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.