Washington — Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo took a turn for the worse in 2017 and the New Year is unlikely to bring much relief to Congolese civilians.
Political repression in the last two weeks resulted in at least eight civilian deaths and over 100 arrests, while conflict and rights abuses continue across much of the troubled country, especially in the volatile east.
With the administration of US President Donald Trump focused on reducing the price tag for both peacekeeping and the United Nations, American and UN officials will need to understand how these budget cuts are affecting the ability of peacekeepers to protect civilians.
The peacekeeping operation in Congo, known as MONUSCO, was the first to face cuts in 2017 and provides valuable lessons that should be learned before further cuts are considered.
The month of December exemplified the escalating insecurity in the country.
It began with the most deadly attack on peacekeepers since the MONUSCO mission was first deployed in 1999. The assault on a base in Beni left 14 UN soldiers dead, one missing, and many more seriously injured.
Analysts believe it was perpetrated by the Alliance of Democratic Forces - one of dozens of rebel groups operating in eastern Congo.
In the following weeks, Congolese security forces and rebel groups subjected civilians to hundreds of human rights violations. The abuses included killings, abductions, sexual violence, displacement, and extortion.
2017 closed with the Congolese government violently repressing protests against President Joseph Kabila's refusal to step down by the end of the year as agreed in negotiations between the government and opposition in December 2016.
Despite the growing threats to Congolese civilians throughout 2017, MONUSCO's troop levels were reduced in March and its budget cut by eight percent in June. These cuts were largely driven by the US administration's goal of shrinking peacekeeping costs and consequently US financial contributions.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has branded the cuts to MONUSCO and other peacekeeping operations as an attempt to promote efficiency.
However, unless the United States and the UN learn lessons from the last round of budget cuts, saved US dollars could mean more civilian lives lost in Congo.
A report from the Center for Civilians in Conflict released today details how the short timeline in which MONUSCO was required to downsize was problematic.
In order to reduce troop levels last March, MONUSCO rushed the closure of five bases in North Kivu Province.
The condensed timeline resulted in a lack of adequate consultation between MONUSCO's military leadership and the mission's civilian personnel, who carry out critical activities to protect civilians, such as monitoring human rights violations, resolving local conflict through dialogue, supporting community self-protection strategies, and convincing armed actors to demobilise.
Coordination helps ensure that the UN mission's military component can provide the security that civilian personnel need to access conflict-affected areas.
MONUSCO's withdrawal from some areas has raised concerns that violence against civilians will increase in the resulting security vacuum. In the time allowed, MONUSCO was unable to put in place many of the mitigating measures they had identified to protect civilians ahead of the closures, such as implementing training to strengthen local security forces and building the capacity of civil society groups to carry out protection activities.
The mission is now working to take some of these steps retroactively.
With fewer bases and less field presence, MONUSCO adopted a new protection strategy that relies on mobility rather than a static field presence to protect civilians.
The strategy, called "protection through projection", depends on short-term field visits carried out by the mission's civilian and military staff to areas where MONUSCO bases have closed or where a security situation is deteriorating.
For almost two decades, UN member states and analysts have called for more mobile and flexible peacekeeping operations, but it is unclear whether MONUSCO's new model can succeed.
More comprehensive and better joint planning between mission components would help the chances of success. Without consistent field presence in high-risk areas, MONUSCO will need to continue to develop strategies for remotely monitoring threats that allow them to prevent and preempt violence.
It will also require increased outreach to manage community expectations. These activities hinge on the mission's civilian personnel. Unfortunately, MONUSCO's aviation assets and the travel budget for its civilian staff were both cut in 2017. The loss of air assets and travel funds will make increased mobility difficult.
The overarching lesson that UN member states need to learn is that haphazard budget cuts to individual missions will not in themselves make peacekeeping operations more efficient or effective.
UN member states, UN secretariat officials, and UN peacekeeping missions will need to work together to do the long-term and difficult work of identifying and reducing inefficiencies, many of which originate in the bureaucracy of UN headquarters and the political turf battles of member states. Otherwise, the US government may save some money in the short-term, at a steep cost to civilians in Congo and for other conflicts where peacekeeping missions are deployed.
As one civilian stated after a MONUSCO base was closed in his town: "Personally, I don't know of, nor do I have, any hope for another way to be protected."