On November 25, 2019, angry protesters in the town of Beni in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) burned down the town hall and attacked the cars and offices of United Nations (UN) peacekeepers, destroying large sections of one of the bases of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC, known as MONUSCO. The protests were triggered by some civilians’ frustrations with the government’s and MONUSCO’s inability to protect them from attacks by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) armed group in the area.

The ADF originated as a Ugandan armed group that carved out positions in the Congolese forests that border Uganda in 1995. Today, the group’s ranks are filled with locally recruited Congolese fighters, although the ADF has formed tenuous ties with the Islamic State abroad. The ADF has survived a series of offensives by the Congolese military (FARDC), and has been accused of killing well over one thousand civilians since 2014.

On October 30, the FARDC launched a new round of “large-scale operations” seeking to “definitively exterminate” the ADF. In response, ADF militants began engaging in frequent reprisal attacks against civilians in early November. These attacks – often carried out at night by machete – resulted in an estimated 206 civilian casualties in the Beni region from the start of November through mid-December.

Protests in response to these attacks began in Beni and have since spread to other cities in eastern DRC, including Goma and Butembo. Organizers have declared several general strikes, barricading streets, shutting down economic activity, and clashing with police. At present, anti-MONUSCO sentiment shows little sign of dissipating.

The evolving situation in Beni unfolds against the backdrop of UN Security Council negotiations on the renewal of MONUSCO’s mandate. As deliberations continue, violence in Beni should not overshadow the ongoing need for MONUSCO’s presence in many areas of the country.

Limitations on MONUSCO Operations in the Beni Region

The population’s frustration with the Mission is understandable. MONUSCO’s mandate lists protection of civilians (POC) as its first priority task, and MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) – an offensive force specifically mandated to “neutralize armed groups” – is headquartered in Beni. Moreover, civilians recognize that peacekeepers, who are often better equipped than the Congolese military, are rarely on the front lines of operations alongside the FARDC. In a context of repeated ADF massacres, it is unsurprising that civilians are questioning the Mission’s effectiveness and ability to protect the population in the region.

But MONUSCO’s response in Beni is constrained by a number of factors that are often invisible to the population at large. First, the Mission must carry out operations in compliance with a Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (HRDDP), which prohibits UN support to non-UN security forces when “there are substantial grounds for believing there is a real risk” that recipients will commit “grave violations” of international humanitarian, human rights, or refugee law. Thus, the FARDC’s long record of human rights abuses and reliance on abusive armed groups as proxies, as well as the presence of individuals under international sanctions within the FARDC’s leadership, all create barriers to FARDC-MONUSCO partnered operations.

MONUSCO has undertaken joint patrols with the FARDC and provided logistical support, medical evacuation for injured soldiers, and other forms of assistance to the FARDC offensive. However, more substantive support would require the FARDC to engage in joint planning with MONUSCO – a step that the Congolese government and military leadership have often resisted. MONUSCO’s top official, Special Representative to the Secretary-General Leila Zerrougui, emphasized this limitation when she explained, “Joint operations must be prepared, with joint planning. If I have not prepared the operation, I am not going to go blindly. I don’t know what is going to happen.”

Therefore, for MONUSCO to increase support to current operations, the Congolese government needs to remove problematic commanders and troops from the theater of operations and commit to thorough and transparent joint planning that allows the Mission to ensure that operations do more good than harm.

Even if hurdles to increased MONUSCO-FARDC collaboration can be overcome, the ultimate utility of more military operations is not clear. Congolese civilians are calling for more robust military action, but the current round of ADF reprisal attacks was triggered by FARDC operations against the armed group, and the ADF’s style of asymmetric warfare is particularly difficult to combat. As there is likely no purely military solution to the ADF, the Mission may have a more important role to play in developing a comprehensive approach to neutralizing the ADF that relies on sustained political and economic strategies rather than offensive operations.  

The Importance of Robust and Accountable Peacekeeping

Despite the limitations facing MONUSCO, Congolese civilians deserve proactive peacekeepers capable of effectively protecting civilians. UN Member States and MONUSCO must hold peacekeepers, including the FIB in Beni, accountable through meaningful performance indicators that effectively assess their actions and whether they are addressing protection threats. MONUSCO’s announced deployment of reinforcements to the region – as well as the appointment of former MONUSCO Force Commander, General dos Santos Cruz, to evaluate the ability of MONUSCO’s military component to execute its mandate in Beni territory – present opportunities to improve the Mission’s approach.

Member States must also ensure that MONUSCO has sufficient resources and appropriate capabilities to protect civilians. The killing of a protester by the FIB in Beni highlights the importance of providing peacekeepers with adequate training and equipment for the environments into which they are deployed. After the incident, Ms. Zerrougui admitted that troops in Beni do not have non-lethal weapons and were not adequately prepared to respond to civil unrest from the population.

MONUSCO’s mandate renewal presents an opportunity for Members States to reaffirm the Mission’s protection mandate and the need for accountability, while ensuring that the Mission has the capacity and resources necessary to effectively protect Congolese civilians.

Image courtesy of MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti