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A New UN Brigade Will Make Combat Moves in Congo



Nyanzale refugee camp children
The Nyanzale displaced persons camp in North Kivu Province, about a six-hour drive from Goma, the area's capital. The UN and other aid agencies keep basic supplies there on a standby arrangement. During the day, many residents walk back to their villages to work while the children stay in the camp, out of the bush and rebels' clutches.

For the first time, the United Nations Security Council has passed a resolution allowing UN troops to go on the offensive in a mission against armed rebels. The combat intervention brigade will operate as part of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco). The force will conduct targeted operations independently and with the Congolese Army to neutralize and reduce the threat of armed militias, protect civilians and stabilize the environment.

Some experts on Congo say the brigade is too little, too late while others question the role of the UN providing an army and whether the brigade will work at all.

The resolution was passed on March 28 unanimously by the 15-member council after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommended sending such a force to eastern Congo to help combat the M23 rebel group. The group, which formed in April 2012 after numerous soldiers from another larger rebel contingent, the National Congress for the Defense of the People, led by Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, turned against the government. In November, the M23 fighters briefly took control of Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province in eastern Congo. The M23 have since left Goma and agreed to peace talks with the government but continue to cause violence in the region. A split in M23 occurred in February, and as a result, General Ntaganda turned himself into the International Criminal Court for charges of war crimes to avoid a more dangerous threat, death by a fellow M23 member.

The UN brigade that will fight M23 and foreign armed rebels lurking in Congo will include three infantry battalions, one artillery and one special force and reconnaissance company. All units will report to the Monusco force commander, Lieut. Gen. Chander Prakash of India. The resolution calls for up to 3,069 soldiers besides the 17,273 who are now deployed in eastern Congo. The total number of military personnel will not exceed the 19,815-limit set by an earlier resolution. South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania have indicated their willingness to send troops for the brigade.

The Security Council also authorized the use of unarmed drones (unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) for the first time to provide surveillance of the region.

“Obviously we are under no illusion that new tools alone (brigade and UAVs) are enough to deal with the challenges of eastern DRC,” said André-Michel Essoungou in an e-mail to PassBlue. Essoungou is the public affairs coordinator for the UN Department of Peacekeeping and Field Support, based in New York. He would not say whether outside military contractors would be involved in the force.

“The Secretary-General is supporting and promoting a political solution to the crisis. He is and has been personally involved in the efforts that led to the signing of the Framework Agreement among 11 African countries on 24 February in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. To implement this agreement, the Secretary-General has appointed Mary Robinson as his Special Envoy,” for the Great Lakes region in Africa, Essoungou said.

The agreement calls for several measures to deal with the arduous problems in Congo: political reform in Kinshasa, the capital; neighboring countries to avoid interfering with Congolese politics; and the international community to continue offering support for the country.

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Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland and UN high commissioner for human rights and a current member of The Elders group of eminent retired leaders, will provide political support to help carry out the agreement.

Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer for The New Yorker who reports on the Great Lakes region and wrote a book about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, doubts that a combat unit will have any positive effect on Congo.

“The whole thing sounds to me like it’s more coherent as an admission of past UN failure than as a guarantee of coming UN success in Congo,” Gourevitch said in a phone interview with PassBlue. “Because really, every major UN mission in the Congo since the Belgians left has been largely calamitous. It’s been a graveyard for the UN in every stage.”

Gourevitch cited the vague details of the mandate and the brigade’s lack of autonomy as two reasons it could fail. “It may wipe out one or another armed group and it may cause a bigger war,” he said. “Let’s remember that these armed groups are a response to a really messy situation, they’re not just the cause of the mess, and they’re not just there for the hell of it. They’re a response to the absence of a Congolese state and any state monopoly on force or rule of law or security. And 3,000 attack troops and a few drones aren’t going to change that.”

Although the Security Council authorized the use of force in the past to contend with Somalia’s pirates and the Sudanese janjaweed militia in Darfur, this resolution is more audacious. The council insists that the brigade was created “on an exceptional basis and without creating any precedent or prejudice to the agreed principles of peacekeeping.” Yet the UN also said that no such brigade would be considered for a new peacekeeping force under way for Mali, where Al Qaeda insurgents made surprising inroads in the north in the last year, prompting France to respond militarily.

Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, an independent policy entity in New York, thinks the UN has definitely set a precedent in Congo but questions how it will work.

“The addition of an intervention brigade quite clearly moved the line – or, as British representative Mark Lyall Grant said, put the UN security roles into ‘new territory,’ ” Laurenti wrote in an essay for the foundation and The Huffington Post.

“If it succeeds, there will surely be calls for international combat missions to ‘enforce peace’ in other extreme cases in coming years. If the brigade is humiliatingly defeated, or cannot even be assembled, the United Nations will continue the complex peacekeeping roles in which it has specialized for the past few decades, and leave forceful interventions . . .  to others,” Laurenti wrote.

Richard Gowan, the associate director, managing global order, for the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, says it is unlikely the UN will start other offensive operations around the world. He also cautions that success must be measured in two ways.

“Will the intervention brigade be a military success? There’s always a risk that an operation will go wrong, and that the UN will take heavy losses or shoot the wrong people,” Gowan said in an e-mail to PassBlue. “But the real definition of success has to be political: is the intervention brigade part of a larger political strategy that can build some trust between the DRC and Rwanda?”

Although the Security Council fully approved the brigade’s formation, some members voiced concern about the UN’s new role as a global army. Gert Rosenthal, the Guatemalan ambassador, worried that engaging in peace-enforcement activities might compromise the neutrality and impartiality essential to peacekeeping work.

Gowan says Rosenthal’s concern is valid but it may be moot now. “Monusco is already associated very closely with the government of Joseph Kabila,” Gowan said, referring to Congo’s president. “It has supported Congolese military operations in the past, despite the army’s record of rights abuses. I think it’s sadly too late to save the UN’s reputation as an ‘honest broker’ in the DRC.”

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Lorraine Boissoneault is a graduate student at the Columbia University School of Journalism, with a magazine concentration. She has reported on immigration issues, public housing and the waterfront environment, and her articles have been published in The Brooklyn Paper, City Limits and Narratively.

Boissoneault is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where she earned a B.A. in international studies and English/creative writing. She speaks French and conversational Mandarin and has studied Arabic and Italian.

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