United Nations peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo will begin departing the country in an “accelerated withdrawal,” the global body’s Secretary General Antonio Guterres says, confirming the departure of one of the missions first deployed 25 years ago.
In a report tabled to the UN Security Council, Guterres says the Stabilisation Mission deployed to the DR Congo, and known by its French acronym Monusco, will leave the country, concluding a controversial chapter but potentially leaving behind a void that could worsen the country’s violence.
Monusco’s mandate had been extended last year in December, by a year, “on exceptional basis” of its intervention brigade. But the mission with more than 15,000 soldiers and police officers has been controversial, eliciting protests in parts of Eastern Congo where it operates.
Some civilians accuse the mission of being lethargic in an area where more than one hundred-armed groups roam and maim at will.
Guterres says Monusco, is entering “its final phase” in the DR Congo. And according to a plan set out in his report, the Mission will have to begin “an accelerated withdrawal,” even though the security and humanitarian situation “deteriorating sharply.” In the same report, the UN Secretary-General warns that “a premature departure of Monusco could have consequences for the protection of civilians.”
December was also the month when the DRC is expected to hold its General Election which may see President Félix Tshisekedi defend his seat and become the first president in the country’s history to win back the seat at the ballot.
But the election is coming as armed groups renewed fighting in eastern DRC, a restive region of the country for the last three decades.
Primarily, Congolese forces FARDC accuse M23, an armed group it says are fanned by Rwanda. Rwanda has often denied the charge, even though both Kigali and Kinshasa are accused of fomented certain rebel groups inside the DRC, ostensibly to destabilise each other’s peace.
Monusco, whose mandate has morphed over the years, was first deployed 25 years ago. But its success is a matter of contest. The Congolese authorities agreed with the United Nations that the Mission entirely leaves the end of 2024. This gradual and phased withdrawal of Monusco by 2024 was laid down by the UN Security Council resolution in 2020. Guterres announcement means there won’t be debate on whether the mandate can be extended.
In fact, Several Monusco offices in the provinces of Kasai and Kasai-Central, in central DRC, have already closed. In June 2022, some troops under Monusco and operating in Tanganyika province, in the south-east parts of the country, departed.
After a spate of violence that marked the protests against Monusco’s presence in North Kivu in July 2022, which left 36 people dead, including 3 peacekeepers; Monusco also closed shop in Butembo, in North Kivu province.
Following the protests, Tshisekedi also said that “after the presidential election in December 2023... there will be no reason for Monusco to remain in the DRC.” For now, however, there is uncertainty on whether the elections will be held as scheduled. The country is struggling to raise the budget needed for the elections. At least $500 million is needed to secure the elections across the country.
Paradoxically, this defiance of the peacekeeping mission comes at a time when security and humanitarian conditions are deteriorating, particularly in North Kivu and Ituri, where armed groups regularly attack civilians.
The biggest challenge is in eastern DRC, where Monusco forces incidentally still operate. When the UN Security Council extended the mandate of the Mission, it cited the prevalence of armed groups and pledged to support Kinshasa’s continued search for a political solution and rebuilding institutions.
The Council urged “all Congolese armed groups to participate unconditionally in the East African Community led Nairobi process to seek political conditions in preparation for the disarmament, demobilisation, community recovery and stabilisation programme (P-DDRCS), and foreign armed groups to return to their countries of origin…”
It also called on the “the Government of the DRC to take further action to address the threat posed by armed groups, combining military and non-military approaches consistent with international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law.”
As the year ticks away, even Antonio Guterres highlighted the problem in his report. He said, “Regional tensions have further worsened” in eastern DRC and that the “the humanitarian situation has deteriorated considerably…hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forcibly displaced.”
“The number of acts of sexual violence against children more than doubled between 2021 and 2022,” he reported.
Renewed violence between FARDC and allied groups versus M23 is blamed for it. Some of the rebels have carried out arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial executions,” he said.
Yet Guterres raised concerns about the proliferation of self-defence groups who claim to be fighting the M23. This, the UN boss said, raises other security concerns and could contribute to a new cycle of violence, including ethnically motivated attacks and reprisals.
A recent report by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC had accused Rwanda of sending its troops into DRC illegally to support M23. Guterres’ report doesn’t mention that.