International

UN tests combat brigade in Democratic Republic of Congo

First-ever offensive force aiming to quash rebels in the volatile Central African country has made military gains

U.N. peacekeepers from Tanzania patrol near the border crossing point between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in Goma, August 29, 2013
Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

While the world's attention has been fixed on Syria over the past few weeks, the landscape of diplomacy quietly but radically evolved amid the dense green hills of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

A flock of attack helicopters descended there on Aug. 28, in a town north of Goma, in the eastern region of the beleaguered Central African nation. The aircraft were filled with armed United Nations peacekeepers, along with Congolese military forces. The first-ever U.N. peacekeeping force with an offensive combat mandate – tasked with "neutralizing" and disarming rebel forces in one of the world's most intractable conflicts – was in action.

Within two days, the peacekeepers and army had forced rebel militias threatening Goma to withdraw from the front lines. On Thursday, a rebel group known as M23 agreed to resume peace talks with the Congolese government.

Despite the military and diplomatic gains, what impact the force will have on the ground in the eastern DRC remains to be seen – the country has suffered both internal and regional strife for decades. But the impact on peacekeeping is likely to be profound.

The Aug. 28 offensive has been brewing since March, when the U.N Security Council authorized what it calls an "intervention brigade" in the DRC. The 3,000-person unit is part of the more than 19,000 troops in DRC attempting to fulfill the U.N.'s "stabilization mission," but it has a significantly different purpose.

According to Al Jazeera correspondent Malcolm Webb, the intervention brigade is better equipped than either the local rebel groups or the Congolese military, with tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and night vision goggles. The brigade is comprised of three infantry battalions, one artillery unit and one special forces and reconnaissance company, and is authorized to shoot first – unlike any peacekeeping mission before it.

The brigade, which the Security Council stressed did not set a "precedent" for peacekeeping in general, was authorized to use all necessary means to protect civilians and "neutralize armed groups" – referring specifically to the March 23 Movement, or M23, a rebel force made up of Congolese army deserters which has acted as a spoiler in the region since forming in 2009.

There are an estimated 2,000 fighters in the militia, which takes its name from the date peace accords were signed in 2009 between the DRC government and the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a rebel militia comprised mostly of ethnic Tutsis.

Under the peace accords, former CNDP fighters were supposed to integrate into the national army. But some defected, forming the M23 movement.

When the U.N. cannot be brought in if you feel you need a peace process at a certain point, who do you have?

About 800,000 people have reportedly fled their homes in eastern DRC since the M23 captured Goma in November 2012. The U.N. Stabilization Mission in the DRC, known by its French initials, MONUSCO, was criticized for standing by as the city was overrun. U.N. officials later said the troops lacked the authority to combat the rebel advance.

M23 withdrew under international pressure after briefly holding the city. Since mid-July, de facto truces between the army and rebels have been repeatedly broken as fighting erupted, with human rights atrocities accompanying the violence. In July, Human Rights Watch reported that M23 rebels had summarily executed at least 44 people and raped at least 61 women and girls since March.

On Aug. 30, two days after the MONUSCO peacekeepers and Congolese army attacked M23 positions, Bertrand Bisimwa, the militia's civilian president, told Al Jazeera that his troops were withdrawing from the front lines, a move he said was to allow "independent verifiers" to assess where shells had fallen in Goma and across the border into Rwanda.

Then, on Thursday, Bisimwa, agreeing to a demand from the leaders of Africa's Great Lake region, told AFP that the M23 had agreed to resume peace talks with the Congolese government, which have been stalled since May.

The gains came at a cost for the U.N., however, which lost a Tanzanian peacekeeper in the battle. Seven others were wounded, and at least 80 Congolese troops and rebels were reportedly killed in the battles.

U.N. special envoy to the Great Lakes region Mary Robinson said she was "fully in support" of the military offensive.

"The recent military engagement did not at all complicate it, it was necessary, it was absolutely necessary that it would happen," she told reporters after arriving in Goma on Sept. 2.

While M23's return to the negotiating table is a major step in the peace process, there is no readily available solution to the conflict, which also involves neighboring countries.  

In October 2012, a leaked report from the Security Council's team of experts outlined the regional ramifications of the conflict. They revealed that the Rwandan and Ugandan governments – despite their denials – have been arming and providing troops to the M23 rebels. In August the Rwandan government accused the DRC army of "deliberately" shelling across the Rwandan border.

A U.N. mission in DRC was established in 1999, and through its various iterations has become the U.N.'s longest-running peacekeeping force. Some say it has also been among its least successful.

Protecting the people and protecting civilians is not just watching people being killed and making a report.

Since the M23 took Goma in 2012, there have been sporadic protests against perceived U.N. inaction. Last week, MONUSCO opened an investigation into an August incident, when peacekeeping troops are reported to have allegedly shot dead two protesters who stormed a U.N. compound. A U.N. vehicle was also set alight.

And in May, the U.N. confirmed reports that the Congolese army had raped more than 135 women and girls, and the rebels dozens more, as the troops fled Goma, fueling public anger and criticism of the military the U.N. is now allied with.

Jeffrey Laurenti, a U.N. expert at The Century Foundation, said the decision to institute the brigade came out of frustration within the Security Council

"(MONUSCO has been) a big investment, a very frustrating operation... (The DRC) wasn't healing, and the determination was made that ratcheting up the coercive strength of the U.N. deployment could make a difference," Laurenti told Al Jazeera.  

The resolution authorizing the intervention brigade wasn't taken lightly – and although it passed unanimously, some ambassadors expressed concern in their statements to the council.

Ambassador Gert Rosenthal of Guatemala, a non-permanent member of the council, spoke the most strongly, saying that some members of the council had "serious difficulties" with involving the U.N. in "peace enforcement" activities.

"These may compromise the neutrality and impartiality which we find so essential to the organization's peacekeeping," Rosenthal said. "Its presence should be perceived by all parties as that of an honest broker, and not a potential party to the conflict."

Laurenti echoed Rosenthal's concerns: "The bigger danger is that when the U.N. becomes a combatant on the ground, it loses what has been its unique role of having been a potential mediator – of being the impartial outsider... When the U.N. cannot be brought in if you feel you need a peace process at a certain point, who do you have?"

Some countries that wield more influence at the U.N. felt differently, however. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant of Britain, a permanent member of the Security Council, hailed the moment as the U.N. entering "new territory," and called the move "a recipe for successful peacekeeping."

Marc-Andre Lagrange, a senior analyst on Central Africa at the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera that the stakes are high if the intervention brigade is unsuccessful – both for the DRC and for the U.N.

"Protecting the people and protecting civilians is not just watching people being killed and making a report. With that said, the situation in Goma is very complex because you have a combination of parties – (both) M23 and FARDC (the Congolese army) wants to drag the United Nations into the fight," Lagrange said.

"There is a real risk of (a) regional war if this military option prevails."

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