Can U.N. Peacekeeping Regain Its Strategic Purpose in Congo?

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Supporters of Congolese opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi gather to mourn after his death, Kinshasa, Congo, Feb. 2, 2017 (AP photo by John Bompengo).
Supporters of Congolese opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi gather to mourn after his death, Kinshasa, Congo, Feb. 2, 2017 (AP photo by John Bompengo).

Does the United Nations have to go back to square one in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Mounting violence in the DRC threatens to put one of the organization’s longest-running large-scale peacekeeping operations in an unsustainable position. At a time when U.N. officials and diplomats in New York are talking about limiting blue helmet operations in the face of U.S. budget cuts, the organization faces a security test in the DRC that could highlight why it really needs more military resources, not fewer.

There have been U.N. peacekeepers in the DRC since 1999. The first international personnel were deployed to oversee the end of a civil war that had claimed, by some estimates, 3 million lives. Stabilization was a stop-and-start affair. In the early 2000s, rebel forces frequently threatened to overwhelm U.N. contingents.

Yet the U.N. stayed the course, bolstered by repeated infusions of reinforcements by the Security Council. Surprisingly successful elections in 2006 consolidated the power of President Joseph Kabila. Despite recurrent crises in the east of the country, fueled by Rwanda and other neighboring powers with an eye on the region’s resources, DRC as a whole seemed to be on track for some sort of sustainable stability.

From as early as the middle of the last decade, some U.N. officials were keen to shift the focus from military peacekeeping duties to the longer-term work of economic and institutional state-building. But the continuing volatility in the east left them, in the words of one peacekeeper, “chasing militias around for years.” The U.N. also found it increasingly difficult to influence Kabila, who has amassed “assets that are easily worth tens of millions of dollars,” according to the Congo Research Group. In recent years, the U.N. has struggled to balance its efforts to build up the Congolese state while questioning Kabila’s misrule.

By last year, it was obvious that a showdown between the U.N. and the president was looming, as Kabila maneuvered to disobey a constitutional term limit to avoid standing down at the end of his second term. This predictable crisis is now underway, and the outcome could shape the future of U.N. peacekeeping beyond the DRC.

While Kabila made a last-minute deal in December to allow elections to choose his successor this year, he has failed to honor it. There has been growing violence in the southern region of Kasai, where U.N. human rights officials have accused the Congolese military of using excessive force and dumping bodies in mass graves. There are ugly suspicions that the army was also involved in killing two U.N. investigators in Kasai.

Some analysts are calling for the U.N. mission in the DRC, known by its acronym MONUSCO, to pivot to a more robust approach to keeping order in the DRC, including steps that could bring it open confrontation with the government. In an open letter to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last month, Jean-Marie Guehenno, former U.N. peacekeeping chief and now president of the International Crisis Group, argued that MONUSCO should stop concentrating its military in the east and adopt a “more agile footprint” to respond rapidly to threats in regions like Kasai.

The predictable crisis in DRC is now underway, and the outcome could shape the future of U.N. peacekeeping.

Guehenno also proposes reviewing and reducing the U.N.’s “long-term stabilization and developmental activities” in DRC on the grounds that “political actors at the provincial and national level now tend to enjoy insufficient public trust to serve as effective partners.” He would also like to see the U.N. deploy more human rights monitors and political officers to watch out for abuses even in areas where troops are absent.

This adds up to a pretty dramatic call to empower MONUSCO to challenge Kabila. It also presents operational, financial and conceptual problems for the United Nations. Operationally, aiming for greater agility could, as a recent analysis from the International Peace Institute notes, amount to a “fundamental shift in MONUSCO’s military assets, including increased intelligence capacities and rapidly deployable capabilities.” These assets do not come cheap. As part of her broader campaign to cut U.N. costs, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has made MONUSCO’s $1 billion in funding a particular target. The mission faces cuts of nearly 10 percent in the coming financial year. U.N. officials may balk at going to the Security Council with proposals for major and expensive additions to the operation’s capabilities.

Guehenno’s call to boost MONUSCO militarily and risk an even more serious showdown with Kabila also marks a notable conceptual departure from a lot of discussions about peace and security around the U.N.

At present, the bulk of these discussions share three common features. The first is that large-scale peacekeeping missions like MONUSCO have had their day. The second is that the organization should instead focus on conflict prevention, including the use of development aid to address the causes of conflict and sustain peace. The third is that it is impossible to make or keep peace without local political support in conflict-affected states. These are solid arguments in many cases, and it is good that the U.N. is considering them as part of a broader process of self-examination.

Yet the situation in DRC, and Guehenno’s prescriptions for a response, are a helpful reminder of some hard facts about conflict management. Sometimes military force has to be the basis of a political strategy. In some cases, development work, however well-intentioned and designed, fails to reshape conflicts and can simply fuel corruption. And in extreme cases, national and local leaders pursue fundamentally unacceptable political strategies to hold onto power and their ill-gotten gains, which means that the U.N. may ultimately have to confront them.

In next week’s column, I will review a new book by a former senior U.N. official, Michael von der Schulenburg, that calls for the organization to take a much more ambitious approach to “rescuing nation states” than is currently in vogue, although he too has doubt about the utility of force. More immediately, the DRC is not the only case where the U.N. may have to fall back on more robust military action if it wants to stay relevant. The organization is already calling for reinforcements in the Central African Republic, where the security situation is deteriorating alarmingly. It is also boosting its military presence in Juba, the capital of war-ridden South Sudan.

In short, 2017 is turning into a brutal year for the United Nations. While diplomats and international officials turn their attention to prevention, the U.N.’s performance will ultimately be judged on how well its peacekeepers perform in the line of fire in Africa.

*Culled from World Politics Review.Richard Gowan is an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and nonresident fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, where he was previously research director. He also teaches at Columbia University. His weekly WPR column, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.

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