralize armed groups also creates particular risks to civilians given the conflict dynamics in eastern DRC. Although recent media attention has been focused on M23, a multitude of armed groups compete for power in the region. A force of 3,000 may be able to dislodge an armed group from one area, but is too small to hold the ground. This can create a power vacuum that others fill, including other armed groups and Congolese armed forces known to abuse civilians. New groups that take over control of territory may exact reprisals against communities for their perceived support of the former occupying force.
Moreover, the decision as to which armed groups to neutralize first may have serious implications for civilians. Many armed groups in the eastern DRC fight each other as well as the government for a host of historical, political and ethnic reasons. Given the ethnic affiliations of many of the most important armed groups, the intervention brigade’s decision to target particular armed groups may give the impression that the U.N. favors particular ethnicities, undermining the legitimacy and credibility of MONUSCO as a whole while fueling conflict drivers.
In addition, the intervention brigade’s robust mandate may interfere with the work of humanitarian groups that are also helping to protect civilians. MONUSCO is an integrated mission, which means that U.N. humanitarian agencies must coordinate and communicate with MONUSCO. At the same time, U.N. agencies help to coordinate non-U.N. humanitarian organizations. U.N. agencies are often required to coordinate and work alongside MONUSCO’s military component in line with U.N. security protocols.
Humanitarian actors depend on being perceived as impartial, neutral and independent in order to have access to and acceptance by communities. This enables the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians in need across conflict lines.
The nature of the intervention brigade’s mandate may mean that any humanitarian organization perceived to be part of or affiliated with the mission is at greater risk of being targeted or having its access blocked by armed groups. In this context, humanitarian groups may also be particularly reluctant to cooperate or share information with the mission, fearing that the brigade’s offensive operations could lead to civilian casualties or have a direct negative impact on local perceptions.
Difficult choices lie ahead as the U.N. decides whether the intervention brigade will be tasked with the proactive protection of civilians and how its mandate to neutralize armed groups can be balanced against the wider U.N.’s roles in this area.
In order to reach international objectives of a secure and peaceful region, MONUSCO, its intervention brigade, countries that contribute troops and dollars, U.N. Security Council member states and regional powers will have to carefully consider, coordinate and determine how to balance these tensions and mitigate the potential civilian impact of this unprecedented mandate.
Michelle Ker is a former research associate with the Future of Peace Operations program.
UN Photo/Clara Padovan