Democratic Republic of Congo: a new strategy for the UN?

Yesterday, in a new report, Human Rights Watch condemned the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) for its December 2009 killing of “at least 321 civilians, abducting 250 others, including at least 80 children, during a previously unreported four-day rampage in the Makombo area of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.”

The massacre, first reported by the BBC, is yet another blow to the security situation in the Eastern DRC. This massacre by the LRA in the farthest northeastern reaches of the country creates additional stresses for the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUC). The LRA, which was originally based in Northern Uganda and fueled years of violence and conflict there, has evolved into a transnational threat, with reports of LRA activity in Sudan, the Central African Republic and the DRC. While MONUC is the single largest peacekeeping operation in the world, it has to contend with complex conflict dynamics over vast swaths of land.

In addition to the Congolese rebel groups operating in the area, cross border guerillas like the LRA from Uganda and the FDLR from Rwanda, the Congolese army (FARDC) – which is supposed to work with MONUC on improving the security situation – has also been found responsible for committing acts of violence against civilians. A recent UN report found that “in North Kivu, an assistance provider for victims of sexual violence recorded 3,106 cases [of sexual violence] between January and July 2009; half of these cases were perpetrated by FARDC members.”

I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising, given that many FARDC troops are former rebels…

With nearly daily reports of violence, this region has been plagued with unacceptable levels of violence against civilians for more than a decade. The UN’s presence has unquestionably stymied the conflict, and analysts believe that MONUC’s continued presence is absolutely necessary.

MONUC has about 1,000 peacekeepers in this northeastern area of the country; according to Human Rights Watch, this is far too low a number to deter or prevent further attacks on civilians. The UN special representative of the secretary-general in the DRC, Alan Doss, told the BBC that rooting out the LRA “requires better intelligence gathering, requires particularly air mobility, and of course cooperation with the local people.”

Meanwhile, in spite of the continued, chronic violence plaguing his country, DRC President Joseph Kabila is hoping to see the backs of the UN peacekeepers as soon as possible. Members of the UN Security Council have diverging points of view on the matter. While the U.S. and France support continued engagement, China endorses the Congolese view that there will be “no new beginning for Congo as long as MONUC is there.”

It seems, however, that what the Eastern DRC needs is more and better UN peacekeeping, not a withdrawal of the mission. The country’s own armed forces cannot be trusted to protect the people, several local and transnational rebel groups are still at large, committing atrocities on civilians: as Mr. Doss suggested, now is the time for a better, reinforced strategy for the UN mission in DRC, not its departure.

Image: Flickr (UN PHOTO)