Africa We Want

UN REPORT: THE ESCALATING CONFLICT IN EASTERN DRC AND UN SUPPORT OF REGIONAL .

Background

In June, the Secretary-General is expected to submit a report and recommendations on possible UN support to regional forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) pursuant to resolution 2717 of 19 December 2023. Security Council members may consider a product in response. But there are indications that the DRC may want the Council to act sooner. The AUPSC recently endorsed the December 2023 deployment to the DRC of a Southern African Development Community (SADC) force, known as SAMIDRC. In its 4 March communiqué, the AUPSC asked the Security Council to “provide the required material and financial resources to enable SAMIDRC to effectively discharge its mandate”. The Chair of the AUPSC formally communicated its decision to the President of the Security Council in a letter of 13 March, expressing the hope that the AUPSC’s request would be favourably considered.

Rwanda, which the Congolese government accuses of supporting the Mouvement du 23 mars (M23) rebel group, has questioned the neutrality of SAMIDRC and warned the AU and the UN against endorsing the mission’s deployment and giving it support. In recent years, the challenges faced by larger UN peacekeeping operations in Africa have prompted a growing interest in the potential role of regional forces. As a result, the Security Council adopted resolution 2719 of 21 December 2023, regarding the financing of AU-led Peace Support Operations (AUPSOs) from UN assessed contributions on a case-by-case basis. The implementation of this landmark resolution will be a focus of discussion by Council members over the coming months and years. SAMIDRC could be among the possible cases to be presented to the Council for authorisation. (For background, see the In Hindsight in our February 2024 Monthly Forecast.)

Request for UN Support of Regional Forces

The security situation in eastern DRC has deteriorated significantly in recent months. Fighting between the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) and the M23 has intensified in North Kivu, the epicenter of the conflict. Armed militias known locally as “wazalendo” (patriots) have reportedly joined forces with the FARDC in the conflict. The UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) has provided support to the government’s military operations in North Kivu as part of Operation Springbok, which was launched in November 2023 to halt the M23’s advance towards Goma, the provincial capital. Simultaneously, MONUSCO is implementing its own disengagement plan, as agreed with the Congolese government and endorsed by the Security Council pursuant to resolution 2717 of 19 December 2023.

In recent years, several regional forces have deployed in eastern DRC alongside MONUSCO, which has operated in the area for over two decades. The East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) was stationed in eastern DRC for a year as part of the Nairobi process, a regional initiative led by the East African Community (EAC). However, the Congolese government seemed dissatisfied with the force’s inability to neutralise the M23, and EACRF ceased operations when its mandate expired on 8 December 2023. Even before EACRF’s withdrawal, the Congolese government sought support from SADC, which on 8 May 2023, decided to deploy SAMIDRC in eastern DRC.[4] The SAMIDRC deployment in North Kivu, which only began in December 2023, consists of 5,000 troops from Malawi, South Africa, and Tanzania. The mission has an offensive mandate in support of the Congolese government’s military operations. Burundi and Uganda also have forces in eastern DRC under bilateral arrangements with the Congolese government.

In the Council, there is serious concern with the growing number of actors involved in eastern DRC and the potential for the conflict to escalate into a regional crisis. Regional forces’ compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights law (IHRL), including the protection of civilians, remains a live concern, and one that the Council stressed in resolution 2717. This resolution also emphasised the importance of coordinating information-sharing and deconflicting operations.

Both the EAC and SADC have sought UN logistical and operational support for their forces in the DRC. On 27 September 2023, EAC Secretary General Peter Mutuku Mathuki put this request to Council members at an informal meeting in New York. However, some Council members, particularly the US, were cautious, urging the Council “to avoid endorsing greater support by MONUSCO for the EAC without appropriate safeguards to address human rights, accountability, and command-and-control concerns”. On 22 November 2023, SADC formally asked the Secretary-General for UN support for the SAMIDRC deployment, including facilities, equipment, air asset services, medical support, and information and intelligence-sharing.

The Council has yet to authorise MONUSCO to provide regional forces with operational and logistical support. Renewing MONUSCO’s mandate on 19 December 2023, the Council indicated that it would evaluate the circumstances under which “limited logistical and operational assistance could be provided to an AU-mandated regional force deployed within MONUSCO’s operational area, in alignment with MONUSCO’s mandate and within existing resources”. It further requested the Secretary-General to submit a report in June, including recommendations. Resolution 2719 on the financing of AU-led Peace Support Operations (AUPSOs), adopted just two days later, also stresses the need for regional forces to come under the AU’s direct and effective command and control to receive support from UN assessed contributions.

Direct and effective AU command and control as a prerequisite for support from the UN may complicate support to SAMIDRC. That the AUPSC endorsed SAMIDRC’s deployment does not mean that it has mandated the mission. According to AU doctrine, “AU-mandated” peace support operations entail direct command, control, and management by the AU. In “AU-endorsed” or “-authorised” peace support operations, on the other hand—such as those carried out by sub-regional organisations—the AU does not exercise direct command and control, but instead provides support through cooperation agreements or other legal frameworks.

The Council’s upcoming discussions on DRC and MONUSCO’s disengagement

Over the coming months, the Council’s discussion on DRC is likely to focus on three major issues: addressing the deteriorating security situation in eastern DRC, de-escalating regional tensions, and facilitating MONUSCO’s disengagement process. Council members agree that there are no military solutions to the situation in eastern DRC and can be expected to support the regional initiatives’ pursuit of a political solution. They will also support efforts to harmonise existing regional initiatives through the quadripartite process under AU auspices, which involves the EAC, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), and SADC.

In terms of the broader regional dynamics, all Council members agree on the need to de-escalate the tensions between DRC and Rwanda, while some members, including France and the US, have taken a strong stance against Rwanda’s reported role in eastern DRC. All are also supportive of a regional approach to de-escalating tensions within the framework of the 2013 Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework for DRC and the Region (PSC-F) and the ongoing discussions on revitalizing the PSC-F.

The Council’s upcoming discussion, and decisions on the next steps of MONUSCO’s drawdown and withdrawal, will be informed by the joint report of the UN and DRC on the implementation of the disengagement plan, expected by the end of June. As recently as January, the Congolese government apparently took the view that MONUSCO should leave by the end of 2024, with the foreign minister describing 31 December as “the end of the withdrawal process”. His remarks were a surprise, as the Council had intentionally avoided an artificial timeline for the mission’s exit. Following discussions with MONUSCO, and perhaps reflecting the mission’s critical support to the FARDC in light of the deteriorating security situation in North Kivu, this position appears to have been walked back.

Options for support of regional forces

As Council members consider the matter of support for SAMIDRC, there appear to be three options. Given the doubts some Council members have expressed about the capacity of Congolese and regional security forces to address the security challenges in eastern DRC, one option could be to maintain the status quo, namely continuing the existing cooperation between MONUSCO and regional forces. The mission provided various types of assistance to EACRF and is now extending the same to SAMIDRC in line with resolution 2666 of 20 December 2022, which encouraged support to regional forces. However, Council members may still want to see MONUSCO and regional security forces strengthen their coordination and information sharing to enhance the protection of civilians and promote the safety and security of its peacekeepers.

A second option is explicitly to authorise limited operational and logistical support to SAMIDRC through MONUSCO. While similar to option one, it would represent a more formal authorisation from the Council that would strengthen the Secretariat’s hand in considering specific requests for assistance from SADC and the AU. In his 2 August 2023 report on options for MONUSCO’s reconfiguration, the Secretary-General urged the Council “to provide MONUSCO with a clear mandate to leverage its operational and logistical capabilities” in support of regional forces. With MONUSCO already providing limited support to regional forces, this option is likely to garner support from several Council members. In this regard, the Council can formally authorise the mission to provide logistical and operational support to SAMIDRC as requested by SADC in full compliance with the UN’s human rights due diligence policy. However, this leaves open whether the AUPSC’s endorsement of SAMIDRC’s deployment will suffice, or whether some members will insist on the resolution 2717 requirement that regional forces be “AU-mandated”, under direct and effective AU command and control.

The discussion on this issue will certainly be affected by other geopolitical considerations. The US, in particular, may baulk at the prospect of UN assessed contributions being accorded to a mission led by South Africa, given its displeasure with South Africa’s position on other pressing international peace and security issues such as the situations in Ukraine and Gaza. On the other hand, the US has taken a firm stance on the situation in eastern DRC and the resulting regional tensions and may wish to see action taken in coordination with regional actors.

A third option is to consider the SADC/AU request under resolution 2719 on the financing of AUPSOs. In addition to the persistent question of SAMIDRC eligibility in the absence of direct and effective AU command and control of the mission, all the conditions set out in paragraph 3 of the resolution on decision-making and authorisation will also have to be fulfilled, including the conduct of a joint strategic assessment and other processes.

SADC’s request in its 24 November 2023 letter to the UN was mainly operational and logistical, including facilities, equipment, air asset services, medical support, and information and intelligence-sharing; its letter did not seek financial support. Although financial details about SAMIDRC’s deployment are not publicly available, the Congolese government has expressed commitment to supplementing the SADC budget for SAMIDRC[14], and South Africa has also reportedly allocated two billion South African Rand (equivalent to $106 million) to cover the costs of its SAMIDRC contingent.

Security Council members do not seem to expect MONUSCO to shut down any time soon, given the security challenges in eastern DRC: several members have cautioned against leaving a security vacuum. Given the recent experiences of peacekeeping mission closures, however, MONUSCO will need contingency plans in the event of the Congolese government insisting on its departure by year-end. In such a scenario, SADC’s desire appears to be to take over MONUSCO’s facilities and equipment. The disposition of MONUSCO’s assets is likely to be guided by the UN’s financial rules and regulations on this issue, the status of forces agreement signed with the host country, and other contractual arrangements with troop-contributing countries on contingent-owned equipment.

Observations

Council members face a dilemma in deciding on possible support for SAMIDRC. All members continue to reiterate their support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the DRC, emphasising the need to respect the principles of non-interference, good neighbourliness, and regional cooperation. On the other hand, they acknowledge the potential for the conflict to escalate into a regional crisis, given the growing number of actors involved in eastern DRC. This will certainly affect MONUSCO and the safety and security of its peacekeepers. A recent incident, where eight peacekeepers were wounded during clashes between the FARDC and M23 in the vicinity of Sake, situated 20 kilometers from Goma, further underscores these concerns.

In her 27 March briefing to the Council, Special Representative and Head of MONUSCO Bintou Keita noted the deteriorating security situation in eastern DRC and underscored that there is no sustainable military solution to the conflict. Regardless of the decisions the Council makes regarding SAMIDRC, sustainable peace will be achieved in the DRC at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield, an argument for the Council and other international actors to step up their support for political dialogue through the regional initiatives.

Author: MANZI
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