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UN sends force to look for a fight in Democratic Republic of the Congo

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MONUSCO-Deployment of intervention brigade is not peacekeeping but peace enforcement. If successful it will set a precedent
In establishing an intervention brigade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United Nations has taken a leap into the unknown. UN peacekeeping operations have become embroiled in scraps before, but this is the first time such a force has been sent out to look for a fight.

The brigade has the job of “neutralising” ultra-violent armed groups who are perpetuating the misery of the eastern DRC, with a clear mandate for initiating attacks against those militias rather than simply responding to attacks from them. It is not peacekeeping but peace enforcement.

The UN has the right and a duty to confront threats to global peace under chapter 7 of its charter, but in the past the deployment of combat troops has been subcontracted to willing nations, deputised by the UN like a wild west sheriff’s posse.

The most recent example of this was in April 2011 in Libya, where UN resolution 1973 authorised “all necessary measures” be taken to protect civilians, a mandate controversially interpreted by France, UK and the US to help bring about the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.

When global and regional powers have not wanted to become embroiled in civil conflicts, the role has been left to the UN department of peacekeeping, which canvasses member states for troops, puts them in blue helmets and gives them narrowly drawn mandates and rules of engagement aimed at preserving the UN’s credibility as a neutral arbiter and preventing the UN from becoming just another warring faction on the ground.

What could possibly go wrong? As events in Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia proved, the half-hearted defensive missions were a recipe for humanitarian disasters. The peacekeeping forces Unprofor in Bosnia, Unamir in Rwanda and Unosom II in Somalia were all sent in with no peace to keep and no security council consensus on how they should to their job.

The Bosnian Serb ethnic cleansers, the Hutu genocidaires and the Mogadishu warlords could smell the weakness of the UN position and simply overran the blue-helmeted forces, slaughtering hundreds of people who were supposed to be under the UN’s protection. Those left defenceless blamed impotent UN soldiers, but the real problem lay with a feckless and divided security council.

The disgust at the genocides of the 1990s paved the way in 2005 for the UN’s adoption of a new principle, the “responsibility to protect”, which in theory turned the inviolability of state sovereignty on its head and argued that sovereignty was a responsibility rather than a right. When a state failed to protect its civilians, the international community had the right to intervene with coercive measures, including force if necessary.

At the same time, UN peacekeeping missions have become more forward-leaning when it comes to defending themselves. In Ivory Coast in April 2011, the UN force Unoci fought back fiercely when attacked by forces loyal to the warlord Laurent Gbagbo, launching gunship assaults on Gbagbo’s palace and his residence in tandem with French forces.

However, enthusiasm in the security council for the responsibility to protect waned considerably amid the global discord following the Iraq invasion in 2003. It flowered again briefly in 2011 in Libya, but the claims of Russia and China that UN authorisation had been exploited by western powers for geostrategic ends have left a sour taste, blocking united action to stop the killing in Syria.

The approval for the intervention brigade in the DRC comes against the grain of this current mood in the security council. It is explained mostly by the exceptional circumstances. Gruesome atrocities are being committed by groups like the M23, the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who have no support from global or regional powers.

On Russian and Chinese insistence, the UN resolution establishing the brigade stresses that it does not set a precedent, but if it succeeds in eastern DRC that is exactly what it will do. It will become a new part of the global toolkit for trying to resolve local but deadly conflicts that nobody but the UN wants to deal with.

By Julian Borger, diplomatic editor- Guardian