The UN’s Combat Troops in the Congo: ‘They Were Not Supposed to Die’

A memorial service was held for the six peacekeepers from Malawi and one from Tanzania who died during clashes with the ADF militia in the Congo on Nov. 15, 2018. Seventeen members of the same UN force intervention brigade were killed nearly a year ago battling the ADF. MIRIAM ASMANI/MONUSCO 

United Nations peacekeepers working for the mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were killed by a militia in a jungle in North Kivu Province on Nov. 15, leaving seven soldiers dead: six Malawians and one Tanzanian. Ten were injured.

Twelve members of the Congolese armed forces were also killed, as national forces and the UN unit — the force intervention brigade — carried out a joint operation to oust the ADF militia (Allied Democratic Forces) from a base near the city of Beni in North Kivu. It is a tempestuous area, where a massacre occurred in 2016, Ebola now looms from the north and the machine-gun-wielding ADF rebels threaten from the east. Government troops harass and destabilize the communities as well, while President Joseph Kabila, ensconced in Kinshasa, the country’s capital, looks away.

The UN Security Council is hinging the country’s future stability on the Dec. 23 elections in which a new president is supposed to be voted in through the Congo’s first peaceful transition of power in its history. Meanwhile, the force intervention brigade is continuing to “degrade” the ADF, according to the UN, in the tense Beni region.

The joint operation leading to the recent murders was deployed on Nov. 13 by the UN mission, Monusco, and the Congolese troops to counter the ADF as it hinders humanitarian aid for the Ebola outbreak. The Congolese and UN brigade had “attacked and managed to retake key ADF positions,” Monusco said. Apparently, six ADF combatants were captured.

But during the operation, the troops, not surprisingly, “faced significant resistance from the ADF,” resulting in the casualties on Nov. 15. As Leila Zerrougui, the head of Monusco, told the media at the UN, “they were not supposed to die.”

Just a year ago, on Dec. 7, 17 Tanzanian peacekeepers in the UN force, made up of about 2,800 Malawian, South African and Tanzanian troops, were killed by the ADF. That attack represented one of the largest onslaughts of UN troops in the decades-long conflict in the Congo.

Guterres called the deaths in December 2017 a potential war crime — but it appears no one has been prosecuted by the Congolese government, given the reality that these crimes usually occur in places where law and order are in short supply, said Patryk Labuda, a Hauser Global Fellow at New York University. The International Criminal Court seems to have frozen its investigations in the Congo, he added. (Our companion op-ed essay explores whether the attacks were actually war crimes.)

The force intervention brigade originated in 2013 when the Security Council aimed to annihilate the Rwanda-backed M23 rebel group in eastern Congo, after the group’s humiliating offensive in 2012 in Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province. The city, home to a million people, acts as a gateway between the eastern half and the more stable west of the country. But the force has been controversial from the start because of its offensive nature to “neutralize threats” to protect civilians under a Chapter VII mandate of the UN Charter.

Out of inertia, indifference or not knowing what else to do, the Council since then has been relying on the force to carry out attacks in eastern Congo against various resilient insurgents, regardless of the force’s successes or failures — of which little is publicized until peacekeepers die.

The big powers on the Council, such as the United States, have never devised a comprehensive, future-minded plan to manage Congo’s problems, leaving the nitty-gritty work mostly to the UN mission there and a slew of sanctions to contain the criminal chaos. The UN mission’s mix of militarization and political objectives has been the recipe, with questionable results.

Yet for many people in eastern Congo, the brigade sends a “positive signal,” said Adam Day, a former political adviser to Monusco who works for United Nations University, in charge of policy research.

Justine Masika Bihamba, a founder of Synergie des Femmes, a civil society network in Goma, agreed that the brigade provided some comfort. Her group advocates for victims of rape in the region, which Bihamba told the Security Council in July is worsening by the day because of proliferating armed groups.

The militias, she said, are the root of repeated wars in the country, causing mass rapes and population upheavals, mainly affecting women and their children. Sexual violence increased this year by more than 60 percent in North Kivu, she said.

The UN mission, she noted in a recent email to PassBlue, was “very important in the Kivu at the moment.”

“It is true that they are overwhelmed because of the administration that is very procedural” — approvals are required from the UN in New York and from the countries in the brigade to act — which “is one of the reasons why 7 UN peacekeepers were killed recently,” Bihamba said.

“Considering the election period we are in, the UN Mission remains necessary in the region.”

Right now, the Council is betting on the country’s elections, scheduled for Dec. 23, to cure Congo’s problems in the short term. Kabila is not seeking re-election, but that doesn’t mean his grip will loosen. PassBlue reported earlier this year that Kabila surrounds himself with a personal guard of 10,000 battle-hardened combatants, who emerged as a result of the Council’s inattention to the application of its arms embargo, under France’s watch.

The US has taken a bystander approach to the Congo — a French-speaking central African nation — but is focusing heavily on the elections, with no obvious path beyond that moment, at least publicly stated. The latest US ambassador to the Congo, Michael Hammer, arrived in October. He is a Latin American specialist who is not fluent in French and has never served in Africa. (Update: the US embassy was closed in late November for few days because of “a possible terrorist threat” against US government facilities in Kinshasa.)

The Security Council’s response to the Nov. 15 attack reiterated its support of the force intervention brigade, which was deemed useful by some parties in its first job, ending the reign of M23 in eastern Congo. Five years later, it is uncertain if the force has dented the ADF and other armed disrupters in the region. Since the late 1990s, the ADF — whose members include women and children — has carried out massacres, kidnappings and lootings. It is considered one of the deadliest insurgencies in the Kivu provinces, where battles over land rights and mineral resources are being fought while the UN is supposed to protect the everyday Congolese.

UN experts concede the ADF remains an “enigmatic armed group.” Its 400 to 450 members, mostly from neighboring Uganda, are scattered across the Congolese region, hiding in the bush, seizing villages to deepen its presence, to take advantage of the unpopularity of Kabila and recently to block Ebola mitigation work, Zerrougui said.

To replenish itself, ADF arms and trains children who were either kidnapped in the Congo, recruited from countries nearby or were born and raised in ADF camps. It participates in the illicit networks plundering the timber and mineral resources of the region and is closely linked with parts of the Congolese military and political establishment, according to Day.

It was inevitable that the force brigade would incur casualties, Dennis Jett, a professor of international affairs at Penn State University and a former US ambassador to Mozambique, said in an interview. He added, however, that “I don’t think the UN is capable of mounting an efficient military force because of restrictions, political considerations” — and the overriding question of national sovereignty versus the role of the UN.

If the international community is intervening in the Congo or anywhere else, he added, “stabilizing and protecting civilians means taking sides.” Therefore, he said, “they shouldn’t call them peacekeepers.”

The December 2017 assault by the ADF on the Semuliki peacekeeping camp in Beni lasted for hours. Besides killing 17 peacekeepers and injuring 43, the ADF stole weapons, ammunition, food and medicine. The weapons they used? Reportedly AK-47s, machine guns, mortars, rocket launchers, sniper rifles and hand grenades. Zerrougui told the media that some of the ADF’s weapons used in the recent attack came from Semuliki.

Two days before the recent clash, Zerrougui informed the Security Council on the status of the Dec. 23 election preparations. The Council is closely watching the process as the date draws near, but the US position is not nearly as high-handed as it is with other troubled countries, like Venezuela and Nicaragua. One analyst suggested that America’s soft posture on Congo could be related to the Trump administration’s quest to repeal the conflict-minerals reporting section in the Dodd-Frank Act, a deregulation step that could help the insurgencies in the Congo.

“The stakes are high,” the US State Department said as election campaigning in the Congo, or DRC, got underway on Nov. 23. “Credible and transparent elections will help alleviate the DRC’s humanitarian and development challenges, improve the country’s ability to attract investment, and reinforce stability across the DRC and the region.”

This month, two opposition candidates, Felix Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe, joined forces to take on the preferred successor of Kabila, Emmanuel Ramadan Shadary, who is sanctioned by the UN.

If the Council deems the election results acceptable, Monusco is likely to either leave within a year or two or downsize considerably, a move that is in the works, prompted by Kabila’s insistence that the UN leave and by the US, which under Ambassador Nikki Haley demanded reducing the mission last year. The force brigade costs about $100 million of Monusco’s $1.2 billion budget, and while the mission is stretching its overall funds, the cuts won by the Americans have put peacekeepers more at risk, an analyst said.

Bihamba said that Monusco’s human-rights office is no longer present on the ground, for example. As a result, it cannot properly document cases of serious violations that are now reported by phone.

If Kabila’s proxy wins and Kabila shadows that power, the election could be called a sham and the problems of repressive government, self-dealing leadership and other corruption could carry on.

Then, said Jett, the former ambassador, “I wonder what the UN can do.”

This article has been updated to include the cost of the force intervention brigade in Monusco’s budget. 

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