UN report on Congo rapes released. Are peacekeepers bad at protecting civilians?

Four recommendations for how the United Nations peacekeeping force in Congo can better protect civilians from abuses committed by rebel groups.

By , Guest blogger

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    In this Oct. 2, 2009 file photo, a Congolese girl walks past a Uruguayan United Nations peacekeeper as he stands watch on a hill near a peacekeeper encampment in Kimua in the heart of territory held by Rwandan Hutu rebels in eastern Congo.
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The United Nations released a report Monday on the mass rape that took place in and around Luvungi at the beginning of August. There had been an uproar about MONUSCO’s lack of response to the rapes – the peacekeepers had a base about 20 miles away – so the secretary general had sent his assistant in charge of peacekeeping to investigate.

The report – which I have uploaded here – does not really say anything we didn’t know. The UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or MONUSCO, knew that the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and Mai-Mai had taken over the area and that they had committed a few abuses, but they were unaware of the scale of the rapes (they had heard about one, unconfirmed) until days after the assailants had left town. MONUSCO is under-resourced and staffed and there was no way for the villagers to contact them, as there is no cell phone coverage in the area.

The report continues: Protection of civilians is primarily the duty of the Congolese Army, but MONUSCO did fail. The UN will now try to set up ham radios the villagers can use to contact them in case of an emergency. They will carry out night patrols and have already deployed 750 soldiers to the area to try and hunt down those responsible for the attacks. Furthermore, the UN will provide clear instructions to its peacekeepers during these kinds of situations, i.e. when a new armed group moves into an area.

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MONUSCO was somewhat unfairly singled out in this case. It does not appear that its troops were aware of what was going on – they were guilty of not patrolling enough and not keeping their ears close enough to the ground. But this does not appear to be like Kiwanja in 2008, when more than 100 people were massacred within earshot of a UN Organization Mission in the DRC, or MONUC, camp.

But this report does beg the question: Why were all of these sensible suggestions not implemented previously? For example, we know some of those who were responsible for the Kiwanja massacre – they include Bosco Ntaganda, Innocent Zimurina, and Captain Seko, all of whom have been integrated into the Congolese army. Why not bring them to justice?

We have known for a long time that UN officers have scant guidance in how to deal with these kinds of situations. Why not provide clear instructions for all contingencies a long time ago?

MONUSCO has a long history of failing to protect civilians in imminent danger. If protection of civilians is the No.1 priority of the mission, why has it failed to address these failings?

A few preliminary answers:

  1. MONUC has the mandate to protect civilians in imminent danger, but also to support the Congolese Army. These two parts of the mandate can contradict each other – MONUSCO may not intervene to protect civilians if this would cause friction with the Congolese Army. In general, the UN has often toned down the protection of civilians if it feels aggressive action might offend parties to peace process. When the rebel group Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) carried out the Kisangani massacre in May 2002 close to a UN base, MONUC was trying to keep the faltering peace talks in South Africa together. MONUC mistakenly thought Nkunda was a key figure in the peace process in the Kivus in May 2004 when he took control of Bukavu. Similarly, arresting Bosco Ntaganda could jeopardize the current fragile peace deal between Kigali and Kinshasa. This is a real problem, but we have erred on the side of extreme caution. The problem with argument is that MONUSCO compromises on justice today for a peace that never comes. In the end, all parties know they are unlikely to face any consequences for grave abuses. Remember that it was Laurent Nkunda and Gabriel Amisi who were both involved in the Kisangani massacre – both became repeat offenders later.
  2. Protecting civilians in imminent danger does not make much sense militarily. If the danger is imminent, it’s probably too late to intervene. By the time you get your attack helicopters in the air and the UN Secretary General (SRSG) to sign off on an order, the attackers have probably come and gone. So protecting civilians is mostly about deterring in advance and hunting down those responsible afterwards. In Ituri, for example, MONUC created demilitarized zones, so they didn’t have to wait until militias began killing to act – anyone with a gun in the DMZ could be disarmed, by force if necessary. In December 2006, Indian blue helmets told Nkunda that if he advanced on Goma they would open fire – he did, and MONUC put up attack helicopters, killing between 300-600 of Nkunda’s soldiers. After that, Nkunda’s troops had newfound respect for the UN. Also, if you hunt down those responsible and make them face justice, your rivals might begin taking you seriously. But if your reaction is sometimes harsh and sometimes spineless, you lose all credible deterrence.
  3. The UN Security Council provides mandates but not the resources. MONUSCO does not have enough resources and troops, and those ones it has do not want to die in the Congo. They are loath to send troops on dangerous missions and therefore interpret their mandate in a very conservative fashion. At the end of the day, there are few incentives for the Indian or Moroccan government to risk their soldiers’ lives in the Congo – there is little glory if they succeed and a ton or opprobrium if they fail. In the absence of a sense of urgency and vision, the bureaucracy of the UN and the risk-averseness of the troop contributors take hold.

I would make four recommendations:

  1. Do as much work before and after the violence as possible – identify hot spots and patrol frequently; demilitarize areas that could be particularly contentious; if large military power shifts happen, pay close attention, as this is often when harsh counterinsurgency operations take place.
  2. Focus on gathering information. MONUSCO civilian intelligence is excellent, but consists of a handful of people. Its military intelligence is much less developed, as it relies on foreign troops to don’t speak the language and don’t know the area. But if MONUSCO had been more pro-active and had had better local contacts, it would have found out about the rapes sooner. Some UN commanders are excellent and do this, but it should not be left up to the individual’s discretion.
  3. When violence does break out, react swiftly and with clear instructions to UN commanders on the ground about how to employ the use of force, rules of engagement, etc.
  4. Hunt down the perpetrators. Protecting civilians does not stop when the violence is over. You need to do policing operations to bring those who carried out the attacks to justice together with the Congolese government. In this case, we know that is was probably “Colonel” Mayele from the Cheka Mai-Mai and Colonel Seraphin from the FDLR who took part in the operations. In the past, MONUSCO has pursued militias who have killed peacekeepers, but seems to be much less aggressive when it comes to Congolese victims.

Jason Stearns is an expert on the Great Lakes region who blogs at Congo Siasa.

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