The UN Intervention Brigade: A Force for Change in DR Congo?

With troops assigned to the UN's new offensive unit in the DR Congo arriving in Goma, hopes for a tougher response to the region's non-state armed groups have been raised. Yet while novel, the deployment of the unit poses its own challenges. 

On 28 March, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2098, extending the mandate of MONUSCO - the UN Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo - to March 2014. Controversially, it also provided for the creation of a 3,000-strong 'Force Intervention Brigade', with a mandate to carry out 'targeted offensive operations' against rebel groups in the country's resource-rich east.

The force is the first of its kind to be created within a UN peacekeeping mission. And despite the Russian- and Chinese-backed qualification that the brigade be created 'on an exceptional basis' and 'without ... prejudice to the agreed principles of peacekeeping', if successful, a new precedent could well be set.

Indeed, hopes are high that the force could help redress the more fundamental failings of MONUSCO, and its predecessor MONUC. Established to monitor the 1999 Lusaka Ceasefire designed to end the Second Congo War, the mission has gradually expanded with the re-emergence of conflict in the east (the result of the region's mineral wealth, porous borders, and tensions between former combatants). Yet despite its 17,000 troops, $1.4 billion yearly budget, and a mandate to support the Congolese army (FARDC) in its fight against non-state armed groups, such groups continue to proliferate.

2012 saw the emergence of the March 23 Movement (M23), a group of former rebels defecting from the FARDC citing a lack of compliance with a previous peace deal. Declaring war on the FARDC, the attendant insecurity has been accompanied by high civilian casualties, forced migration and the widespread commission of war crimes.

The UN has proven impotent in the face of such abuses. This culminated in a failure to act when, in November 2012, the M23 (temporarily) occupied the provincial capital of Goma.

The crisis shocked the international community, drawing attention to the force's ongoing inability to fulfil its core mission (that of protecting civilians). Often blamed on its overly defensive orientation, the creation of the brigade is a direct response to such a charge.

A More Robust Response?

Composed of three infantry battalions, one artillery and an elite special force and reconnaissance company, the new force is made up principally - in contrast to the mainly South Asian MONUSCO - of Tanzanian, Malawian and South African troops. And with a mandate to initiate attacks to 'prevent the expansion of all armed groups, neutralize these groups, and to disarm them', it is hoped the unit could tip the balance against the rebels.

For example, Mary Robinson, the newly appointed UN Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region, has described the force as 'an important tool' in a 'moment of renewed opportunity' for peace. Both the Kabila administration and opposition parties in Kinshasa have expressed support for the brigade. Civil society groups and members of the affected population have also appeared welcoming, with Robinson reporting, after her first official visit, that 'the overwhelming majority of the Congolese I spoke to were enthusiastic about the deployment of the brigade'.

Yet such hopes may be premature. First, it is not clear that the new unit can overcome the underlying structural issues that have plagued MONUSCO.

Key among these is a lack of support and resources. Though numerous, MONUSCO's 17,000 troops are thinly spread, over a country the size of Western Europe. The force's budget in terms of aid per capita is also substantially smaller than that of many other missions. Add to this the immense logistical difficulties posed by conditions on the ground, the differing operational practices of troop-contributing countries and their reluctance to provide the expensive equipment required, and the scale of the challenge begins to emerge.

Despite pledges that the force will bring some additional weapons, including attack helicopters, and despite the restriction of its area of operation to the eastern provinces, it is by no means sure that this force can overcome these challenges. Indeed, it is important to recall that MONUSCO - and MONUC before it - has itself enjoyed a robust Chapter VII peace-enforcement mandate, including the use of 'all necessary means ... [to] ensure the effective protection of civilians'. As such, it is clear that MONUSCO has failed to protect civilians in spite of its authorisation to use force.

New Mandate, New Challenges

A new mandate is therefore unlikely to provide the answer to current failings. To the contrary, the brigade may actually heighten the challenges faced by the broader contingent.

By granting the unit an explicitly combative mandate, for example, the UN may be inviting further difficulties, as armed groups respond more aggressively to their new adversary. The M23 has vowed to 'fight back' if attacked by the brigade. There are also rumours of the provision of special training, and of a mutual defence agreement between the M23 and eleven other groups, defining an armed attack on one as an armed attack on all.

This has provoked fears of a further militarisation of the region. L'Avenir newspaper has reported that the M23 has acquired new military hardware, including three Russian-made SA-7 anti-aircraft systems. Meanwhile, the risk of wider attacks as rebels come to associate the full UN contingent with offensive action is a real one, as is the risk of violent retaliation against civilians.

Some have gone as far as to suggest that the new force could ultimately make MONUSCO as a whole untenable. A key concern here surrounds the mission's perceived neutrality, as in this maelstrom of armed actors, the new force will have to make choices as to which groups to pursue, in what order.

In this context, the more local origins of the troops will do little to calm perceptions of vested interests, particularly given the historic involvement of external forces in the region. Most recently, there have been repeated accusations of collusion between Kigali, Kampala and the M23.

In recognition of this, the UN has brokered the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework - or 11+4 - signed in February by eleven African states and four international organisations, embodying a commitment not to interfere in the affairs of the DRC. Despite notable neglect for similar engagement at the local level, it has also expressed support for national-level dialogue, urging Kinshasa to 'remain committed' to the recent Kampala peace talks with the M23.

Yet in establishing the brigade, the UN risks damaging such efforts. While Robinson has acknowledged its role 'as one element of a much larger political process aimed at finding a comprehensive solution to the crisis', little attention has been paid to potential inconsistencies in the approach. The targeting of the M23, for example, is likely to be at odds with ongoing efforts to negotiate peace. Meanwhile the brigade will have to grapple with the long-standing dilemma that the FARDC, in whose support it is deployed, has itself been accused of serious abuses.

The implications of such incoherence could well be severe. Indeed, the evidence is already emerging in the stalling of the Kampala talks - described by lead M23 negotiator Rene Abandi as meaningless in the face of the UN's decision. As such, the real risk surrounding the brigade may not lie in a failure to translate objectives into action. Rather, it may lie in its implications for a political solution, upon which lasting stability in the region ultimately depends.



Cathy Haenlein

Director, Organised Crime and Policing

Organised Crime and Policing

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