A new peace framework could bolster MONUSCO, push Congolese reforms and enhance cross-border cooperation. But while positive, these steps are not enough.
In a bid to foster stability in the long-troubled region of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Congolese government came together with several other regional governments on 24 February to approve a peace deal.
Signed in Ethiopia by 11 African governments, it is hoped that the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Region will bring the DRC one step closer to finally resolving decades of insecurity and violence.
What has been agreed?
The agreement covers a number of areas. It includes commitments from neighbouring states designed to curb covert support of armed groups in the region; Rwanda and Uganda were both accused of providing resources, funds and support for the M23 rebels.
It also attempts to overcome the UN's perceived failures in effectively dealing with the M23 crisis since April last year; MONUSCO (the UN force in the DRC) in particular came under much criticism last year for essentially standing by and watching as M23 seized town after town.
Regarding the Congolese government, the peace agreement demands a commitment to deepen democratisation and reorganise the security sector alongside basic financial and structural reform.
At the heart of the agreement is the establishment of the 11+4 regional oversight mechanism, tasked with monitoring the implementation of the agreement. The 11 signatory states responsible for this are: the DRC, Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia, and (crucially) Rwanda and Uganda.
The mechanism also includes the 4 'good offices' of the UN Secretary-General; the Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Secretariat; the Chairperson of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR); and the Chairperson of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
To further reinforce this framework, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is pushing for the UN Security Council to authorise an Intervention Brigade within MONUSCO (the UN force in the DRC).
The UN Secretary-General has requested that this Intervention Brigade be "tasked with containing the expansion of both Congolese and foreign armed groups, neutralizing these groups, and disarming them".
The Intervention Brigade is expected to be around 2,000 strong, and have "the ability to conduct, with or without the FARDC [the Congolese army], offensive operations against all armed groups that threaten the peace in eastern DRC". Promisingly, Mozambique and Tanzania have already expressed interest in providing troops.
A fragile framework?
The conflict in the DRC is notorious for its scale and complexity. The agreement and regional oversight mechanism has now pulled all regional actors into the peace process. While some assert this is a prerequisite for success, others have suggested it may be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.
Those applauding the agreement particularly note the pressure on Rwanda and Uganda to contribute to peace, both of which are highly influential in the region and both of which have been accused of backing rebels.
There is of course no guarantee the two powers will remain committed to peace or maintaining the sovereignty of the DRC, but their commitment on paper, backed up by a regional mechanism, is a crucial first step.
It is hoped the regional oversight mechanism will also open up lines of communication and facilitate cooperation between the interested states.
However, the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework - along with the Intervention Brigade - have several clear weaknesses, suggesting it is not quite the "innovative and comprehensive approach" the UN Secretary-General has labelled it.
Firstly, one of the Intervention Brigade's primary purposes appears to be giving the UN force more power on the ground. But it hardly provides much more power to MONUSCO than it theoretically already has.
MONUSCO's original mandate, laid out by the UN Security Council, authorises the force "to use all necessary means...[to] ensure the effective protection of civilians, including humanitarian personnel and human rights defenders, under imminent threat of physical violence, in particular violence emanating from any of the parties engaged in the conflict". It also provides for a reserve force capable of rapidly deploying in the country.
With these provisions, MONUSCO has the mandate to use force to protect civilians. However, during M23's rebellion it singularly failed to do so. Given that MONUSCO has been unable to achieve its original mandate, establishing a new one is unlikely to resolve the UN's current failure.
Furthermore, the US has reportedly expressed concerns to the UN Security Council that MONUSCO may simply not have the military capability to take on armed groups such as M23.
A new mandate and a new name will mean little if the force is not strong enough to engage the groups it encounters, and would likely prove as ineffective as the current force at turning its objectives into action.
A second crucial weakness of the peace agreement is its exclusively top-down focus. Although it is framed as a comprehensive approach, the framework heavily emphasises regional dynamics and the Congolese government's need to implement the usual commitments in the peace-building discourse - namely security sector reform, democratisation and financial reform. Although these aspects are important, the framework ignores crucial local actors in the eastern provinces.
The UN's focus on states and foreign actors also risks over-emphasising the roles of Rwanda and Uganda at the expense of understanding internal dynamics within the region and the rebel groups operating there.
M23, for example, split into two and the two rival factions clashed violently in North Kivu on the day the framework was signed. Besides renewed violence due to internal M23 disputes, a new rebel group calling itself the Alliance of Patriots for Free and Sovereign Congo (APFSC) also launched offensives in the region, attacking the town of Kitchanga, 80 kilometres west of Goma.
NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported over 80 civilian fatalities and the displacement of thousands more. As yet, the APFSC's motivations remain unclear, however the group's sudden activity, days after the peace agreement was signed, is unlikely to be coincidental.
Both security threats from the M23 and the APFSC exemplify how the current focus on regional dynamics and government-level reform, without engaging with local actors, is inadequate to increase peace and security even in the short-term.
While the regional oversight mechanism and the constructive engagement with Rwanda and Uganda are undoubtedly positive steps, it is this narrow, top-down approach which may limit the frameworks' success.
While national, regional and international factors are crucial, it is how they distil down to the local level and operate alongside local dynamics that determines whether peace or conflict, stability or instability, security or insecurity prevails.
Lewis Brooks is a graduate with a BA in International Relations from the University of Exeter. He has a particular interest in African conflict resolution and peacekeeping.