The clock is ticking on a deadline that will help determine the prospects for future peace and stability in the violence-wracked Democratic Republic of Congo.
Two years ago, the world embarked on a major experiment in peacekeeping, sending a robustly mandated force to do the tough parts of peace enforcement alongside more traditional United Nations blue helmets. The scene of the test was the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II, in Congo, where Rwandan-backed rebels had taken over significant swathes of Congolese territory and threatened to destabilise the entire country.
For over a decade, UN peacekeepers had been present in Congo, but to little effect. They had failed to prevent numerous massacres of civilians. And in November 2012, one of eastern Congo’s largest cities, Goma, fell to rebels known as the M23 despite the presence of 19,000 UN troops in the region.
Thanks to a public campaign against the M23 and leadership by the US and UN, the UN Security Council authorised an Intervention Brigade staffed by South African, Tanzanian, and Malawian soldiers. The force was mandated to “neutralise armed groups… in a robust, highly mobile, and versatile manner.”
It had initial successes, ably reinforcing the Congolese army’s push against the M23 with air support and sophisticated weaponry, albeit with casualties. Thanks in part to these military victories, the M23 officially disarmed in December 2013.
One year later, the initiative has reversed course. The central issue today is that troop contributors Tanzania and South Africa are showing no willingness to militarily dismantle the FDLR rebel group. The FDLR has been one of the most significant threats to civilians in eastern Congo over the past 20 years, and its presence has served as a justification for Rwandan interventions in Congo.
It is led by commanders who are reported to have perpetrated Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and is on the US list of terrorist organisations. The FDLR has committed numerous massacres in eastern Congo. For example, in Shabunda in 2012, FDLR combatants allegedly massacred 45 civilians, decapitated the village chief, and cut a baby from a pregnant woman.
While the FDLR offered to disarm in May 2014, behind the scenes it is doing the opposite. Six months of Enough Project field research uncovered that the rebels are regrouping, trading gold and charcoal for weapons, and mobilising political support.
Georges, a Congolese community leader, told our team, “Their demobilisation offer is only going to help them buy time as usual.” Congolese civil society coalitions have written letters to the UN asking it to launch military strikes against the FDLR.
On January 2, the FDLR faces an ultimatum from the UN to disarm or face military action, and the international community has agreed on benchmarks for the disarmament.
However, Tanzania and South Africa, the countries that would be the largest members of that force, continue to make excuses for the FDLR. Tanzania lists the FDLR as a freedom fighting organisation on its government website, and senior South African envoys have lobbied in negotiations for delays in counter-FDLR operations.
Three changes can get the process back on track. First, Tanzania and South Africa must commit to conducting operations against the FDLR if the benchmarks are not met by the deadline. They are helping allow a rebellion to reorganise that includes alleged genocidaires, that has used rape systematically as a weapon of war, and that Congolese civil society says continues to threaten it.
The peacekeepers are under the command of the UN, so operational decisions should not be made in the capitals of troop contributing countries.
Second, the UN should rotate troops out of the Congo operation that are not making useful contributions and rotate in more capable militaries, in co-ordination with the Congolese government. This would be a much more efficient use of taxpayer money. Angola, for example, has one of the region’s most capable armies and could be encouraged to take on a larger regional peacekeeping role.
Third, the US should deploy Special Forces advisors to the Intervention Brigade in a pared-down version of the successful counter-Lord’s Resistance Army mission. That mission, with African forces in the lead and advised by US military advisors on intelligence and defection strategies, has helped reduce LRA attacks by 92 per cent in three years.
The counter-FDLR operations must be conducted differently from previous operations, with increased civilian protection and focus on the FDLR leadership, not simply using a conventional military approach. The Special Forces advisors can help make those changes.
The initiative to target “spoiler” rebels in Congo with a robust peacekeeping force was well conceived initially. But if urgent changes are not made now, an experiment that succeeded at first could easily morph into a failure, harming the UN’s credibility in the process, with devastating consequences for the people of eastern Congo.
John Prendergast is founding director of the Enough Project, where Sasha Lezhnev is the associate director of policy for Congo, the Great Lakes, and the LRA.