Protection of Civilians in the DRC: Steps and Dilemmas

Operations of search and seizure of unauthorized weapons have started in the East of the DRC. The UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) had given everyone in the city of Goma and surrounding area until August 1st to hand on their weapons, including members of rebel movements. The MONUSCO deployment includes now an Intervention Brigade of 3.000 members with a mandate to use lethal force if necessary to address disarmament and protect civilians. The security area includes the city, the airport, refugee camps and the military bases. Within that perimeter it is expected that everybody carrying a weapon will be disarmed.

The security zone is a preventive measure intended to put limits to the rebel group M23, although everyone in possession of a weapon will be disarmed and considered an imminent threat of physical violence. The new mandate and rules of engagement, as well as the presence of the Intervention Brigade, mark a new departure in UN peace operations. But it is not without risk.

Diverse groups and interests at stake

The M23 is one of the main rebel groups operating in the DRC. It is probably the most well-known, due to their 2012 offensive against Goma. They were able to capture the city for a whole week with no opposition from Congolese armed forces neither international troops. Their operations have caused the displacement of more than 100,000 persons. One of its leaders is under custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and both the UN and the DRC Government accuse Rwanda of providing steady support for this group (something that this country harshly denies). Last May the M23 started a new offensive in this area with indiscriminate attacks and civilian casualties, while the Intervention Brigade was completing its deployment.

There are around 25 armed groups operating in the East of the DRC, in the regions of Kivu North and Kivu South, according to Oxfam. This is a typical feature in modern wars, that may last for years if not decades and have many interests at stake. The DRC is not only a huge country but also immensely rich in natural resources, especially valuable and strategic minerals. Alliances among armed groups are shifting and unstable, but they usually try to control mines (of gold, coltan, tin and other minerals) and transportation routes. With this, they can control the mineral trade and ‘tax’ people travelling by those routes. As Oxfam said, civilians have become a commodity of war here.


Armed groups in East RDC, November 2012. Source: Oxfam

Armed groups in East RDC, November 2012. Source: Oxfam

Although the DRC has a problematic colonial legacy, widespread violence started in 1994 after the Rwandan genocide. Years later this was called the ‘first African world war’, in which a number of countries of the continent took part representing different national, regional and international interests. Behind the war, political and economic interests merged, as all the groups took advantage of the situation to spoil natural resources and make money through a well established war economy (including, of course, DRC and neighbouring countries elites).

By 2003 a peace agreement gave place to a transition government, and a reconstruction process that never reached the East of the country. Here an array of local and foreign groups have operated and the interests at stake are multiple and complex. Last February 24th a new regional peace accord was signed with support of 11 countries, but it has no lasted. In this region the game at play involves the control of land with high potential for agriculture and cattle and important mines. The ethnic balances are fragile after massive population displacement, and there is continuous interference of external actors like Rwanda and (to a lesser extent nowadays) Uganda.

The humanitarian crisis is one of the gravest in the world, with around 2.6 million internal displaced people and more than 6 million persons dependent on emergency and food aid. An estimated number of 4 million have died in this war, as a result of direct violence or associated crises like displacement, malnutrition and diseases.

Protection of civilians and dilemmas of the potential use of lethal force

The new MONUSCO mandate including the use of lethal force if necessary to disarm combatants in the security area relies on the principle of protection of civilians in armed conflict. However it also involves risks and dilemmas. One of them is how to use force with maximum caution in order to avoid getting caught within the war dynamics, and become part of the problem and not of the solution (as happened in Somalia in 1992). Another one is for humanitarian organizations that must rely on protection and security provided by MONUSCO while safeguarding their independence and neutrality.

According to the Congolese think tank CRESA, the intervention force can have a positive impact on civilian protection and will probably be welcomed by the population. But in order to achieve success, they must establish open and honest communication channels with the population and their representatives. The Intervention Brigade operations would also have more possibilities of success if they were a step among many in an ambitious framework of State and security reform and of protection of civilians with different means.

The most pressing problem in the DRC is institutional fragility and scarce State capacity. The use of military means is necessary but probably not enough substitute for the political will to address root causes and grievances behind the conflict (including management of natural resources), improve security institutions and implement programs of good governance. Measures are also acutely needed at regional and international levels to curtail the flow of weapons, training and military support from outside, and the international trade of natural resources that enriches many (if not all) parts of this conflict while the population suffers the consequences. Natural resources, of course, end up in developed markets and international companies are not completely free of guilt.

The protection of civilians has been absent for a long time in the DRC, and the UN has faced important criticisms for its inability to undertake decisive action. The new step, if correctly implemented, could be welcomed by the population and civil society in the DRC. However, the risks associated to the pursued new military strategy are also evident.

Old and New Violence(s)

It was possibly the World Bank who best explained it in the World Development Report 2011. Around 1.5 billion people worldwide live in situations that cannot be described as war or peace, amidst repeated cycles of political and criminal violence.

Interstate wars are in decline. If we want to understand contemporary violence, let’s forget the II World War and similar events. Internal (intrastate) wars are more typical today, with 32 armed conflict active last year. The figure is relatively stable although numbers of victims were higher in 2012 (mainly due to the Syrian situation).

There is a proliferation of settings worldwide where the accurate description of the type of violence at stake is difficult, not to mention the nature of the actors involved. Traditional categories are not enough to define and classify those processes. Among the consequences, many of them receive scarce attention in mainstream media and, when they do, they are over-simplified.

More than 60.000 persons were killed in a six-year period in Mexico, under the Government of Felipe Calderon (2006-2012). Even if you leave aside kidnapping, disappeared people, and victims of torture and human rights violations, that figure is higher than in many wars. But here the war is against drugs: between the Government and the narco-trafficking groups, among the groups and within them. International Humanitarian Law does not apply. But the cartels area of influence reaches most of Mexican territory, as The New York Times shows in this map.

In countries so different and distant such as Afghanistan or Colombia, political violence and war intertwine with the illegal economy of drugs and organized crime groups. War actors take part in this business. And there is a growing debate about the methods and path of counter-insurgency. More accurately, the question is: Is it possible to fight at the same time against insurgency and against drugs? Or do both objectives need differentiated approaches? According to some analysts, among them Vanda Felbab-Brown in her book Shooting Up, both ‘wars’ are incompatible: if you engage in forcible drug eradication, farmers without feasible alternatives will turn to insurgent groups for protection. From this point of view, counter-insurgency is at odds with counter-drugs.

Terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and its regional ‘franchises’ (like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP) perpetrate attacks in their own countries and/or in others. Some of them take advantage of old smuggling routes and isolated areas to finance themselves through kidnapping for ransom (especially of Western citizens) and illegal smuggling activities. This is the case of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQMI.

Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), local militia and members of neighbouring Governments fuel and finance a continuous cycle of violence through mining and exploitation of valuable mineral resources like gold and coltan. The latter is strategic for many industries and sectors, among them electronics. This deadly conflict has been called ‘the PlayStation war’.

The typologies and categories of contemporary violence are complex but their outcomes and consequences are clear. This map of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre provides an overview of forcibly displaced population worldwide. The instability arch has worldwide dimensions and specially affected are South countries.

This is far from casual. Contemporary organized violence is rooted in complex set of causes: national and international; individual and societal; political and economic. Youth unemployment; inequity and poverty rates; increasing rates of marginalized urban population; regional, social, ethnic and religious tensions…

All those factors, and others, cause civil unrest and may derive in violence, especially when they coexist with fragile institutions and bad governance. At times institutions have been hollowed out from power and means. And traditional mechanisms and procedures to accommodate interests and resolve societal conflicts have been weakened or even crushed under the pressure of socioeconomic, political and demographic changes.

In many places there is another factor to take into account. Informal and illegal economic networks that many people join as a coping strategy are frequently connected with international financial markets and developed economies. Where do illegal drugs, coltan or gold go, if not here? Weapons, on its part, travel in the opposite direction.

The geographical and social distribution of contemporary violence has strong and structural roots. It is not an anomaly or a fancy. Lack of development and equality give place to frustrated expectations, illegal economies, violence and insecurity. On its part, conflict and violence are barriers for development, as the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and State-building has pointed out.

It’s not possible to understand why violence erupts and why it is so durable without a correct understanding of that vicious circle. Any effort to put an end to violence cycles requires, as a first step, get a better insight on what is happening and why.