interviewBy Alex Whiting
The United Nations has established a new peacekeeping brigade in Congo with a mandate to use force against rebel groups in the country's east, including M23, one of the militias at the heart of nearly two decades of conflict.
The 3,000-strong brigade is mostly made up of soldiers from the region, housed within the wider U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, and the idea for it came out of a meeting of regional leaders last year.
But it is a departure from normal U.N. peacekeeping and has set alarm bells ringing among some peace experts.
So what does it mean for Congo's civilians? And does it set a precedent for future U.N. peacekeeping missions to have more teeth?
Thomson Reuters Foundation asked a former U.N. peacekeeper, an academic, and two experts in conflict resolution for their opinion.
They are former U.N. peacekeeper Christopher Langton, now head of Independent Conflict Research and Analysis; Neil MacFarlane, professor of International Relations at Oxford University; Jonathan Cohen, director of programmes of peace-building NGO Conciliation Resources; and Kennedy Tumutegyereize, east & central Africa programme director at Conciliation Resources who travels extensively in the Great Lakes region.
Will the Congo brigade help protect civilians from attack?
Reading between the lines, the reason for this brigade is to deal with the heart of the issue. So instead of trying to protect civilians and standing there and watching M23 (rebels) run past and the Congolese armed forces run past in the other direction ... which is what often happens, it may be a partial recognition that they can't go on protecting civilians unless they go straight for the jugular and stop this group, which is steadily growing in capability, stop it in its tracks before the mission becomes untenable.
We wait to see whether M23 will melt away into the forest or stand up to this brigade, or whether the brigade is actually sufficient for the task.
If we don't put enough people in who can do the job and if we don't give them the equipment necessary to do the job, then there might be an improvement at the margins, but it's hardly a sea change.
Until you engage the Congolese civil society (in peace talks) ... the issue of civilian protection will remain more on paper, or will remain more on civilians in cities and towns where the military units are.
But in the countryside, most people don't think the current trend will lead to any significant levels of protection for the ordinary man and woman and child living in the villages.
Assuming (the brigade) was effective and was hitting M23 hard, one would expect retaliation. And what we've seen from other rebel groups ... (is that they) target the soft targets - the civilians. This is a risk and it's a fear most people in the region have.
Most people tend to think that politics and pressure on the (region's) political leaders could be playing a much bigger role than the brigade itself (in getting M23 to consider peace talks).
Are there any dangers with this brigade?
Not in this context, which is very contained in one country ... and where M23 appears not to be ideologically linked to Russia or China. It is ideologically linked to itself principally and there are big commercial interests.
So I think everybody feels very comfortable that this is an operation against a group of extremely sophisticated bandits and this isn't going to suddenly come back and hit us because al Qaeda is involved or something like that. So it is a rather unusual case.
All the players have been there for a very long time and all the logistics, all the command structures. So I don't think there will be problems on that score. With one exception - if M23 get the upper hand on this brigade - pulling a rabbit out of a hat somewhere - that might cause weaknesses to occur within the U.N. co-ordinated operation. (Countries from outside the region) might say, hang on, this is getting bigger than we thought, let's take our peacekeepers out of here ... we can't afford to have people killed.
My main concern with this sort of brigade is how it has blurred the lines ... I think to an ordinary person on the street, the distinction between this brigade and MONUSCO and others, for example U.N. aid agencies, is not clear, or even if it were clear it doesn't matter anyway. So it makes life complicated for other agencies.
What makes me ... anxious is the statement allegedly coming from the U.N. military leaders, for example for armed groups to disarm within a certain period of time, when everybody knows that nobody will disarm. So the moment you start threats with no mechanism of implementing or enforcing your threats, then it ... directly and indirectly undermines the credibility and legitimacy of the (U.N.) mission.
I'm not convinced it's the right domain to have the U.N. step into a more aggressive role because I think it opens up some very real dangers, and it worries me because it seems to be part of a wider trend that problems can be solved through the use of force.
If you're not prepared to have creative longer-term responses to the sorts of power vacuums that these (armed groups) step into, you can pursue a military response to bat them down and try and defeat them but ... they'll rise again in a different form ... You're not contributing to the resolution, you're just transforming the conflict into a different stage.
Why is it difficult for U.N. peacekeepers to protect civilians?
Why is it difficult? Really by its own definition. You don't have rules of engagement as a peacekeeper that allow you to do more than defend, which means you have to be creative or you're sort of sitting there while enemies are attacking you. You might hold them off or you might not, but then they go away and you can't follow them up and deal with them because your rules of engagement under the U.N. don't allow you to do that - unless you have a Chapter 7 resolution (which gives you the mandate to use force), which more often than not you don't. You don't have airpower, etc. It goes back ... to the U.N. having no authority of its own and no military command.
The other thing is you cannot stop civilians moving on the battlefield, the area of conflict. In somewhere like Congo, which is heavily forested, civilians will melt away into the forest in fear. You can't stop them. And very often you don't have enough humanitarian supplies to sustain them, so that's another reason why they'll move away from the protected areas. It's a hugely complicated matter.
I've never done peacekeeping in Africa, but I can imagine the difficulties faced by peacekeepers elsewhere would be magnified several times in Africa, given the space, the terrain, the huge diversity of ethnicities and so on.
Is the brigade a sign of a longer-term shift to peacekeepers with teeth?
I think the main thing is this (brigade) could never be a complete precedent for U.N. intervention ... but it will be a useful lesson ... for the U.N.
What I think will happen is that the precedent that will be set here is a military one, which will form part of the evolution of military action under a U.N. mandate and how it might be carried out ... It will be a model - how does a military force interface with U.N. monitors, humanitarian agencies, in a conflict.
It won't, however, be a political precedent, because there aren't any arguments between the Security Council members.
(In Congo) there is a host nation invitation, which is one of the requirements ... so the government ... invited MONUSCO to up its game to the use of kinetic force against M23.
You would never have got that in the Balkans (in the early 1990s), and that's (one) reason why this might not be a complete precedent because in the Balkans there were quasi-state forces involved, whereas M23 quite obviously is a non-state group with no voice in the United Nations. Whereas of course Serbia, Russia had a voice, which complicated things back in the early days when people starting talking about (U.N. peacekeepers) and the use of force.
The other reason is ... all the members of the brigade are (from the region). We notice that other nations involved in MONUSCO ... are not involved in (the brigade).
The other truth, and the reason why (Congo) can't be considered a complete precedent, is that the U.N. has no authority, it has no military command structure of its own, it has no logistic structure of its own, it has to call on its members to provide all those things. And if somebody disagrees, it doesn't happen.
Courtesy of the events of the 1990s - Rwanda, Srebrenica, Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia - the United Nations as an organisation, and interested states, began to think about what you're supposed to do in situations of internal chaos where states cannot or will not protect their own citizens.
We're now in a situation where there is a body of international norms and also a growing body of international law that suggests that in certain circumstances ... the United Nations can act within states to protect rights when the state is not willing to do so or is incapable of doing so. That's a big change.
So what you're talking about in Congo is a logical, practical extension of that change at the level of principle. In the long term, I think this is the way we're going. I think once you've got the issue of human protection on the agenda it's not going to go away. And the more failures there are, the more pressure there will be to actually do the kind of thing you are talking about.
On the other hand, Congo has been, off and on, a thorn in the side of the United Nations for most of its existence as an organisation. It has a specific history and it generates specific needs. And I don't think we can generalise from that case to a shift towards peacekeepers having more teeth.
The other thing is, what is the appetite of U.N. member states for peacekeeping? If you want teeth, you need highly professional, well-equipped, technologically advanced forces on the ground and in the air.
My sense would be that it is extremely difficult currently, as we see in Syria at the moment, to get the mandates or the authorisations out of the U.N. Security Council that you need for forceful action to protect civilians.
What will peacekeeping look like in 10-20 years' time?
In 20 years' time, we will probably have been through several phases of conflict of different types, some of which are beginning to happen now where the U.N. is having difficulty finding a role.
We may find that Africa defines its own way of dealing with conflict through the example of the brigade and the successful African Union military. Because, whatever happens, we're still going to be faced with great power interests conflicting with each other and trying to agree an approach to a conflict.
Maybe the one thing that will change - maybe - is China's attitude. [China is one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that authorises peacekeeping missions. The others are the United States, Russia, France and Britain.]
So far, China has stood back from involvement in the military aspect of conflict management and resolution ... If China comes forward and says, yes we will take part, then the traditional reticence of Russia and its natural antipathy to anything the West does could also change.
If you look at peacekeeping, putting Africa aside, most of it has been led by the West, but most of the troops ... have been provided by other countries - eg Pakistan, Bangladesh, India ... But of course those countries are all jockeying for positions themselves. India might be a member of the Security Council in 20 years and that can change things.
There are lots of situations where the presence of peacekeepers has stabilised situations. It may not have produced political settlements of conflicts, but the presence of international peacekeepers has probably reduced the probability of renewal of conflict and suspended conflict for long periods of time. And I think that will continue to be true.
For the United Nations to be a reliable provider of protection of civilians in conflict situations, the Security Council and the permanent members of the Security Council have to be on board with the proposition that if the protection of civilians in conflict is an international obligation where the state is unable or unwilling to do its job, then that has to be implemented consistently, not just in cases where nobody on the Security Council has an objection.
So if we're talking about moving towards a regime where human beings are systematically protected in the first instance by their state and in the second instance, failing the first, by the international community, I think we're probably moving in that direction slowly but we are nowhere near that.
I'd love to see a really meaningful debate about how you link the deployment of peacekeeping operations to the wider peacebuilding agenda and recognise that keeping peace needs to be connected to building real peace, and building real peace needs to get beyond political elites - it needs to recognise that you don't enforce a peace on a society and hope it will hold. You have to actually engage in a much deeper analysis of why societies become engulfed in conflict.
Outsiders will always intervene because they will have either strategic, security, economic, or geopolitical interests that will push them to do so, but they need to do so with a longer-term perspective, with an investment in local actors to be the long-term resolvers of these conflicts, not external actors.
There are some encouraging signs that international organisations and states are beginning to see that.