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Eruptions in Goma – Troublesome mandate

Akash S. Goud is Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • December 05, 2012

    Goma, a city situated in the volatile eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo and home to an active volcano, has long been living under the shadow of strife of the ethnic and political kinds. Located close to the Rwandan border, the inhabitants of the city live in perpetual fear borne out of an uneasy peace that has often been driven asunder by ethnic strife and a war over its valuable resources.

    It was only last week that a rebel group calling themselves, M23 or the March 23 Movement (Mouvement du 23 mars), took control of Goma city, brushing aside the token resistance of the Congolese troops defending the city.1 What is difficult to understand is the mute spectatorship of the UN peacekeeping forces comprising the large chunk of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) that were stationed in and around the city. Comprising of over 18000 troops2, equipped with heavy weapons and attack helicopters, this sizeable force (one of the largest UN peacekeeping forces to be assembled) did not offer any resistance to the intruding troops, showing a “lack of ambition” to fulfil its mandate.3 As noted by Henry Okello Oryem, the Ugandan State Minister for Foreign Affairs, “[i]f it [MONUSCO] was doing its job with its large numbers and budget, I don’t think we would still have the crisis in the DRC today”.4

    Responding to international criticism, the UN has pointed out that despite the relatively large size of the mission (and sizeable funding5, I might add) it is grossly inadequate considering the fact that DRC is about the size of Western Europe causing the troops to be deployed thinly over a vast terrain. North Kivu province where Goma is located has only 6,700 personnel and 1500 more in the city itself.

    Regional analysts like Jason Stearn emphasize that it was impossible for MONUSCO to defend Goma single-handedly,6 a statement that holds particular significance given the withdrawal of civilian and military Congolese officials who left the city undefended and ungoverned. UN spokesman Eduardo del Buey also made clear that peacekeepers were no substitutes for the national army7, as the mission’s mandate specifies that the former act in support of Congolese government efforts and to engage only when civilians are threatened – the protection of civilians being a core goal of Resolution 2053.

    Lately the mission in Goma has been reinforced and seems determined to carry out its mandate. MONUSCO’s military spokesman, Colonel Felix Basse, has said that “MONUSCO is continuing fulfilling its mandate, which is protecting the civilian population in and around Goma town. We are conducting our patrols. We have deployed 17 quick reaction forces in order to protect the civilian population in Goma.”8

    Since its coming into being, the M23 has been accused of several human rights violations, especially ethnically and sexually motivated violence along with recruitment of child soldiers. Heal Africa, which runs a hospital for rape victims in Goma, said it had registered 2,517 cases in the first half of 20129, a period that coincided with the wanton rampage of ex-CNDP (Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple or National Congress for the defence of the people) commander Bosco Ntaganda. According to the Final report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo,10 the M23 has carried out brutal attacks, burning homes and killing hundreds belonging to the rival Hutu community. The enrolment and training of hundreds of young boys and girls that have been supervised by M23 commanders (who have a history of recruiting children) has often been the reason for their worldwide condemnation. Ida Sawyer, a researcher for the Human Rights Watch, explains how this time the M23 did not indulge in mass murder, but carried out carefully planned attacks on selected people, that included judges, government officials, even witnesses who had testified against the M23’s mineral smugglers. To the UN’s credit, more than 200 officials were flown out of Goma to protect their lives. But even then not everyone could be evacuated; the stragglers were identified and killed.11 In another act of violence connected to Goma’s take over, a camp about 15 km outside the city had been raided by unidentified gunmen a day before the fighting ceased. Several women were raped and food and supplies stolen12.

    In response to the aggressive actions of the M23, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution (UNSCR 2076) demanding “the immediate withdrawal of the M23 from Goma, the cessation of any further advances by the M23 and that its members immediately and permanently disband and lay down their arms.13

    Despite the optimism shown by UN officials, the mission’s mandate faces an inherent difficulty. On one hand it describes the role of the peacekeeping forces as limited to assisting the FARDC (the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo)14 and not engage the aggressor directly; but on the other it concerns itself with the protection of civilians. But how can direct engagement be avoided if civilians are threatened?15

    The issue of realistic mandates finds a mention in the Brahimi report of 2000,16 in which it is pointed out that the United Nations has found itself unable to respond effectively when it assumes peace keeping roles. Two prominent examples come to mind in this regard. The first is the caustic indictment by the Human Rights Watch of UNPROFOR/UNPF’s conduct at Srebrenica in 1995, where Bosnian Serb soldiers engaged in extrajudicial executions as Dutch UN troops looked on and subsequent destruction of evidence and wanton suppression of facts by the Dutch government.17 The second is an internal review conducted by Charles Petrie that called the manner in which the crisis caused by the Eelam War IV in Sri Lanka was handled as a “grave failure of the UN”.18

    The alleged passivity of UN peacekeeping troops in Goma raises uncomfortable questions about the UN’s role in Congo. On one had there is the issue of the mission’s resources, particularly the number of military personnel not being sufficient to protect civilians and assist the local government and, on the other hand, the very concept of POC or protection of civilians is challenged. A thesis published at the Naval Postgraduate School, Copeland, USA, finds that the protection of civilians has been repeatedly violated by rebel groups operating in the area and even by the FARDC which is assisted logistically by MONUSCO.19 The “conditionality policy” that is central to POC has been chastised as being responsible for less monitoring of the FARDC, giving them leeway to commit crimes with impunity.20

    What comes out of the various assertions of several MONUSCO officials that the mission remains grossly ill equipped and does not have enough boots on ground to tackle the problem is an apparent lack of commitment by various members of the UN especially the P-5 in terms of money and allocation of personnel. Non-permanent members like India have contributed exceedingly well to the peacekeeping effort in Congo. The four major contributors in terms of troop contingent are India (3694 personnel), Pakistan (3698), Bangladesh (2520) and South Africa and Uruguay committing 1179 and 1164 troops respectively. The other 54 countries, including P-5, make up the rest of the 6000-odd peacekeeping forces and experts. The Brahimi report’s suggestion of larger and better equipped forces to pose a credible deterrent is significant in the crippling situation that the peacekeepers in Goma find themselves in. Case in point: according to Irin Global, a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the M23 was able to successfully attack a village called Katoyi, not far from Goma, in July 2012 because there were fewer than 50 peacekeepers there.21

    Brigadier Harinder Singh, who until recently was the United Nations brigade commander for North Kivu, is of the opinion that along with peace keeping, the concept of peace enforcement must be developed, strengthened and applied.22 Partly the reason why this area remains conflict ridden is because of a faulty approach to the crisis. The situation in Congo is viewed as one where peace has been achieved and only needs to be ‘kept’ or maintained. This may be true for Kinshasa the capital, but is definitely not the case in North Kivu and the entire eastern region of DRC.

    In addition, the large amounts of money being pumped into development efforts in this part of the world is sanctioned for long term goals such as grooming democratic institutions, and do not take adequate cognizance of more immediate concerns such as constant threat to life and property.

    The take over of Goma has caused a “crisis within a crisis”23. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), it has been estimated that more than 2.4 million people have been internally displaced in the country as a result of violence and conflict, and 4.5 million people country-wide have been suffering from food insecurity.24

    Despite the rebels pulling out of Goma on December 1 under a deal brokered by Uganda, an uneasy calm prevails over the city. While DRC's President Joseph Kabila has said that he is ready to listen to the rebels' grievances, the M23 heavyweight Colonel Sultani Mkenga has declared that "If Kabila provokes us, we will come back"25. The events of the last ten days have once again focussed international attention on this long suffering region and have lent support to voices clamouring for a review of the existing mandate of MONUSCO and the larger process by which these mandates are concretized. All in all, amid speculation that the rebel withdrawal is purely ‘tactical’26, the situation remains on tenterhooks, at least, until the date of negotiations between the rebels and the government is decided. Until then, fears of a violent showdown remain quite potent.