GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — At the end of September 2023, President Félix Tshisekedi called for withdrawal of a peacekeeping mission to Democratic Republic of Congo.
Tshisekedi was speaking at the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly and was referring to MONUSCO, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In his speech, the president decried the fact that peacekeeping missions deployed to the country had failed to cope with rebellions and armed conflict. He also said he had instructed his government to fast-track MONUSCO’s exit, from December 2024 to December 2023. In late November, MONUSCO signed a disengagement plan for its withdrawal from the country.
MONUSCO’s mandate was however renewed for one year on Dec. 19, 2023, with the emphasis on starting the disengagement in accordance with the plan co-signed in November. MONUSCO’s complete withdrawal will be by the end of this year.
The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, initially called MONUC, was created by Resolution 1279 during the November 1999 UN Security Council. Its initial role was to monitor implementation of the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement, signed between DRC and five states in the region (Angola, Namibia, Uganda, Rwanda and Zimbabwe), all of which were involved in the Second Congo War. The objective was to ensure the withdrawal of foreign forces present on Congolese soil, to continue liaising with all parties to the agreement and to prepare for a more substantial deployment of UN forces.
Although initially reluctant to accept a UN presence in the country, the government eventually supported the deployment of UN peacekeepers, seeing it as a means to facilitate a negotiated settlement of the conflict. In 2010, the name of the mission was changed to MONUSCO to signify its extended mission of stabilizing the country, with the protection of civilians as a top priority. These new priorities were adopted in December 2008. The number of MONUSCO troops grew from about 5,500 in 2000 to more than 20,000 in 2010. By early 2023, there were about 15,000 soldiers and police, plus an additional 3,000 civilian personnel. The mission operates on a budget of 1.1 billion United States dollars.
As MONUSCO prepares to fully leave DRC by the end of the year, its departure brings uncertainty. According to a 2022 study entitled “Challenges and Issues of the MONUSCO Withdrawal Plan,” the withdrawal of 12,000 well-equipped peacekeepers will create a security vacuum. It will also have a significant economic impact at the local level, particularly for the many MONUSCO employees.
MONUSCO leaves behind a complex legacy. Although it tried to restore peace in DRC, critics claim it was unpopular with locals for various reasons, including allegations of its inability to protect civilians from sexual exploitation and M23, an armed group.
July 2022 protests and rising anti-MONUSCO sentiment
In July 2022, violence erupted in several cities across eastern DRC, including Goma, Butembo and Uvira, days after the president of the DRC Senate, Bahati Lukwebo, visited Goma, calling for MONUSCO’s withdrawal from the country.
In the days after the senator’s speech, visibly furious crowds filled the streets of Goma and marched toward the MONUSCO base. A protest that started peacefully quickly turned bloody as rioters attacked MONUSCO bases and ransacked the homes of UN personnel. Protests also broke out in Butembo and Uvira. Three UN peacekeepers were killed in Butembo, while 16 Congolese nationals were reported dead and more than 70 wounded. Initial research, according to the UN, indicated that the protests were coordinated rather than spontaneous.
MONUSCO and the 2012 M23 embarrassment
Sources interviewed for this article and other reports say frustrations against MONUSCO are not new. When the M23 rebels seized Goma in 2012, protests erupted against MONUSCO. Demonstrators claimed the UN was unresponsive and failed to protect civilians.
Jafari Chilemba, a shopkeeper in Goma and father of seven, no longer believes in MONUSCO’s ability to protect the population after the events of a decade ago. Then, DRC’s army, backed by MONUSCO, was stopped by M23, which took over the city and two strategic border crossings.
“We were surprised by the ease with which the rebels were able to advance and take the city, even though the peacekeepers were equipped with heavy weapons, including battle tanks,” Chilemba says.
Chilemba suffered losses as he had to close his shop until the situation returned to normal.
“Since this incident, I have come to see the UN peacekeepers as tourists. I no longer see them as people I can trust to protect us, and I ask myself every day why they are still on our soil,” he says.
Eventually, MONUSCO and the army regained control of Goma, but the incident eroded its credibility in the eyes of local people.
Criticism of UN peacekeeping missions in the region is not unique to DRC. United Nations missions are present in other African countries, including the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. According to the International Crisis Group, the populaces in these countries cite the UN peacekeeping missions’ failure to bring peace. In June 2023, the mission in Mali withdrew after a troubled decade in the country.
According to an article in the Third World Quarterly Journal, an academic journal, a 2014 assessment by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services found that MONUSCO provided an “immediate response” (defined as “political or military intervention during the attack itself”) in only 26% of reported incidents. Although it can be difficult for mission personnel to reach a site once an attack has begun, in many cases the mission is made aware of a potential crisis prior to the incident itself but still fails to respond, the article notes.
Even when UN peacekeeping personnel are present at the time of an assault, according to the article, they are rarely deployed as part of a protective action.
One of MONUSCO’s challenges might be that a fair proportion of the activities it undertakes to maintain peace is not immediately visible to the population.
MONUSCO spokesperson Ndèye Khady Lo says that the mission undertakes civilian protection efforts using a wide range of tools and means, from planning its own military and police activities to working with its civilian component through its field offices.
“Its temporary and permanent bases ensure the day-to-day security of hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians whose survival depends directly on the presence of the Blue Helmets and their robust patrols in Ituri, North and South Kivu,” she says.
Lo cites the Djugu territory of Ituri alone, where MONUSCO currently protects more than 100,000 displaced people through four temporary operational bases in Bayoo, Fataki, Rhoo and Gina, and permanent combat deployments in Drodro and Amee.
In some cases, for example, by deterring armed groups from launching attacks, the mission has established a safe zone to allow the safe return of civilians but has not used force as part of a response to protect civilians. In other cases, the inadequacy is related to timing — the mission acts, but only after an attack has occurred.
Thanks to the use of pre-incident intelligence-gathering techniques, MONUSCO was able to fulfill its mandate in certain areas not always visible to the population, such as by preventing the escalation of conflicts that could lead to mass violence. In 2018, MONUSCO also contributed to a largely peaceful presidential election. It has also facilitated the disarmament of armed groups and the reintegration of child soldiers into mainstream society.
Neema Zawadi, a 43-year-old mother of five, however, says she doesn’t trust MONUSCO, for allegedly failing to carry out its mission in DRC.
“As a Congolese, I don’t really see the relevance of MONUSCO in our country. What peace has it brought us since it arrived? No one can bring peace to our country except the Congolese themselves, who are always the victims of war. We want MONUSCO to leave. We’ve had enough,” Zawadi says.
Rise of M23
Following another M23 incursion in 2021, a climate of distrust toward MONUSCO developed.
In February 2023, a MONUSCO convoy was ambushed near Munigi, a village 7 kilometers (4 miles) from Goma, the capital of North Kivu, DRC. Munigi is home to thousands of displaced people fleeing the war between the Armed Forces of Democratic Republic of Congo and M23. During the protests, three demonstrators died when displaced persons set fire to four trucks, accusing MONUSCO of collaborating with M23.
Gédéon Konkwo, 27, a displaced person from Rutshuru, is one of those that demonstrated against MONUSCO at the time. He accuses it of failing to protect his village from M23 attacks.
Lo talks about the challenges protests have posed for MONUSCO. “Due to anti-MONUSCO sentiment, fueled in part by a series of disinformation campaigns within communities and on social networks, the implementation of our mandate is seriously hampered, and the mission’s image is tarnished.”
Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ
She says that despite this, MONUSCO remains committed to working alongside the government and the most vulnerable people, including those displaced.
Lo says MONUSCO has made a major contribution to the peace process in DRC. Just over 24 years ago, when the country was divided because of the presence of foreign armies and armed groups threatening its stability and territorial integrity, MONUC’s action was “decisive for its reunification.” Alongside numerous national, regional and international partners, the mission supported the peace process that saw the state restore authority in over 90% of its territory, Lo says.
“This is in addition to ensuring presidential elections were held in 2006 and 2011 and working together with the Armed Forces of Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012-2013, to crush the M23 rebellion and liberate Goma,” she says.
M23 was successfully quelled until the end of 2021, when it regrouped and launched a new wave of attacks. Its resurgence stoked fires of discontent against MONUSCO, reaching a fever pitch in July 2022, with the government heeding calls by the populace for MONUSCO to leave DRC.
Lo points to MONUSCO’s successes during the height of the recent M23 resurgence. “During the M23 offensive in the Masisi and Rutshuru territories, the Kitchanga and Kiwanja bases provided security and accommodation for thousands of displaced people,” she says. Thousands of civilians made their way to the bases, where they were secured, she adds. MONUSCO also provided security for journalists, community leaders, local authorities and members of civil society organizations.
Lisa Hultman, associate professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University in Sweden, says MONUSCO operates in a complex situation. “If you look at MONUSCO’s mandate and what it’s supposed to do, I wouldn’t say it’s a complete failure or that it’s been very effective. We have to understand that the problem is simply too complex for UN peacekeepers to address in all its aspects.”
Sankara Bin Kartumwa, an activist with Lutte pour le changement, a nonpartisan Congolese civic movement, and a leading figure in the protests, has a different view. “In the [many] years that MONUSCO has been in Congo, the number of armed groups has increased, people continue to live in dangerous conditions and innocent lives continue to be lost,” he said in a 2022 interview.
After losing his younger brother in an armed group attack, Pièrre Kubwimana fled his hometown of Rutshuru with his family last year. He claims that his brother and his family would still be alive today if MONUSCO had protected them.
“The MONUSCO base was only a few kilometers away from my village, but when the rebel groups attacked us, they did not lift a finger,” he says.
MONUSCO and sexual exploitation
Besides claims of failing to protect civilians, some of the force’s staff have been accused of sexually assaulting local girls.
Poverty has often been a key factor in sparking relationships between MONUSCO officers and young girls in DRC.
“Back then, dating a peacekeeper was an opportunity, or so I thought,” says Esther Mwamini, 31, who had a relationship with a MONUSCO officer when she was just 15 years old.
Mwamini says there was no rape because she gave her consent. He helped her with her studies and other things she needed.
“Every time he called me to have sex, he would also give me money, between 50 and 100 US dollars. And that money meant a lot because I could buy whatever I needed,” she says.
Although many who have had sexual relations with MONUSCO personnel describe the relationships as consensual, it’s important to note that, regardless of consent, sex with minors constitutes an indecent assault according to Congolese law.
Both MONUC and MONUSCO have been the subject of numerous allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse of local women and girls by UN peacekeeping personnel. These allegations of abuse came to light in 2004, through a series of reports of 150 cases of sexual assault, including 68 cases of rape, prostitution and pedophilia, as well as cases of torture, child pornography and paternity of children conceived by peacekeepers. The majority of the allegations involved sexual relations with persons under 18, with transactional sex being particularly prevalent. MONUC was the subject of 181 abuse allegations between 2007 and 2010, while MONUSCO was the subject of 224 allegations between 2010 and 2021.
Although allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers from other missions began to surface in the early 1990s, it wasn’t until 2002 that the United Nations began to address the issue. Following the secretary-general’s bulletin on “Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse,” what has since become the UN’s zero-tolerance policy was established. It aims to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse, including consequences for peacekeepers found guilty of these transgressions.
In December 2007, the UN General Assembly passed two notable resolutions: Resolution 62/63, which defines criminal responsibility, and Resolution 62/214, which defines the “comprehensive strategy on assistance and support to victims of sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations staff or related personnel.”
But according to a study published in Conflict and Health Journal, an international journal, these resolutions and policies have been found to be insufficient, both with regard to the response to those who experience abuse and the punishment of offenders. Functional immunity, which prevents peacekeepers from being directly prosecuted for crimes committed in the course of their official peacekeeping duties, hampers peacekeeper accountability. Military personnel are bound by memorandums of understanding and status of forces agreements. While these agreements technically require troop-contributing countries to hold them accountable, there is no legal obligation to do so.
Lo says MONUSCO is working to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse. “These reprehensible acts damage the image and reputation of our more than 2 million peacekeepers, who are committed to peace in some of the most difficult places in the world and sometimes sacrifice their lives so that others can be protected.”
She says any MONUSCO personnel against whom an allegation has been substantiated through an investigation is barred from any future UN employment or deployment to a UN mission.
The UN deploys MONUC, a peacekeeping mission, to monitor and enforce
the ceasefire during the Second Congo War.
Scandal breaks involving widespread sexual abuse by MONUC staff.
Peacekeepers help organize DRC’s first multiparty elections in 41 years.
A massacre of 150 people in Kiwanja raises doubts that the peacekeepers
can protect civilians.
The mission rebrands as MONUSCO, and troops increase to more than
20,000. Their top priority becomes the protection of civilians.
M23, a Rwanda-backed armed group, seizes Goma for 11 days before it is
pushed out by a peacekeeping force.
A militarized peacekeeping unit, the Force Intervention Brigade, is
created to go on the offensive.
A multiyear drawdown strategy is agreed on and nine field offices around
the country close between 2018 and 2020.
MONUSCO and the DRC government agree on the “minimum conditions for the
drawdown of MONUSCO” by the end of 2024.
Coordinated protesters attack and loot MONUSCO bases in eastern DRC,
killing three peacekeepers.
What will happen when MONUSCO leaves?
In June 2023, MONUSCO head Bintou Keita and Minister of Communication and Media Patrick Muyaya held a press conference in Kinshasa to discuss its withdrawal. The minister explained that the government had already considered the population’s desire for MONUSCO’s departure. He said, however, that it had to be done in an “organized, structured and civilized way.”
Keita made it clear that it was already on its way out of the country. MONUSCO’s “departure is already in progress,” she said, adding that the withdrawal must be done with dignity and peace. “You can’t disband a mission in a day. And that is, I think, an important message to send to everyone. You can’t disband this mission with the snap of a finger.”
Peacekeepers are often deployed in the most difficult places, in the most complex contexts, as is the case in DRC, Hultman says. Although they have tried to carry out their mission successfully, they seem to have failed in the eyes of the population.
“But the real question,” Hultman asks, “is, what would have happened in DRC without the UN?”