Congo: Transforming the role of the United Nations

The World is Changing and UN peace operations must change with it if they are to remain an indispensable and effective tool in promoting peace and security – Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary-General

AFTER more than two decades of civil war, the United Nation’s mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been its largest deployment of peacekeepers in the institution’s history. At its peak, more than 30,000 soldiers and police from more than 30 nations have donned the iconic blue helmet in their mission to assert a lasting peace upon a region that has been ravaged by war. It is in this context, however, that the role of those Peacekeepers has been transforming. Now, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is expanding its powers and the scope for UN troop deployments. In a move that has been mired in controversy, the ICC is seeking to have the UN hold greater authority over contributing state’s troops. In the near future, it hopes that peacekeepers could be more assertive in seeking out war criminals, a move which paves the way for a more pro-active stance in combat zones. China and Russia have been quite vocal in opposing the move. They are also joined by an unlikely ally; the United States of America.

Kibumba is a displaced persons camp about forty minutes north of Goma, close to the border with Rwanda. (Source:Wikicommons)
Kibumba is a displaced persons camp about forty minutes north of Goma, close to the border with Rwanda. (Source: Wikicommons)

The Congo Civil Wars have been some of the bloodiest in the history of the continent. Initially spawned when Rwanda invaded Congo, then known as Zaire, the fight ultimately involved nine countries from across the region. With an estimated US$24 trillion in natural resources, the war quickly spiralled out of control as the country’s government collapsed and the nation devolved into a land of despots, war-lords, tyrants, and fiefdoms. The first civil war rolled into a second within a year of the initial armistice, and over the course of five years would kill more than 5.4 million – the equivalent of 3,000 a day.

UN attack helicopters escort a UN delegation to the DRC (Source: Wikicommons)
UN attack helicopters escort a UN delegation to the DRC (Source: Wikicommons)

In an investigation into the conflict, UN human rights investigators found evidence of massacres by the rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila who killed as many as 60,000 during his campaign. In 1999, 90 officers of a UN task force were sent to the region to liaise with country’s involved in the conflict, and to ensure the Lusaka Ceasefire agreement of 1999 was enforced and followed. The mission was codenamed MONUC.

International law and the issue of enforcement;

“Don’t get your hopes up too high for [an ICC] isn’t going to happen in your lifetime, or your children’s lifetime, or your grandchildren’s lifetime…” 

The creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) under the Rome Statute in 2002, represented a significant change in how international criminal law is perceived, enforced, and advanced. The change sought to address and streamline international law which had been ad-hoc in nature and patchily enforced. 123 countries have ratified the Rome Statute to date which has dramatically increased the reach and depth of international agreements.

UN Peacekeepers on patrol in the DRC
UN Peacekeepers on patrol in the DRC

Crimes that fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC include War Crimes, Crimes against Humanity, and Genocide. A state that has ratified the Rome Statute, is obliged to cooperate with the Courts directions, including the execution of arrest warrants. A key issue is, however, that these international laws only work if similar laws are drafted in the courts of a state. Another major obstacle is the lack of any form of enforcement mechanism – instead the Court relies entirely upon the good will of the international community.

This good will has not always been forthcoming. Russia and China have both refused to ratify the Rome Statute and the United States was particularly belligerent under the administration of George W. Bush. In a controversial move, the American government initiated the American Service Members Protection Act, cheekily called the Hague Invasion Act, which authorizes force against those who detain American personnel for trial by the ICC. While the Obama administration has been significantly more cooperative when dealing with the ICC, it has also declined to ratify the agreement, a clear message that international law is largely at the whim of the powerful.

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The Crisis in the Congo

The area now encompassing the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has a long history of violence and instability. From the days of pre-colonisation, when the Congo was a hot spot for slave raiders who sold their chattels to Europeans, to when King Leopold II turned the Congo into his personal fiefdom, significant depravities have been visited upon those who live in the Congo. This strife has continued to today, contributing to factitious governance, a lack of central authority, and the continuing presence of foreign sponsored militias within the DRCs borders.

M23 Rebels deploying to fight government troops.
M23 Rebels deploying to fight government troops.

Despite the MONUC deployment following the Lusaka ceasefire, the suffering of the inhabitants of the DRC continued. One UN official has called the DRC the “rape capital of the world”, with sexual assault being characteristic of the violence in the Congo. Research conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that almost 40% of Congolese women had been victims of sexual violence, with a further report in 2011 stating that approximately 1 000 women had been raped each day during the conflict.

Kigeme refugee camp in the DRC.
Kigeme refugee camp in the DRC.

With a deteriorating security situation, the UN revamped its mandate. Now renamed as MONUSCO, the Congo deployment is the largest UN Peace Keeping mission globally involving 23 799 personnel and had a budget of $1.4 billion for the last financial year alone. The original mandate of MONUSCO, outlined in UNSCR 1925 (2010), placed it in a peacekeeping role; that is, it has a focus of creating a protective ‘ring’ around the essential institutions of the DRC in order to let them develop. This mandate has been developed with the construction of the ICC in UNSCR 2098 (2013) which supplements the peacekeeping aspects with aspects of both peace-enforcement and – building. This increased scope has given ground troops more flexibility and allowed it to be pro-active, rather than re-active.

A “Force Intervention Brigade”

The most significant aspect of the new mandate was the increased integration of peace-keeping forces as ‘intermediaries’ of the ICC. Initially, under the mandate of MONUC specified in UNSCR 1564, the mission was to work with “the relevant agencies of the United Nations” – which of course encompassed the ICC. The need for ambiguous language was partially due to the American opposition to working with the ICC. US ambassador Stuart Holliday noted that “The United States supports this resolution with the understanding that the resolution does not direct MONUC to cooperate with the ICC”. American opposition focussed on how the clause would allow peacekeepers to act as agents on the behalf of the ICC in the future. In 2013, the ICC authorized the arrest of those responsible for “war crimes and crimes against humanity” by peacekeepers. This was done so deployments like MONUSCO could deal with the most severe violations of International Humanitarian Law. Where these new rules grow murky, however, is how they allow UN troops to now pursue criminals without consulting host states except in the most basic capacity.

Elements of the Force Intervention Brigade deploy. Photo MONUSCO/Clara Padovan
Elements of the Force Intervention Brigade deploy. Photo MONUSCO/Clara Padovan

The power to intervene

These developments in the mandate for the MONUSCO force offer a blueprint for future UN missions. The use of the ICC in missions to failed and failing states allows the UN to take control where domestic courts simply cannot effectively deal with violations of international law. Those who will benefit most are those who have been directly affected by these atrocities. The ability of a peace keeping mission to apprehend war criminals for trial at the ICC gives those victims the chance to receive justice that would otherwise be next to impossible to receive under a broken system.

Now, the United Nation’s has the power to pursue its own agenda without the limitations from a host state. The inplications are momentus – as a voice and protector for smaller member states, nations now have the option of turning to the UN instead of super powers such as China, Russia or even the United States. Now, the UN has given itself more credibility to enforce international law and the ICC has effectively legitimized itself. The question now is whether the UN seeks to continue expanding its own autonomy or if the powerful states around the globe succeed in limiting its power.

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