18 October 2013

Congo-Kinshasa: Blue Helmet Blues - UN Force in the Congo Take Two

Photo: Tiggy Ridley/IRIN
Young militia fighters stand guard outside their leader’s hut in Democratic Republic of Congo's Ituri region.


The UN's Force Intervention Brigade has been heralded as breaking new peacekeeping territory, but this isn't the first time the UN has taken the fight to Congolese rebels.

In August, the UN's peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), found itself under fire alongside Congolese troops and civilians in the eastern city of Goma.

The Congolese Army (FARDC) and soldiers from the M23 rebel group, which has been fighting government troops since April 2012, began shelling each other's positions. Goma was hit and several civilians were reported to have been killed.

Amidst this fighting, tensions between the Congolese and Rwandan governments continued to escalate. Rwanda has been accused repeatedly of supporting the M23, whilst it in turn claims the Congolese government is not doing enough to combat the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), an anti-Rwandan government rebel group positioned in eastern DRC.

This war of words was exacerbated when some shells fell on Rwandan territory. Meanwhile in Goma, civilian protests broke out against the UN whom many blamed for not doing enough to protect them.

It was against this backdrop that the UN'S DRC mission (known by its French acronym MONUSCO) turned to its newly-deployed Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) for the first time.

Made up of 3,069 South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops, this unit was launched earlier this year to carry out offensive operations to neutralise armed groups in the region. It was formed partly in reaction to the UN's perceived failure to protect civilians from the M23, with MONUSCO coming under particular criticism for watching on as the M23 briefly seized Goma in November of last year.

With this fresh in the memories of Goma's citizens and the UN, the FIB this August reacted quickly to the M23's renewed hostilities. Alongside the Congolese army, the brigade began by shelling M23 positions before engaging in a counter offensive using snipers, artillery and helicopters to push back the rebels.

Compared to last year's toothless presence, this was a force with a new look. And along with pointing out the exceptionality of having a UN peacekeeping mission that engages in hostilities, those at the UN have also stressed that the FIB is not setting any new precedents for missions elsewhere.

Both Martin Kobler, the head of MONUSCO, and Mary Robinson, the UN Special Envoy to the Great Lakes, emphasise that the mandate for MONUSCO hasn't changed but that it has simply acquired new tools to protect civilians. But just how novel is the UN's use of force really? And what does the deployment of the FIB tell us about the changing nature of the UN's doctrine over the past decades?

From UNEF to Black Hawk Down

Peacekeeping as an international practice began in the 1950s with the creation of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) to police the border between Egypt and Israel after the Suez Crisis.

Championed by Canadian Prime Minster, Lester B. Pearson, UNEF consisted of lightly-armed soldiers and unarmed observers drawn from UN member-states. Three principles were articulated to guide the mission: impartiality; the minimum use of force; and consent from the host nation. And for over a decade, UNEF remained deployed as an effective and symbolic deterrent to renewed hostilities between Israel and Egypt.

Following in the footsteps of this mission, and adopting UNEF's formula, several other UN mission were deployed in the following years and decades to countries across the world. These generally abided by UNEF'S guiding principles, but although the UN was nervous about using force, the mandates of some missions did shift.

Perhaps most famously, the UN Operation in Somalia deployed in 1993 ended up experimenting with force. As the situation between the UN and local warlords became more tense, the UN mission known as UNOSOM II clashed with troops loyal to warlord General Mohamed Farah Aidid leading to the deaths of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers.

US Special Forces, supported by UNOSOM II, then tried to arrest high-level Aidid lieutenants in a disastrous and bloody event - known as the Battle of Mogadishu or Black Hawk Down - in which several hundred Somalis are estimated to have been killed along with 18 American, 1 Malaysian and 1 Pakistani troops.

These events led to a backlash against UN intervention, particularly in US policy circles, and the level of UN force used in Somalia became known as the 'Mogadishu line', a benchmark so far removed from impartiality, the minimum use of force and consent, in the eyes of policy makers, that it was never to be crossed again.

Clashes in Katanga

However, Somalia was not the only mission to depart from the principles of UNEF, nor the first. In the early 1960s, as the norms created by UNEF were still new, ONUC in the DRC briefly provided an alternative for what UN peacekeeping could look like.

In the 1960s, the Congo was facing a crisis as national and foreign actors grappled for control of the country. Although having granted its former colony independence in 1960, Belgium sent soldiers back to the country to protect its expatriates still living there.

Meanwhile, with the central government in crisis, the mineral-rich province of Katanga, backed by British and Belgian mining interests, sought secession.

Responding to this turmoil, the UN Security Council acted swiftly, authorising the Secretary-General to deploy troops to assist the central government. But things got even worse as the nationalist Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated under the UN's watch, an act in which Belgium was heavily implicated.

The UN found itself increasingly split between the European powers and America on the one hand, who were keen to maintain influence in the region as the Cold War continued, and many countries in the developing world, angry at the death of Lumumba and what they saw as colonial meddling in a newly-independent country.

As criticism of the UN increased, officers on the ground began organising to end the Katangan secession. Sensing the growing anger in the developing world, the UN Security Council changed tack and gave ONUC the authority to use force to protect their freedom of movement and expel foreign paramilitaries.

Two operations, Rumpunch and Morthor, were launched, and the UN began taking over strategic locations in Katanga and disarming the Western mercenaries protecting the secessionists and Western mining interests.

Where mercenaries resisted, the UN used ground assaults, combat aircraft and armed vehicles to defeat them. The operations did suffer some setbacks including an incident in which the Irish garrison of ONUC was surrounded by mercenaries and Katangan gendarmerie for 6 days.

But overall, the operations were a success in the eyes of those who conducted them, and the Katangan secession was brought to an end. When faced with a growing crisis and a threat to its legitimacy, the UN took sides and used force to solve a political problem.

Lessons learned

There are of course countless differences between the situation in the DRC now and the situation in the 1960s. In the 1960s, Congo faced an open secession attempt by provincial authorities; today, the main threat is the plethora of rebel and militia groups in the east of the country.

In the 1960s, Belgium and the UK were the foreign powers accused of destabilising the country; today it is Rwanda and Uganda. In the 1960s, the focus of UN concern was on protecting the territorial integrity of states; today there is much more onus on protecting the lives of civilians.

But there are also important parallels between ONUC and the FIB today, not least the heavy criticism the UN encountered for its perceived weakness amidst intensifying situations - in 1960s, its failure to prevent Lumumba's assassination drew condemnation, while in 2012 it was MONUSCO's failure to stop M23 capture Goma that sparked anger.

And in both cases, it seems the UN's decision to employ a more forceful approach is at least partly driven by the realisation that it may have to take sides to achieve political goals and retain its legitimacy and reputation.

So what lessons can MONUSCO learn from ONUC? Well, firstly, ONUC demonstrated that force can work in achieving specifically-defined goals; ONUC's military operations against the Katangan mercenaries successfully ended the region's secessionist ambitions and re-established the territorial integrity of the Congo.

And secondly, the UN's operations in the 1960s suggested that even when it comes to operations that most deem successful, any use of force in complex environments, especially those in which local, national and international interests are concerned in one way or another, controversy of some sort will follow.

While most non-aligned countries welcomed ONUC's boldness in expelling Western mercenaries from the Congo, many in the West were gravely concerned about the precedent being set and complained of their lack of closer involvement.

Although the UN Security Council had authorised ONUC to expel mercenaries, the organisation of the operations using force were largely driven by UN officials on the ground; the US complained about not being consulted while Britain threatened to withdraw its support for ONUC unless Operation Morthor was halted.

The FIB has already encountered controversy and criticism. This July, for example, humanitarian charity Medicines Sans Frontier (MSF) criticised MONUSCO in a letter, arguing that the mission's new mandate threatened its role as a protector of those engaged in humanitarian activities.

MSF warned the UN's lack of impartiality would engender animosity amongst some groups in the region and could lead to attacks on MSF staff. As the FIB increases its operations, it will inevitably attract far more controversy.

What next for the FIB?

How things will pan out is impossible to predict with any certainty. The talks in Kampala between the Congolese government and the M23 rebels have been going on for several months with little achieved, while the situation in the eastern DRC fluctuates between periods of calm and outbreaks of fighting.

Last month, the M23 reportedly attacked a MONUSCO helicopter, and just today the rebels threatened to pull out of the peace talks if the Congolese army does not halt its recent offensives. Despite talks going on, all military parties in the region - the Congolese army, M23 and now FIB - seem prepared and ready to engage each other militarily if need be.

Meanwhile, the FIB could also feasibly target other rebel groups in the area. It has the mandate to do so, and officials such as Kobler have mentioned the Allied Democratic Forces, FDLR and Mai-Mai Cheka as possible targets. As remaining elements of the FIB deploy and the force gets access to drones, its capability will also increase.

But as the experience of ONUC suggests, whichever groups FIB targets, it should be prepared for resulting criticism as it interrupts complex power dynamics. If it chooses to neutralise the anti-Rwandan FDLR, then it is likely that it will have to deal with local networks between the group and elements of the Congolese army who have been accused of collaboration.

Should it launch attacks against the M23 or uncover any new evidence of Rwandan support for the group, it will have to negotiate the diplomatic tension of having Rwanda on the UN Security Council. If it continues to sit on its hands, claims that it is weak and ineffectual will continue to damage its reputation.

In fact, rather than paving the way for the increased use of force in UN missions, the tensions, controversies and headaches that are likely to sparked by the FIB operations could do the very opposite.

Lewis Brooks is a freelance writer with an Msc in African Politics at SOAS, University of London. He has a particular interest in African conflict resolution and peacekeeping. Follow him on twitter @LewiBrooks

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