In November 2013 one of the main rebel groups fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), M23, surrendered after a year and a half of successful combat against Congolese and United Nations forces. The M23 rebel group had captured the city of Goma earlier in the year and posed a major threat to the international forces that had been attempting to stabilize the country for years under the aegis of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). Their gains were quickly reversed, however, with the introduction of a new UN force: the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade.
The intervention brigade, a 3,000 person force supplied by Tanzania, South Africa, and Malawi, was given a much more aggressive mandate to “neutralize armed groups,” something relatively unheard of in UN peacekeeping. Furthermore, the UN also authorized the deployment of drones in order to provide intelligence and aerial surveillance to support the brigade.
While the success of this brigade only received a short amount of coverage in the international media (because good news is so much harder to sell for some reason), the ramifications of such a force for UN Peacekeeping were immense and merit further attention now that some time has passed.
The success of the brigade is great news in an organization that unfortunately still has black marks on its record from Rwanda and Bosnia, and even from previous deployments in the Congo. According to former UN Peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the intervention brigade “has contributed to rebuilding the credibility of the [UN], which was almost nonexistent in the Congo after years of humiliation.”
US policymakers were quick to praise the force with the United States special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa, Russ Feingold, stating that the intervention brigade was “a stronger approach that [could] give peacekeeping operations more strength in the future and help resolve knotty problems.” US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power claimed that the force had “reinvigorated” the efforts of both Congolese and UN troops alike.
Others, however, are not too keen to trumpet this brigade as the must-have new model for peacekeeping. Adam Smith of the International Peace Institute rightly points out that success in the Congo is unique only to that situation and does not necessarily mean success will be translated to other conflict zones should a similar approach be employed. The Congolese government as well as some neighboring countries were supportive of the deployment of the intervention brigade – and local consent is key for any peacekeeping mission to operate smoothly, much less to actually get it on the ground. Furthermore, countries like South Africa, Malawi, and Tanzania were all willing to provide troops for an endeavor that would be much riskier than the usual fare for peacekeepers. The overall situation in Congo was therefore ideal to deploy such a force, something that is unlikely to happen in most other conflict zones.
For example, even if local governments were willing to employ this method of peacekeeping, international support for these missions may start to decline. Some major peacekeeping contributors like India may be alienated by this more aggressive type of peacekeeping, as they often see peacekeeping missions as a way to get training, equipment, and extra pay in a relatively low risk environment. This increased risk factor could result in a significantly lower level of troop contributions in peacekeeping missions.
Others like Guatemala’s UN ambassador, Gert Rosenthal, worry that the brigade might “compromise the neutrality and impartiality which we find so essential to the organization’s peacekeeping….Its presence should be perceived by all parties as that of an honest broker, and not a potential party to the conflict.”
This concern has been echoed by those working in the international aid community. According to Lise Howard of Georgetown University, aid workers are “afraid that they are going to be targeted now because the humanitarians are so closely associated with the [UN]” Aid workers often use white UN vehicles and helicopters for transportation and they have historically relied on their affiliation with the UN “as an impartial arbiter in these disputes.” Having a peacekeeping force that actively engages threats will most certainly change this dynamic.
Despite the concerns of some, the intervention brigade has so far been considered a success. In March 2014 the UN Security Council unanimously extended the mandate of both MONUSCO and the intervention brigade for another year. The elimination of the M23 rebel group, however, does not mean that fighting in the Congo is over. UN forces will face an uphill battle as multiple rebel groups such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the Bakata-Katanga, and various Mayi Mayi groups operate within and around the DRC.
The UN also faces the challenge of coming up with a political solution to the conflict and not just relying on its intervention brigade and Congolese forces to resolve a complex problem. Brute force alone cannot fully address these challenges. For the time being though, the intervention brigade in the DRC appears to be a successful model for peacekeeping – at least with regards to this specific situation.