Victory over the M23 rebels is emboldening the United Nations to take the same aggressive approach against other forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo — and possibly to export the model of combative UN intervention to other conflicts in Africa.
The Force Intervention Brigade approved eight months ago by the UN Security Council is seen as having played a decisive role in the defeat of M23.
The UN-sponsored detachment of 3,000 African troops was fielded following the three-year-long failure of traditionally reactive UN peacekeeping to stabilise the eastern DRC.
The success of the intervention against M23 offers “exciting potential,” said Russell Feingold, President Obama’s special envoy to the Great Lakes region. “This may have long-term consequences for what people believe could happen if UN peacekeeping forces were given a stronger capacity to deal with violence and threats to civilians.”
French UN ambassador Gerard Araud, who pushed for stronger action against M23, was more cautious in his prognosis. He told reporters at the UN that the Force Intervention Brigade should be viewed as “a sort of experiment.”
It was too soon to draw conclusions, Mr Araud cautioned. He suggested that one of the Security Council’s occasional retreats could be an apt occasion for considering “if this is a new model for peacekeeping or really a one-time example.”
Some nongovernmental experts lean toward the “new model” interpretation.
“UN peacekeepers in Congo have long been criticised for not doing enough, or for protecting their own bases while civilians around them were attacked by armed groups,” commented Ida Sawyer, senior researcher on the DRC for Human Rights Watch.
“The new approach in Congo may serve as a model that other peacekeeping missions around the world may choose to follow.”
The intervention brigade that targeted M23 provided crucial military assistance in the form of artillery and attack helicopters, observers in Washington said.
Importantly too, the UN force “shored up the confidence” of the Congolese army, said Steve McDonald, director of the Africa programme at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington.
The force also lent substance to the mantra of “African solutions to African problems,” suggested Richard Downie, a scholar at another Washington think tank. Mr Downie joined other analysts in citing Western pressure on Rwanda as equally significant in the defeat of M23 as was the UN intervention.
As a result of announced aid reductions and behind-the-scene threats of further actions, Rwanda ceased its support for the mainly Tutsi force in the eastern DRC, analysts say.
Rwanda’s backing of M23, which it consistently refused to acknowledge, provided the group’s enemies with leverage they successfully applied.
That asset will not be available in the case of the Hutu force in eastern Congo known by its French acronym of FDLR, points out Maurice Carney, director of the Washington-based Friends of Congo.
With US encouragement, the UN does intend to take on the anti-Ugandan government Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which are also based in eastern Congo, as well as the FDLR.
Peaceful eastern DRC
“The successful disbandment of the M23 clearly opens the door for the absolute necessity to go after groups like the FDLR, which, of course, is associated with the Rwandan genocide in the past, and the ADF,” Mr Feingold said last week.
But Mr Carney cautioned that “both the UN and Congolese military should resist the temptation to believe that a front-on military approach is the way to deal with all the militia in the east.” A campaign against the FDLR “will require some creativity,” he said. “President Kikwete of Tanzania called for a dialogue with the FDLR. Local population with whom some FDLR live have also recommended alternative measures to getting the FDLR to stand down.”
But there are also strong, possibly overriding, pressures on the UN to take military action against the FDLR, which, as Mr Araud noted last week, consists at least partly of Rwandan Hutu who took part in the 1994 genocide.
“I hope that this time they will tackle the FDLR,” Rwanda’s UN ambassador Eugene Gasana said in reference to the intervention brigade. “Otherwise, I won’t let them sleep.”
A successful offensive against the FDLR could prove to be a “game-changer” in eastern Congo, observed Mr McDonald. Defeat of the Hutu genocidaires “may change Kagame’s rationale” for Rwanda’s own interventions in the DRC.
“It could open the way to peace in eastern Congo,” he declared.
Such an outcome could well inspire the UN to try a similarly aggressive approach elsewhere in Africa. Mr Downie of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies pointed to the Central African Republic as the likeliest next target.
At the same time, the concept of aggressive UN intervention remains controversial at the world body’s New York headquarters. There are fears of the UN being blamed for civilian casualties and human-rights abuses. The UN is also an internally disputatious institution that tends to resist major changes in its operations.