Nineteen international NGOs have sent a joint letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to express concern over the peace process in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and future military operations by a new UN Intervention Brigade.
The letter, dated 23 May and made public this week, asks the secretary-general to call on the 11 African states that signed the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework (PSCF) in Addis Ababa in February to implement the agreement, and to work with UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Mary Robinson.
The letter also recommends that the UN Security Council “should seriously consider suspension of the [UN Intervention] Brigade if it does not perform well or if the Congolese government does not make sufficient progress in implementing its commitments under the PSCF” agreement.
The brigade of 3,069 troops from Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi, which the UN peacekeeping department says should be operational by mid-July, has been given a more offensive mandate than any previous contingent with a UN peacekeeping mission. UN Security Council Resolution 2098 empowers it to carry out “targeted and robust offensives… with a view to neutralizing and disarming armed groups”, whilst “taking into account the necessity to protect civilians and reduce risks”.
The NGOs’ letter asks Ban for his leadership “in ensuring that the operations of the Brigade… are clearly linked to the realization of the PSCF” and that it “is part of a broad, comprehensive approach to achieve long-term peace and stability”.
The NGOs also call on Ban to ensure that “planning and conduct of the Brigade’s operations prioritize mitigation of harm to civilians” and to urge “the Congolese government… to put in place a fully independent national oversight mechanism to oversee the implementation of its commitments outlined in the PSCF”.
Dialogue and DDR
Under this heading, the letter says “this should include local level dialogue to address the local causes of conflict and community grievances, as well as comprehensive Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) options for combatants, irrespective of nationality.”
During his visit to the North Kivu provincial capital Goma on 23 May Ban made it clear that the UN does not see the Brigade as the sole solution to eastern DRC’s conflicts.
"The Intervention Brigade will address all this violence” he told local media, “and will try their best to protect human lives, human rights and human dignity - but you should also know that this is only one element of a much larger process. I think a peace deal must deliver a peace dividend, health, education, jobs and opportunity."
NGOs fear being linked with military action
One of the concerns that prompted NGOs to write the letter was the possible impact on their own work of future operations by the Brigade, said Frances Charles, advocacy manager for NGO World Vision (which sent the letter on behalf of the signatories).
“The issue of how the Brigade is related to the rest of the integrated mission and how independent humanitarian actors such as NGOs relate to MONUSCO is, I think, a very big issue.
“We have to preserve independent humanitarian access. MONUSCO needs to make clear to communities how all the different parts of the (UN) mission work together.
“One thing we are very concerned about, as World Vision, is being linked to any military action. We are independent and we want to make sure that our access to communities is maintained.”
Peacekeeping versus offensive action
Several observers have questioned whether MONUSCO’s existing role of protecting civilians, particularly in displaced peoples’ camps, will be possible in areas where the Brigade attacks armed groups, as this could result in retaliation against all UN military and civilian personnel as well as against other aid workers and civilians.
The interim head of MONUSCO’s office in Goma, Alex Queval, told journalists that all necessary precautions would be taken to ensure that peacekeepers continue all their existing work, but he did not go into details.
For its part the M23 rebel group has suggested that the Brigade will need to work in different areas to the other peacekeepers.
"It’s a very complicated situation for us,” M23 spokesman Rene Abandi told IRIN this week. “Blue helmets come with an offensive mandate while others are deployed in the same areas with a peacekeepers' mandate. They have really to separate areas so that we can make the distinction."
Speaking to the UN News Centre on 29 May, the commander of the Intervention Brigade, Tanzanian Brig-Gen James Aloizi Mwakibolwa, acknowledged there are fears among some observers that the Brigade will exacerbate tensions.
“Perhaps they expect collateral damage to the extent that several people are not positive about the Brigade,” he said.
“It should be understood that our first concern should be the protection of civilians as we take on the armed groups,” he added. “A UN peacekeeper is a person who must protect UN staff and UN property but, above all, he must protect the civilians.”
The brigadier stressed that while he heads the brigade, he is not the head of the UN force in the country. “We are part of MONUSCO and our instructions come from the force commander of MONUSCO,” he said.
Goma groups support Brigade
Civil society groups in Goma are generally supportive of the Intervention Brigade and its offensive mandate.
“For the first time people feel they can look forward to a better future - because the new force has a mission to put an end to the armed groups,” said Goyon Milemba, team leader of the North Kivu civil society association’s working group on security issues, after the arrival of the Brigade’s headquarters staff in Goma last month.
“If people think you can protect civilians by stopping attacks on armed groups, they are wrong. We need a lasting peace and that peace will have to be imposed by striking hard against negative forces,” the president of the North Kivu civil society association, Thomas d’Aquin Muiti, told IRIN.
He acknowledged there would be collateral damage but said the situation for the people in displaced camps is intolerable.
“This does not mean MONUSCO should stop protecting displaced people,” he said. “Rather it should reinforce protection.”
He added that the government should recognize it will have an additional responsibility for protection as the Brigade starts offensive operations.