The United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo is in trouble. Some of its problems are chronic, some are acute, but at its heart is a breakdown in trust between the mission and the community with which it operates. What is needed now more than ever is a genuine people-centered approach to its work.
I was the author of the report, although my research builds upon the phenomenal, frequently underappreciated work of other scholars and local and international civil society. One such study, by Protection Approaches, called for strengthening the connections among local, national and international players, part of a broader effort to prevent atrocities through enhancing links among the people and groups with the power to protect civilians. Linked Up Peacekeeping took that idea and explored how the UN mission and the communities it serves can be more productive and generate lasting peace.
What we found is that the UN’s three methods for community engagement — local protection councils (forums for in-person conversations), community alert networks (social community groups with a wide array of individual representatives) and community liaison assistants (mission staff who liaise between the mission and the society) — work well when they are properly resourced, the security situation is permissive, a kernel of trust exists and they overlap, so they can compensate for one another’s weaknesses and biases.
Unfortunately, such ideal community engagement is hardly possible, mostly because of minimal resourcing. This problem is compounded by a failure to manage the expectations of the community and those who hold the purse strings at UN headquarters in New York City, who do not comprehend that the mission is regularly asked to do more with less.
A small increase in financing — just a few million dollars for arguably the most important part of a mission with a budget well in excess of a billion — would go a long way toward strengthening the network of those working in atrocity prevention across the eastern Congo, unlocking significant multiplier effects and perhaps providing a way to restore and maintain trust between the mission and the community.
At the moment, such trust is in short supply. The mission is due to withdraw in 2024, but the chances of it leaving a sustainable peace in its wake have been rocked by ongoing violence, tensions with regional powers and the re-emergence of some of the country’s most feared rebel groups. A precarious state of affairs turned into a full-blown crisis after nearly 30 Congolese demonstrators and four UN peacekeepers were killed in violent fighting outside five Monusco bases in eastern Congo in late July. Then, inexplicably, on July 30, some Monusco troops that had been on leave and crossing back into the Congo from Uganda, opened fire on the border post, killing at least two people. In response, the Congolese government expelled Monusco’s spokesperson as flagging public support in the country for the mission hit record lows, prompting a crisis of legitimacy.
Clearly, the mission has a lot of work to do to re-establish the trust it requires to keep operating in the Congo, even as it slowly withdraws. At the same time, given the lack of any strong alternatives to protecting communities from attacks by armed militias, such as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), and the clear demand from local communities for protection from such attacks, it would be precipitous to fully pull out the mission with no alternative plans in place.
Those plans are not obvious. Communities cannot defend themselves as Monusco has spent the past decade disarming and “neutralizing” local self-protection militias. The Congolese Armed Forces cannot provide security effectively as they are the perpetrators of about half of the killings. Meanwhile, a regional military intervention, which is now in the works, will be even more dependent than Monusco on countries that are themselves complicit in the conflict and plundering Congolese mineral wealth, making them locally unpopular for this reason.
Monusco is not the only UN mission that is increasingly unwelcome in its host country and surrounding communities, but it is faced with the problem that if it leaves abruptly or without a long-range plan in place, atrocities are more likely to occur. The same thing happened in Darfur, Sudan, when the UN left, and could happen in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Mali.
These missions — particularly Monusco — manifest the “third generation” stabilization peacekeeping model (in contrast to “first generation” truce observation and “second generation” state-capacity building missions). This model is going out of fashion because, while it has a fairly good record of preventing atrocities, it has a fairly poor record of building lasting peace. Its record is also costly in both money (over a billion dollars per mission per year) and military casualties (over a hundred a year on recent average), problems that the dozens of countries supporting the missions are no longer willing to bear.
What will come next for peacekeeping? Reams of research support the idea of adopting a people-centered approach.
Such a reorientation would see the community, and not just the host state, as the mission’s ultimate client, allowing them to task the mission, set its priorities and provide its marching orders. Doing so could resolve or at least strengthen responses to all manner of problems that “third generation” peacekeeping faces and can’t manage: from how to lower tensions with the host state, how to exit sustainably and how to improve performance. It would render the breakdown of mission-community relations we have seen in the Congo in recent months far less likely to happen.
Community engagement mechanisms would become an integral part of the mission’s governance structure — the ways through which the mission’s bosses and the local population give the mission its instructions. This approach could underpin the fourth generation of peacekeeping and turn out to be the most successful model. Certainly, in the Congo, UN peacekeeping could either become more locally led or continue to be locally resisted. It’s time for a big change.
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Fred Carver is an adviser to UNA-UK, where he was the head of policy, specializing in peacekeeping and other topics, from 2016-2020. From 2011 to 2016, Carver ran the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, an NGO that advocated for peace in Sri Lanka based on justice and accountability for crimes committed in the civil war. Carver has a master’s degree in Asian politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and started a Ph.D. at Kings College London on the effects of urbanization on political violence in Pakistan.