(Photo by MONUSCO Photos via FlickrCC BY-SA 2.0)

Large protests have erupted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in recent weeks against the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known as MONUSCO. Hundreds of Congolese people have stormed into MONUSCO’s buildings in several cities in the country’s eastern region and set them on fire. Protesters clashed with MONUSCO’s peacekeepers, which led to the killing of at least 36 people, including 4 peacekeepers, and the injury of 170 others. 

Many Congolese citizens contend that MONUSCO has failed to protect them from militia violence and thus have taken to the streets to demand the mission’s withdrawal from the country. MONUSCO is already due to withdraw in 2024, but the protests may serve to accelerate the mission’s departure. 

Protesters’ claims are undoubtedly valid. Violence in the DRC has been on the rise – around 8,000 people have lost their lives since 2017 – mainly because of the fighting between at least 122 armed groups in the country. These groups, which are believed to be supported by other countries in the region, have been fighting for years over control of the country’s massive wealth of natural resources to obtain more military and financial power. Armed militias continue to massacre civilians, including women and children, while MONUSCO fails to adequately respond and provide security. The important question then is, what are some of the reasons behind this failure? 

The UN in the DRC: Two Decades of Peacekeeping

The United Nations (U.N.) started operating in the DRC in 1999 under the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC). This mission was created after the signing of the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement, which aimed to end the Second Congo War between the DRC and five other countries in the region. MONUC was designed to supervise the implementation of a ceasefire and ensure parties’ compliance with it. 

But with the rising violence in the country and the emergence of new armed groups, MONUC was renamed MONUSCO in 2010. Today, MONUSCO is a multidimensional mission whose mandate is to protect civilians and support the DRC’s government in its efforts to achieve peace and stabilization. MONUSCO is the second-largest U.N. peacekeeping mission, with more than 14,000 deployed personnel and an annual budget amounting to $1 billion USD. 

Throughout 22 years of operation in the DRC, MONUC/MONUSCO has been effective to some degree. The mission has helped enhance infrastructure by creating telecommunications, roads, and airports, as well as provided humanitarian services during the outbreak of Ebola and COVID-19. In 2006, the U.N. helped organize the first free and fair elections in 46 years and attempted to resolve conflicts and maintain the rule of law in the country. The U.N. also established the Force Intervention Brigade in 2013 to fight armed groups in the DRC, something that culminated in the defeat of the militant group March 23 Movement (M23), which invaded and occupied several parts of the country’s east in 2012. 

Yet, in many instances, this peacekeeping operation has not carried out its mandate effectively, mainly by failing to protect civilians and build sustainable peace in the DRC. Armed groups like the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) continue to conduct attacks against civilian populations and burn their villages and homes, especially in the eastern DRC. Between January 2021 and January 2022, the ADF killed more than 1,300 people. 

Moreover, although defeated by MONUSCO’s force brigade, the M23 rebels have resurged and managed to seize control over some parts of the country. Ever since, the M23 has been committing widespread violence, shelling villages, and killing civilians. Armed groups have also been perpetrating human rights violations, including rape and sexual slavery, against other Congolese people. In 2020, MONUSCO documented 1,053 cases of sexual violence, of which 700 were committed by armed groups. 

Amid this cycle of violence, MONUSCO has proved unable, despite its high budget, to protect civilians and prevent the atrocities that armed groups commit. MONUSCO’s presence does not seem to have a major impact, to the extent that the leaders of the East African Community (EAC) proposed to deploy a regional force in the DRC earlier this year to help mitigate the security situation in the country. 

MONUSCO’s impotence is what has angered many Congolese people and led the recent protests to flare up. “I want MONUSCO … to go because it does no good to us,” Eduard Sikabuya, a 23-year-old electrical engineering student told Al-Jazeera. After two decades, it seems that Congolese people have lost faith in the U.N.’s blue helmet. In 2016, 63% of Congolese people believed MONUSCO was doing a good job at protecting civilians, according to a nationwide survey by the Congo Research Group and two other civil society groups. Recently, however, that has declined to 23.6%. 

Why has MONUSCO Failed to Protect the Congolese People? 

It is worth reiterating that MONUSCO is a peacekeeping mission, not a peacemaking one – that is, it is meant to preserve peace in areas where hostilities have ceased. Yet, this mandate is not tailored to meet the current conditions in the DRC. The country has been plagued by a long-running conflict between more than 100 armed groups, something that has created the world’s most neglected refugee crisis, with 5.5 million people being internally displaced and one million others seeking refuge abroad.

Given such a complex, volatile environment, preserving peace in the DRC is no longer feasible, just because there is no peace in the first place. Thus, there is an inconsistency between what MONUSCO is mandated to do and what it actually can achieve. 

Another reason that is widely discussed regarding MONUSCO’s failure is that the mission does not have sufficient resources to accomplish its mandate. In recent years, MONUSCO has seen budget cuts, a reduction in the number of military personnel, and the closure of some of its military bases and field offices. These measures are a result of pressure that Member States in the U.N. Security Council have been exerting to minimize expenditure on this mission and pave the way for its withdrawal. 

Nonetheless, even if these measures had not been taken, MONUSCO would probably have performed the same. This is largely attributed to what is known as national caveats. These caveats are restrictions that troop-contributing countries impose on how their soldiers should be used while on missions to emphasize that their soldiers’ safety comes first. These restrictions have a major impact on peacekeeping operations and make peacekeepers play a passive role in protecting civilians.

According to a report by the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services in 2014, peacekeepers respond to only a minority of cases in which civilians’ lives are under threat, and that “force is almost never used to protect civilians under attack.” The report found that this lack of response is partly due to a “de facto dual line of command” that troop-contributing countries exercise over their soldiers to regulate the use of force in missions. This problem has been seen in the DRC, with some people claiming that despite peacekeepers’ presence in their towns, they never show up when violence erupts and rebels kill civilians. 

The Future of MONUSCO

Last month, MONUSCO’s spokesperson Mathias Gillman stated that the mission has “the means to fight against armed groups and militias, but not against a conventional army that has night-time equipment,” referring to the M23. “We need de-escalation to happen as soon as possible with the M23 because both the Congolese army and we [Monusco] do not have scalable means, and we cannot guarantee an ultra-efficient presence everywhere at the same time,” Gillman added. 

In response, the Congolese government has expelled Gillman from the DRC, accusing him of fueling the tension between peacekeepers and the Congolese people and making a clear acknowledgment of MONUSCO’s impotence. The government also said that it would even speed up MONUSCO’s exit, concluding that the mission has no reason to remain present in the country in light of the protests, Gillman’s statement, and its inability to fight the M23. 

While it is still unclear when the withdrawal will happen, it is clear that the U.N. has failed the Congolese people and fallen short of building the safe and peaceful political environment they had hoped for. While it may be too late to reform MONUSCO, it is certainly time for the U.N. to evaluate the challenges and limitations in other missions and reform their mandates accordingly. Otherwise, U.N. missions will continue to experience failures as in the DRC, something that no one pays the price for but innocent people. 

Osama Alshantti

Osama graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2021 with a B.A. in Political Science. His main research interests include diplomacy and conflicts between states, human rights, and environmental...