What if the UN Were Allowed to Shoot First in the DRC?

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Events in eastern Congo have spiraled out of control within days of a new peace initiative's launch. Now, some in the international community are considering an even more radical solution.

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Civilians flee the M23 rebel movement's assault on Goma, on November 23rd, 2012. (James Akena/Reuters)

The chaos in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is deepening, even as the international community is having another go at bringing peace to one of the most unstable places in the world. Yesterday, a notorious Hutu militia seized control of a vital border town; earlier in the week, one group perpetrated a brutal pogrom-style attack on Kinyarwanda-speaking civilians. And the M23, perhaps the strongest armed group in a region where miiltias are constantly splitting and multiplying, has itself started to violently fracture. A peace deal has been signed, but the U.N. is considering a radical solution to a long and deadly conflict: a counter-insurgency-style operation waged under the World Body's auspices.

Last week saw a potential breakthrough in the situation, wheneleven heads of state signed a " framework agreement" in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, committing themselves to reforming a simultaneously weak and predatory Congolese state and creating a united front for tackling the region's issues. The treaty makes no mention of the M23, the rebel group consisting of former members of an anti-government insurgency that were integrated into the Congolese military under a brittle 2009 peace agreement -- before defecting and resuming the insurgency last May. It reads more like a vague declaration of principles than a serious peace agreement.

Jason Stearns, an author, former U.N. investigator and close observer of the region's Byzantine politics, has written that the framework could mark the beginning of a broader, consensus-based effort at solving the country's myriad problems. But those problems include the near-total non-existence of functioning Congolese institutions, the proliferation and splintering of dozens of armed groups, long-simmering disputes over land rights and citizenship, and interference from neighboring countries -- only some of which are solvable at the negotiating table alone. With the framework, governments and regional organizations from across Africa, including the powerful Southern African Development Community, kicked off a broad-based effort to end a conflict that's raged since the mid-90s, and killed between 1 and 5.4 million people. Stearns rightly argues that it's too early to judge what this commitment will actually be worth.

In a best-case scenario, both the troubled U.N. peacekeeping mission and the region would experience a precedent-setting turnaround. But the "intervention force" could also move the U.N., and Eastern Congo, into dangerous uncharted territory.

"It will take a lot of political clout to make the Framework Agreement more than just words," Stearns wrote in an email.

Laura Seay of Morehouse College says there is plenty of cause of skepticism. The declaration includes no benchmarks for success. There are no provisions for funding the framework's potentially-expensive goal of rehabilitating the DRC's security sector.

"The reason that everybody signed it is that it's so lacking specifics that it's going to be very difficult to implement its provisions," says Seay.

More fundamentally, the M23 isn't a party to the framework, even if both of its alleged state sponsors (Uganda and Rwanda) are. Their participation might not have even mattered -- as if in deliberate rebuke to a peace process that is barely a few days old, M23 was in the course of violently fracturing just as the Addis Ababa meeting was underway. Earlier this week, eight militia members will killed during violent clashes between supporters of M23 leader Bosco Ntaganda, and his rival, Sultani Makenga . Even if M23 could maintain its organizational integrity, the leading diplomatic attempt at dealing with the group's grievances have gone nowhere.

"They have failed," Seay says of the ongoing negotiations between the DRC government and M23 in Kampala, a process sponsored by a coalition of central African states. "M23 wants to go back to being able to exist as an autonomous unit within the Congolese army. And [DRC president Joseph] Kabila is not willing to allow that state of affairs to continue. It's kind of an intractable argument. There is no way forward in that kind of situation except for one side to eliminate the other."

The multiplication of armed groups -- and schisms within the one militia capable of putting the Congo crisis back in international headlines -- makes peace an even more distant proposition.

But the framework agreement could prefigure another, even more important development in the international community's relationship to the Eastern DRC. Right now, the U.N. is considering sweeping changes to the mandate of MONUSCO, the U.N.'s peacekeeping mission in the eastern DRC and the largest U.N. peacekeeping force on earth. Last week's agreement could help clear the way for a risky humanitarian military intervention -- but one whose success would have broad ramifications.

The international community seems ready to give a special cadre within the U.N.'s most troubled peacekeeping mission -- widely criticized for its failure to protect the crucial North Kivu city of Goma, or even the displaced persons camps surrounding the city, during an M23 offensive in November - the ability to go on the offensive against armed groups in the Eastern DRC. In a best-case scenario, both the mission and the region would experience a precedent-setting turnaround, as 2,500-3,000 special forces from South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania and other African states help secure areas where civilians have been cyclically displaced for past two decades. But the "intervention force" could also move the U.N., and Eastern Congo, into dangerous uncharted territory.

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It is highly likely that MONUSCO's mandate will be reassessed in the coming weeks. One source from the U.N. mission of a country on the U.N. Security Council said Council members are in the "early stages of discussion" about charting an "evolution to the mandate" of the peacekeeping mission. A U.S. official confirmed that his country's U.N. mission is supportive of the concept of an intervention force. Stearns says such a force would likely operate under "beefed-up rules of engagement...so that they can take offensive action against groups like the M23 and FDLR [an Eastern DRC-based Hutu ethnic militia descended from the groups responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide]." Neither U.N.-based source would go into specifics about potential changes to the rules of engagement. Both emphasized that discussions are at a very early stage. But this week, the Secretary General submitted a strategic review to the Security Council related to the peacekeeping effort. MONUSCO's mandate expires in late June, and negotiations surrounding mission extensions usually take about a month. Things could move quickly.

The "intervention force" would be markedly different from the current peacekeeping detachment. "They would be able to fire first instead of wait to be fired on," says Michelle Brown, Refugees International's representative at the U.N. "And that is contrary to most other peacekeeping mandates." Something like this has already been tried: in 2003 the E.U. led a joint Ugandan-French operation in the DRC's Ituri province. French troops stayed for several months after the initial mission, and the operation is still viewed as a qualified success.

But according to Scott Sheeran, a professor of international affairs and director of the Peacekeeping Law Reform Project at the University of Essex, this would be the first time since the U.N.'s botched intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s that members of a peacekeeping mission would have such broad rules of engagement. Blue Helmets would be tasked with hunting down armed groups and clearing areas for safe civilian habitation, which is not what they usually do.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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