UN Peacekeepers’ Achilles’ Heel Can’t Be Protected By More Boots On The Ground

in Program

Is the UN prepared to stop the use of one of the oldest weapons of war? Mass rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo highlights the need for UN member states to focus on doing more to protect civilians with the assets they have.

By Alison Giffen – From July 30 to August 3, rebels occupied a North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) raping and assaulting at least 150 women. This drawn-out atrocity occurred not far from a base of the UN’s largest peacekeeping operation – the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (known by its acronym MONUSCO) — which boasts 20,000 peacekeepers. More disturbing, media reports indicate that the UN was aware the rebels were in the area and sent out a warning instructing UN civilian workers to avoid the area. MONUSCO claimed they were initially prevented from entering and/or civilians prevented from communicating with peacekeepers by a rebel roadblock. The United Nations was unaware that mass rapes had occurred until almost two weeks after they began. A month later, the UN reports that up to 500 women and girls were likely raped in similar attacks in North and South Kivu.

This atrocity is the most recent reminder that UN peacekeeping missions are still not able to stop armed actors from targeting civilians and using rape as a weapon of war, despite a decade of mandates that they be prepared to do just that. Since 1999, the UN Security Council has tasked peacekeeping operations with protecting civilians and granted them the authority to use force to do so. This is one of the few exceptions to a traditional principle of peacekeeping: non-use of force except in self-defense and defense of the mandate.

The recent events in DR Congo illustrate that it’s not just the number of boots on the ground or helicopters in the air that determine success when it comes to protecting populations. More resources and assets can give missions broader reach, but there will never be enough troops or hardware to deter every armed actor and protect every vulnerable civilian under threat. Moreover, these resources aren’t worth the diplomacy and dollars it takes to deploy them unless the missions have the guidance, leadership and training to use them effectively.

UN institutions haven’t given that guidance on what assets and troops are needed in a protection crisis, how mission leadership is expected to prevent and respond to such a crisis and how and when troops on the ground are expected to apply military techniques that were designed to defeat an enemy and take territory, to instead protect civilians. In other words, gaps at the strategic level of UN headquarters are undermining leadership and performance at the operational and tactical level.

But United Nations institutions and agencies are not solely to blame for these critical liabilities. UN institutions and operations are a reflection of individual member states’ political will to turn the rhetoric of human rights into reality. Some UN member states have consistently objected to the development of the guidance and training that would prepare and equip UN peacekeepers for this job. Troop contributing states, understandably wary of losing soldiers in foreign conflicts (and thus political support at home), protective of sovereignty (and keen to ward off international attention to abuses within their own borders), and/or focused on immunity (to shield soldiers from reckoning for abuses committed abroad), have sometimes joined the ranks of a small clique of human rights detractors in opposing the needed reforms.

Of relevance to the recent rapes in DR Congo, this small clique of detractors have successfully opposed developing guidance that could increase the likelihood that peacekeepers are deployed with the intelligence and communication tools critical to understanding who is attacking civilians, when, why and how. Such understanding is especially important when peacekeepers are covering large geographic areas and confronted with various types of threats to civilians. It appears that lack of information, analysis, and communication, were in part to blame for MONUSCO’s failure to intervene in the five-day crisis in North Kivu.

Political opposition at UN headquarters has also slowed the development of more effective training measures that promote such understanding, for example, dismounting from vehicles during patrols and interacting with communities to understand the threats against them. And it has constrained the development of consistent guidance that would empower and require that commanders overcome rebel roadblocks, preferably through mediation and as a last resort through the use of force when mass atrocities are occurring.

These weaknesses also undermine peacekeeping missions’ ability to protect their own troops and assets from attacks by armed actors. In mid-August, three Indian army soldiers serving with MONUSCO were killed and seven were injured when their camp was attacked by rebels.

Ironically, MONUSCO, and its predecessor — MONUC [1] — have led the way in developing innovative protection of civilian practices in the past. MONUC used early warning systems, working with remote communities to use cell phones to alert nearby peacekeepers to an impending threat. Unfortunately, such best practices have rarely been captured and institutionalized at the strategic level, resulting in ad hoc and too often inadequate protection. This can and should change going forward.

Although too late for the 18,000 survivors of sexual violence who sought assistance in DR Congo in the last year and the thousands before them, the UN Security Council and the UN Special Committee on Peacekeeping (made up of troop contributing countries) finally tasked the UN Secretariat with developing guidance and training that could improve the planning, leadership, training and deployment of peacekeeping missions to better protect civilians. The UN Secretariat is now developing these tools. However, the tools’ effectiveness and implementation ultimately depend on the UN member states that requested them. Will states agree to allow and ensure that guidance, training and leadership prepare missions for the protection challenges and realities on the ground? Or will detractors find ways to render these new tools ineffective, leaving missions like MONUSCO unable to protect vulnerable civilian populations, including the women of North and South Kivu in DR Congo?


[1] On July 1, 2010, MONUSCO took over from an earlier UN peacekeeping operation – the United Nations Organization Mission in Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) per Security Council resolution 1925 to “reflect the new phase reached in the country.” (see accessed on 7 September 2010).


Photo Credit: United Nations Photo # 185332: MONUC Peacekeepers Patrol the Virunga Market Place in February 2008.


Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices