By the Blouin News World staff

Haunted by past inaction, U.N. approves combat brigade in DRC

by in Africa.

A U.N. peacekeeper in the Democratic Republic of Congo. AFP PHOTO/PHIL MOORE

On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a resolution establishing a “search and destroy” brigade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), one composed of 2,500 troops with the strongest mandate ever granted a peacekeeping force. It will join the U.N’s existing peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) with the objective of bringing stability to the war-torn nation.

The so-called “intervention brigade” can hardly do worse than MONUSCO has. Last year, the 17,000-member U.N. force stood by as M23 rebels — a militant group that has waged guerrilla warfare against the DRC government since April 2012 — seized the key eastern city of Goma. (Admittedly, the weak Congolese military didn’t do much either; its soldiers have since been accused of widespread raping and looting in the region). The U.N. defended their response (or lack thereof) by stressing the unit’s handicapping peacekeeper status, i.e., unauthorized to open fire unless directly attacked.  But given that MONUSCO is the largest and most expensive force of its kind (it boasts a $1.4 billion annual budget), vocal criticism of its inaction wasn’t long in coming, from both regional and international quarters. It’s with the lessons of Goma visibly in mind that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon pushed for a more autonomous force backed by surveillance drones, and capable of conducting unilateral operations against armed groups that “threaten DRC stability.”

M23 chief among them. True, the March 19 surrender of their ICC-indicted would-be leader Bosco Ntaganda may have temporarily weakened the group (or at least factions loyal to Ntaganda). But in Ntaganda’s absence, a rival warlord was quick to consolidate power: Sultani Makenga has reportedly already begun to gather new recruits. Even if the DRC government manages to negotiate an eastern Congolese peace with M23’s new strongman, U.N. troops would still face the immense challenge of restoring stability to a country the size of Western Europe. (A brewing rebellion in the copper-rich provinces of southern Congo is already shaping up to be the newest thorn in MONUSCO’s side.)

Despite its “exceptional” status, the incipient brigade’s success or failure in combating these local revolts could very well influence the scope of future U.N. peacekeeping missions, as well as how a U.N. presence is regarded by host countries. (In the aftermath of embarrassing scandals in Iraq and Haiti, not to mention growing tensions between peacekeepers and Congolese soldiers, the international body could use a P.R. boost.) Reservations about its broad mandate notwithstanding — Security Council members China and Russia have both voiced concerns that the peace enforcement unit could set a precedent for greater military intervention — the DRC brigade could also temper vociferous criticisms of the U.N.’s hesitance of late to engage militarily in war zones (namely those in Mali and Syria).

Regional and international observers alike will be closely eyeing the new brigade. Perhaps none more than France and Mali. With its fingers crossed for a military withdrawal as early as this April, France has called for a heavily-armed U.N. peacekeeping mission to replace its troops currently fighting Islamist extremists in northern Mali. For now, Ban has proposed sending in 11,000 peacekeepers under a classic mandate. Meaning that the eventual U.N. peacekeepers in Mali could find themselves more or less powerless to combat guerrilla rebels in an unstable African nation with a weak military presence. Sound familiar?