UN peacekeepers cross the line of warfare in the Congo

The idea that peacekeepers should not initiate military action has prevailed … until now. Jeni Whalan says the new “intervention brigade” in the Congo has stretched the institution of peacekeeping to breaking point.

By Jeni Whalan

First published by ABC The Drum, 23 April 2013

There’s a fine, but critical, line between keeping the peace and waging a war.

For the blue-helmeted United Nations peacekeepers deployed in some of the world’s worst conflict zones, it’s a line that is constantly, violently tested – by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the early 1990s; by rebels who this month killed five peacekeepers in South Sudan. Yet the greatest challenge may have come from the United Nations itself.

Last month, the United Nations Security Council established an “intervention brigade” to take offensive military action against rebel groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

It’s a decision that takes UN peacekeeping into uncharted waters. Peacekeeping is the UN’s policy instrument of choice for responding to violent conflict around the world. It entails diverse tasks, from monitoring buffer zones to holding elections to demobilising militia forces. But never has UN peacekeeping involved combat operations to defeat an armed group through military force.

The Congo’s new peacekeepers are charged with precisely that: with “neutralising” militia in the country’s east. The move follows an earlier decision in which the Security Council dropped its historic reluctance to give peacekeepers intelligence-gathering capacity, authorising their use of surveillance drones to monitor conflict activity. Despite assurances that the DRC is an exceptional case, these are precedents that demand careful scrutiny.

The earliest peacekeepers were prohibited from using military force except under strictly defined conditions of self-defence. When former UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld penned the first peacekeeping doctrine in 1958, he wrote:

Men engaged in the operation may never take the initiative in the use of armed force, but are entitled to respond with force to an attack with arms … The basic element involved is clearly the prohibition against any initiative in the use of armed force.

This prohibition was relaxed over time. Indeed, peacekeeping is defined foremost by its ad hoc, flexible character, which has continuously evolved in concert with emerging crises and shifting international norms. Each of the touchstone principles of peacekeeping has adapted to new conditions: “state consent” was (selectively) expanded to become the consent of conflict parties; “impartiality” was reconceived after the Rwandan genocide to exclude inaction in the face of evil; and the non-use of force is now recognised to mean “except in self-defence and defence of the mandate”. Since 1999, 12 peacekeeping operations have been authorised to use force to “protect civilians under imminent threat of violence”.

But concern about slippery slopes notwithstanding, peacekeeping has to date been distinguishable from warfare. Hammarskjöld’s notion that peacekeepers should not initiate military action has prevailed.

Until now. The offensive posture of the Congo’s new intervention brigade stretches the institution of peacekeeping to breaking point. Its mandate declares that the new combat force is created on an “exceptional basis” and does not constitute “a precedent or any prejudice to the agreed principles of peacekeeping”. But practice surely outweighs these words. This is a fundamental shift for peacekeeping.

The current situation in the eastern DRC is untenable. After thirteen years of peacekeeping, and despite the current deployment of nearly 20,000 peacekeepers, the country remains defined by its insecurity. DRC occupies the bottom ranking in the UNDP’s Human Development Index: 186th of 186 countries. Armed groups continue to operate with impunity in the country’s east; rape and sexual violence occurs with horrific frequency; and the complex dynamics of a war economy are a destabilising influence throughout the region.

But there is an air of desperation about the Security Council’s authorisation of combat operations in the Congo’s east. The new intervention brigade will operate within the existing MONUSCO operation, which – despite being one of the UN’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping forces – has thus far failed to stem the violence or address the conflict’s root causes.

As respected New York think-tank Security Council Report put it recently:

Many Council members have expressed their scepticism about the capability of the new intervention brigade to neutralise armed groups and restore stability in the eastern DRC.

Nevertheless, it seems that lacking any alternative ideas or political resolve to invest in addressing the root causes of conflict in the region, Council members are willing to endorse a course of action put forward by the regional actors.

If true, a lack of ideas and political resolve seems a dangerous basis indeed on which to redefine peacekeeping, with potential repercussions for people and nations far beyond the DRC.

Dr Jeni Whalan is a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of NSW specialising in peace operations, the UN and Australian foreign policy. View her full profile here.