Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): MONUC’s Impending Withdrawal

In approximately one month, the mandate of the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) will expire, a frightening reality considering the state of the country, which continues to suffer from ongoing conflict, substantial population displacement and widespread corruption. In December 2009, the United Nations Security Council, in compliance with a formal request from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government, voted in favour of extending MONUC’s mandate for only another five months. In September, the DRC government had announced its demand for the complete withdrawal of MONUC peacekeeping forces by 2011.

Many found the DRC’s request surprising given the country’s lack of sufficient progress in security sector reform. Despite recent successes in defeating rebel forces in the Kivus, most would argue that the DRC’s security forces—whose reputation is marred by serious allegations of murder and rape of civilians — are, to say the least, ill-equipped to provide security for populations living throughout an area the size of Western Europe. The DRC’s demand for MONUC’s withdrawal is decidedly premature, if not dangerous, as MONUC’s removal is certain to shrink humanitarian space. Furthermore, because the DRC’s current capacity to provide security for its population is so lacking, the demand for withdrawal places the Security Council in a precarious position, as it must decide whether state sovereignty in this particular instance supersedes its responsibility to protect.

The United Nations Mission in DRC, or MONUC, was first implemented in 1999, to enforce a ceasefire finally achieved after years of conflict involving several countries of the region, often referred to as Africa’s World War. MONUC’s mandate is quite comprehensive in nature and has oftentimes had to adapt to changing circumstances due to ongoing conflict in Eastern DRC. MONUC is also the largest of the UN’s peacekeeping operations with over 20,000 troops from 50 countries. Although some MONUC troops have been implicated in cases of sexual abuse and illegal arms trade, the majority of troops have served commendably, and the UN’s mission in DRC has been praised as largely successful. Perhaps its greatest achievement was to help organize and monitor the DRC’s first democratic presidential, national and provincial elections (2006) in over 40 years. Since its establishment, MONUC has also successfully monitored ceasefires between the DRC and foreign governments, disarmed and repatriated thousands of combatants, provided substantial assistance in building democratic governmental institutions and assisted the government more recently in defeating and disarming a significant number of remaining armed groups in the Kivus and Ituri regions.

Before MONUC can be withdrawn, there are several critical preconditions set out by the Security Council that must be met by the DRC government. These include that all Congolese and foreign combatant groups be disarmed and demobilized, or repatriated, and that the Congolese Armed Forces, the FARDC, and the Congolese National Police have the capacity to assume responsibility for the country’s security. Specifically with regard to the establishment of a stable security environment, progress must be measured by the achievement of stabilization of sensitive areas, particularly in the eastern DRC; the completion of the disarmament and demobilization of former combatants and repatriation of foreign armed groups (the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and Interhamwe); the proper training of national security forces and the extension of State authority throughout the territory. In addition to security sector reform, the Security Council is explicit in requiring that the DRC reform its democratic institutions to include the adoption of essential legislation, relating to FARDC reform and the establishment of essential State institutions at the national, provincial and local levels.

Thus far, the DRC government has made progress with regards to the development of national institutions as well as with conducting fair elections; however, security challenges throughout the eastern DRC have impeded proper implementation of institutional reform throughout the country and have led to a major humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced. Most troubling is the ongoing violence against civilians by all parties of the conflict, particularly in the Kivus. This past year, the DRC government, with the somewhat controversial support of MONUC troops and the unprecedented assistance of Rwandan and Ugandan forces, launched a military campaign against rebel militias operating in eastern DRC and along the border areas. The campaign was mostly successful, as General Laurent Nkunda was arrested, and the majority of his militia was either killed or forced to surrender after fierce fighting for which the combatants were ill-prepared. In addition, the FARDC managed to repulse FDLR and LRA forces from several towns, restoring security in those areas. According to the UN, since the beginning of 2009, over 1,400 FDLR militants have surrendered, three times more than in previous years, and the objective of disrupting and dispersing FDLR forces in order to weaken their control of population centers and their capacity to exploit the country’s wealth was largely achieved.

However, even with the campaign’s recent successes, the rebel threat remains, as there are approximately 5,000 FDLR/Hutu rebels, as well as a significant number of LRA militants, still operating deep within the Eastern DRC. The task at hand for the FARDC is to maintain control of areas retaken from the rebels and continue an aggressive campaign that incorporates military pressure with incentives for disarmament. Although DRC government and military officials are confident in the FARDC’s ability to accomplish such goals, none can deny that its capacity to implement this final campaign is boosted by MONUC’s presence. In fact, the shifting of a significant number of MONUC’s troops to the Kivus as well as MONUC’s logistical support remains key to the FARDC’s continued success in defeating the rebels. If MONUC was to withdraw at this time, FARDC would lose its strategic advantage. In addition, its capacity to simultaneously maintain security in the Western and Southern parts of the country as well as in the Eastern DRC would be greatly diminished, leaving security forces spread too thinly and populations more susceptible to violence.

In addition to the obvious strategic and logistical problems resulting from a possible MONUC withdrawal, are the potential humanitarian consequences. There are serious concerns over the FARDC’s capability to protect civilian populations, as a number of its troops have been implicated in atrocious human rights violations. Human rights groups reported that during the military’s 2009 campaign, Congolese army soldiers, as well as FDLR militants, attacked civilians, accusing them of being collaborators. Some were attacked with machetes and others were shot while trying to flee. Homes were looted and then burnt, with families forced to remain inside. Witnesses reported that four civilians had been shot by FARDC soldiers who fired indiscriminately, while looting the area. There are also reports of FARDC soldiers engaging in illegal mining activities in the Kivus and extorting money from civilians through the imposition of illegal ‘taxes’. In fact, some civilians, fleeing from the violence, were forced to pay fines before being allowed to pass army checkpoints. There were additional reports of soldiers hijacking trucks delivering humanitarian aid, diverting it for military purposes. Perhaps most disturbing is the increase in sexual violence since 2008. Human Rights Watch reported that within the first nine months of 2009, there were 7,500 cases of sexual violence against women and girls in the Kivus. Most of the women were gang-raped and later died as a result of their injuries. In addition, many women were held as sex slaves, both by the FDLR and Congolese soldiers; some of these women were mutilated and then killed by machete or shot in the vagina. Cases of rape and other forms of sexual violence have not been restricted to poorly trained and lowly ranked soldiers and officers; senior military officers have also been implicated in cases of rape and murder.

As reports of FARDC’s human rights violations surfaced in 2009, criticism of MONUC’s support of military operations in the Kivus intensified. MONUC acknowledged the difficulties of executing a mandate that requires it to both protect civilians and assist an undisciplined army, and it took steps to limit its support of suspected human rights violators. For instance, MONUC made it clear to DRC government officials that it would not provide support to units commanded by Colonel Zimulinda and Bosco Ntanganda, who are both accused of serious human rights abuses. In addition, MONUC continues to provide training to Congolese army units in human rights and international humanitarian law. And although MONUC’s support of the Congolese army was criticized as undermining the mission’s primary objective, the protection of civilians, MONUC peacekeepers have been praised overall for their efforts while operating under very complex circumstances. Furthermore, MONUC’s presence in the Kivus certainly acted as part deterrent against those seeking to commit further crimes against civilians, as its peacekeepers deployed throughout the Kivus served, not only as logistical support, but as observers. Amidst continued allegations of abuse, MONUC command also recently deployed military police to several battalions with the objective of preventing and punishing acts of human rights violations. In addition, sensitization programs are ongoing for military leaders and troops on the issues of discipline, moral duty and the military hierarchy’s responsibilities.

Despite these reform initiatives, it is questionable whether further training can alleviate the proclivity of some DRC soldiers to commit heinous acts of violence. Many troops had already undergone rigorous training prior to the army’s recent campaign, but still abused their position regardless, perpetrating the most inhumane of acts. Furthermore, although thousands of soldiers have been imprisoned thus far for various crimes, a significant number of the soldiers suspected of human rights violations are still active members of the military, including senior officers. Hence, with an increasing number of displaced returning to Eastern DRC and civilians still subject to violence from all sides, MONUC’s removal is certain to have dangerous consequences, which makes the timing of the DRC’s request for MONUC’s withdrawal quite reckless and subsequently, rather confounding. The DRC government has yet to provide adequate explanation for the timing of its decision, which leads many to question its intentions. Some have speculated that the government’s demand for MONUC’s withdrawal is an attempt to convey its competency to its people in anticipation of the upcoming 2011 presidential and legislative elections. MONUC’s withdrawal also ensures greater control by the DRC government over the elections, which is worrying, given allegations that the military had forced civilians fleeing the violence to surrender their electoral cards. Without MONUC oversight, it is likely that ethnic-based fear and intimidation tactics will be employed during election time, particularly against opposition supporters, and at a much greater level than seen during the 2006 elections.

In May 2010, the UN Security Council will once again extend MONUC’s mandate, but for how long, remains to be seen. Its decision will certainly be influenced by political and legal considerations, particularly those that relate to state sovereignty. MONUC, like every other UN peacekeeping mission, operates with the consent of the government. Therefore, the DRC’s demand for MONUC’s removal, which is an exercise of state sovereignty, should be respected. However, as stated above, a premature withdrawal could have very serious consequences for the population. With MONUC’s mandate not yet fulfilled and the DRC’s security sector still requiring major reform, it seems that by requesting MONUC’s withdrawal, the DRC government is sacrificing the security of its population to achieve political ends. Recognizing such, the Security Council could extend MONUC’s mandate against the wishes of the DRC government, under the principle of the responsibility to protect. The principle of the responsibility to protect, or R2P, is based on the notion that sovereignty is not a privilege, but a responsibility, so when a government fails to protect the human rights of its people, the international community then has the responsibility of intervening on the people’s behalf. The R2P was first proposed in a report commissioned by the Canadian government in 2001, but did not gain formal recognition by the international community until the 2005 World Summit. The R2P was outlined in paragraphs 138 and 139 of the World Summit’s outcome document and has since been accepted in principle by much of the international community, as well as regional organizations. For instance, the African Union’s (AU) founding charter is explicit in its adoption of the principle, vowing to intervene when any member state of the AU fails to act in the event of grave circumstances (war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity). Over the years, the R2P has become a widely accepted norm and can be exercised by the Security Council in the event that a state commits, or refuses to prevent, mass atrocities against its people. The Security Council, therefore, does have legitimate justification for denying the DRC government’s request. It could extend MONUC’s mandate, citing R2P. However, extending MONUC’s mandate against the will of the government could cause major resentment and hence, result in the loss of the DRC’s cooperation, which will make it difficult for MONUC troops to function. It is therefore imperative that the responsibility to protect only be enacted as a last resort. In addition, it would be difficult to argue that MONUC’s withdrawal would definitely result in mass atrocities; R2P’s enactment would be highly predictive at this point. However, the Security Council would certainly have cause to implement the principle if after MONUC’s withdrawal, violence increased significantly and the DRC government either failed or was unable to sufficiently respond.

In conclusion, at the International Institute for Justice and Development we say that:

  1. Four million (4,000 000) plus people killed in the DRC’s war alone is enough! Everyone of must take their responsibilities. The safety and security of the DRC people should be of the utmost priority. Although progress has been made in the security sector, full DDR of combatants has not been achieved and as a result, a significant portion of the DRC population remains vulnerable to violence, not only by rebel forces but by government forces as well.
  2. In addition to a lack of basic security, MONUC and the DRC government have yet to fulfill their mandate to establish widespread and sustainable democratic reform. In particular, the DRC is yet to establish a system of governance that guarantees separation of power between the legislative, judicial and executive branches. Institution reforms to establish an independent justice system, which is central to ensuring proper separation of powers, government accountability and transparency, are yet to be completed. Only through the reform of these systems can we combat corruption, demand accountability, protect human and civil rights abuses, secure investments, and create an incentive for educated and capable citizens to stay or come back to contribute to their DRC's futures.
  3. The International Institute for Justice and Development (IIJD) calls upon the DRC government to rescind its request for MONUC’s withdrawal. It also calls upon the UN Security Council, the AU and the greater international community to place pressure upon the DRC government to accept a mandate that realistically reflects and addresses the circumstances on the ground, not the political needs of the current government. Based on the R2P, the UN Security Council should extend the mandate of the MONUC at least until the next elections of 2011.
  4. With the upcoming 2011 elections in the DRC, the IIJD cannot emphasize enough the importance of providing a safe and secure environment so that free and fair elections may take place. The IIJD believes that the DRC government currently lacks the capacity to provide sufficient security to guarantee free and fair elections.
  5. Most importantly, the IIJD insists that if the DRC government under the leadership of President Joseph Kabila, refuses an extension of MONUC’s mandate, then it must accept full responsibility for any atrocities that may result and understand that it, meaning any or all of its members as well as its security forces, will be held accountable by the international community through the International Criminal Court (ICC).