In an unprecedented statement, the United Nations Security Council has called for the “swift neutralization of the FDLR” rebel group in eastern DRC through joint operations by the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) and the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC). While the ongoing threat posed by the FDLR and other rebels is real, the risk of incidental harm to civilians during joint combat operations and the prospect of retaliatory FDLR attacks against civilians are very worrisome.

The FDLR (a group of roughly 1500 rebels, many of whom are Rwandan Hutus) is widely dispersed across the Kivus and have, in many places, integrated into local communities, making an offensive operation challenging for peacekeepers and risky for civilians. UN operations are designed to be conducted in partnership with the FARDC, who have in their own right been responsible for numerous crimes and abuses against civilians in recent years. To complicate matters, MONUSCO’s leadership and the Congolese government have not seen eye-to-eye on which rebel groups to target, further delaying the full implementation of the UN’s robust mandate.

In authorizing an offensive mandate for MONUSCO, UNSC Resolution 2098 created the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), which is specifically equipped for “targeted offensive operations” with the responsibility of “neutralizing armed groups and of contributing to reducing the threat posed by armed groups to state authority and civilian security in eastern DRC.” The mandate further calls on the FIB to “mitigate the risk to civilians before, during, and after any military operation.” This guidance is laudable, but we must ask how the FIB will proactively protect civilians in their campaign to disarm and “neutralize” armed groups, how joint operations with the FARDC will be conducted, and how these will be done in a way that takes measures to mitigate and respond to civilian harm during operations.

Despite some success under its new offensive mandate, including the defeat of M23 rebels in November 2013, MONUSCO peacekeepers have been unable to fully implement their mandate or to effectively prevent attacks against civilians in the country’s remote eastern regions (highlighted by their recent non-engagement against the ADF in Beni, North Kivu). The new push to defeat the largest armed group in the region, the FDLR, comes after most of that group’s members failed to voluntarily disarm by the latest deadline of January 2, 2015.

While a broader strategy including non-military measures is needed to end the cycles of violence in eastern DRC, armed confrontation with rebel groups has been authorized for MONUSCO to restore peace and security. If offensive operations are conducted, FIB and FARDC forces should, in accordance with the guidance of the UN Secretary General, make every effort to prevent and, where necessary, swiftly recognize, investigate, and respond to any incidental civilian harm caused as a result of their operations. While international law obligates parties to a conflict to provide compensation for violations, MONUSCO and FARDC should also standardize a process to assist civilians that are harmed incidentally in order to strengthen accountability and prevent the further escalation of violence.

One tool that can assist MONUSCO is a “civilian casualty tracking cell”. This cell—consisting of hardware, software, and specialized human resources—was recommended for all offensive peacekeeping operations in a 2013 UNSG report on protection of civilians “as a means of understanding the impact of military operations on civilians and identifying changes in military tactics required to reduce harm to civilians.” A civilian casualty tracking cell would help MONUSCO identify with reliable data the issues of civilian harm attributable to the FARDC and MONUSCO, and to engage all parties at a tactical level to reduce civilian harm.

For decades, the Congolese have suffered violent attacks by armed groups and state forces and have looked to the UN and the international community for help. With its increased political backing and offensive mandate, MONUSCO, the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world, has been given the challenge to change the tide to proactively protect civilians. While primary responsibility for safeguarding civilians rests with the Congolese government and military, the world is watching to see whether the UN, with its unprecedented offensive mandate, is up to the task to protect Congolese civilians from both armed groups and its own actions.

Image courtesy of UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti