Opinion: DR Congo must reform its security forces

TYAZO, Rwanda — On Dec. 23, the United Nations Security Council renewed the mandate of its peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It should have allowed the force’s mandate to lapse.

The 20,000-strong force in DRC, known as MONUC (for the French of United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo), is the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world. It costs $1 billion a year, nearly one-quarter of the entire U.N. peacekeeping budget. Yet over 10 years since its deployment to eastern Congo, rebel groups run rampant, sexual violence is endemic and many Congolese civilians continue to live in fear. By most measures, MONUC has failed.

Currently, MONUC is charged with protecting Congolese civilians and helping the Congolese army eliminate rebel forces in eastern Congo. It has protected civilians in some cases, as documented by groups such as Refugees International, but its efforts to help the Congolese army not only have failed to eliminate rebel groups, they have undermined its mission of civilian protection.

In 2009, MONUC engaged in joint military operations with the Congolese army, including operations planning, air strikes and joint patrolling. In the course of these military operations, the Congolese army and rebel forces deliberately killed more than 1,400 civilians, according to a December 2009 report by Human Rights Watch. Although U.N. legal advisers warned MONUC not to participate in combat with the Congolese army in mid-2009 MONUC went forward with the joint operations. Their cooperation with the Congolese army even included a Congolese commander who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court.

The five-month extension of MONUC’s mandate asks the force to restructure to better protect civilians. Yet the force’s reputation has been tarnished for years. In 2005, MONUC was embroiled in scandal over the sexual abuse of women and children by its peacekeepers.

By fostering the illusion that a five-month restructuring will allow MONUC to successfully protect Congolese civilians, the extension does more harm than good. MONUC’s problems are so entrenched that any reorganization just delays an inevitable withdrawal. The Congolese government itself would like the peacekeeping force to leave; it has asked the United Nations for an exit strategy.

The $1 billion that was spent last year on MONUC should be used to create what eastern Congo desperately needs — professional military and police forces that can protect Congolese civilians. Maintaining MONUC perpetuates the dysfunctional status quo.

Security sector reform has been under way in the Democratic Republic of Congo for quite some time, but it has not been adequately funded or clearly coordinated among donors. Though billions in foreign aid have been given to the DRC, little of this money has been directed to reform the security sector. A 2006 report from the International Crisis Group called it a “neglected stepchild” of donors. Analysts say that $1 billion to $2 billion would be necessary for undertaking reform — a steep sum, but no steeper than the sum required to maintain MONUC’s deployment.

Currently, the Congolese army is a patchwork of different armed groups with little holding them together. When a rebel group is demobilized and “integrated” into the Congolese army, its command structure remains intact and it continues to work in the territory it formerly controlled. Demobilized rebels do not receive extensive training before joining the army.
Security analysts suggest that successful reform will require three things: effective training, good pay and accountability. Training will develop a professional force. Good pay will discourage the current practice of looting and pillaging. Accountability will create judicial processes to punish abuses committed by troops and to send the message that such abuses will not be tolerated.

Security sector reform will require a long-term commitment by donors. The reform of one or two brigades of the army to create a small core of professional and disciplined forces will take one year. Such a reform could be implemented by trainers formerly employed by MONUC, with assistance from the European Union and the United States. A full reform of the Congolese army, which has 150,000 soldiers, is anticipated to take five years.

Extending MONUC’s mandate is a distraction from the necessary work that will enable the Democratic Republic of Congo to protect its civilians from domestic rebel groups as well as outside threats. The money spent on MONUC would be better used to train a professional and disciplined military that can serve Congolese civilians for decades to come.

Stephanie Hanson is director of policy and outreach at One Acre Fund, an agriculture organization based in Kenya. From 2006 to 2009, she covered economic and political development in Africa and Latin America for CFR.org, Council on Foreign Relations' website.