Caelin Briggs's blog
A few minutes ago, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved the creation of an “intervention brigade” within the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO).
The resolution passed despite a good deal of skepticism on the part of many Council members, and it’s unclear whether the Council is prepared for the potential humanitarian fallout.
MONUSCO’s new brigade is intended to neutralize the various armed groups in eastern DRC, most notably the M23. Traditional peacekeepers are not allowed to fire unless they are fired upon, but the intervention brigade is authorized to carry out offensive operations, including what has been described as “seek and destroy”. In private, many Council members expressed unease about departing from this central norm of peacekeeping. But in the absence of other options, and in the face of strong African Union support, the Council ultimately gave this new approach its seal of approval.
There has been – and will continue to be – a lot of public discussion about the modalities of the intervention brigade: its relationship with the Congolese army, how it will interact with traditional MONUSCO peacekeepers, and the precedent it sets for future peacekeeping operations. Unfortunately, what we are not hearing much about are the very real risks the brigade poses to civilians. Humanitarian organizations are already stretched beyond their capacity trying to support 2.7 million internally displaced Congolese, and the intervention brigade will likely cause additional displacement and further overwhelm humanitarian agencies.
Protecting civilians has long been central to MONUSCO’s mandate and planning, and the intervention brigade will not change that fact. But past experience (such as the joint offensive between peacekeepers and Congolese soldiers in the Kivus in 2009) has shown that aggressive military actions against armed groups in the DRC can result in increased displacement, human rights violations, sexual violence, and barriers to aid delivery.
These operations can also create dangerous security vacuums. Time and again, the Congolese army has failed to assert its authority over territory after UN forces withdraw, thereby allowing armed groups to regain a foothold. And that is unlikely to change anytime soon, since the Congolese state refuses to pursue credible security sector reform.
In the months leading up to today’s Security Council vote, humanitarians called for an increase in human rights observers and civilian monitors within MONUSCO to assess the intervention brigade’s likely impact. It now seems that those requests will not be met, so aid organizations must start preparing for the humanitarian fallout. When Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province, fell to the M23 in November of last year, aid groups were unprepared for the more than 100,000 displaced people who fled into nearby camps. Families went for months without food and basic supplies. Aid agencies cannot make that same mistake again.
As the intervention brigade begins to take shape, it is important that MONUSCO plans its military operations in ways that mitigate harm to civilians and prevent additional displacement (such as not carrying out attacks in densely populated areas). Humanitarian organizations, meanwhile, must develop response plans that account for the rapidly changing security environment, poor road conditions, and the possibility that large-scale displacement will occur in a very short period. If aid groups wait to make plans until displacement begins, and if donors fail to provide funding until the camps are full, then it will be too late.