The U.N. Grows Teeth: The Intervention Brigade and the DRC

Aatif Rashid

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The U.N. flag. Photo source: sbakshi via Flickr Creative Commons.

On March 28, 2013 of this past year the United Nations Security Council quietly adopted the most important resolution in the U.N.’s 68-year history. Resolution 2098 authorized the creation of an Intervention Brigade to assist MONUSCO, the current U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, tasked with neutralizing and disarming the various rebel militias across the country. This resolution represents the first time a U.N. peacekeeping operation has been given an offensive mandate.

The Intervention Brigade is composed of 3,069 peacekeepers and had its first major success when it engaged the rebel group M23 outside the city of Goma in eastern Congo, near the Rwandan border. Almost a year before, when M23 had taken the city in November 2012, U.N. forces were criticized for not doing enough to prevent the rebel victory. By contrast, only a few days after the recent battle, M23 withdrew from the frontlines, then shortly agreed to resume peace talks with the government.

Yet this victory is on too small a scale to be used as a litmus test for the success of the Brigade. M23, a movement of militia fighters who refused to integrate into the army along with the rest of the rebels after the 2009 peace accords, is just one part of the much larger and much more complicated civil war in the DRC that has claimed over 5 million lives since it began in 1998. The U.N. peacekeeping mission MONUSCO has been in the country since 1999, and though it has deployed over 25,000 peacekeepers, the largest currently deployed peacekeeping force, it has had very little success in stabilizing the country.

The Congo has been a thorn in the UN’s side almost since the organisation’s creation, and so testing their new offensive brigade there is a powerful symbol. Soon after independence from Belgium, the Congo became immersed in a civil war which drew the involvement of a U.N. peacekeeping force. This force, however, could not prevent the assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Furthermore, Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash while flying to the Congo to try and mediate a cease-fire, the first and only time a U.N. Secretary General has been killed while serving. With this new Brigade, the U.N. hopes to alter its legacy in the tumultuous country.

In addition, the new Brigade will hope to overcome half a century of criticism aimed at the United Nation’s inability to effectively solve international conflicts due largely to heavy restrictions placed on peacekeepers with regard to offensive action. Though the U.N. was founded to prevent the outbreak of another conflict like World War II, the conceptions of national sovereignty were so strongly worded into its charter that any international military force under the banner of the U.N. would be seen as a drastic overreach by an international organization. And of course, the major powers of the security council such as the United States and Russia were understandably unwilling to have their military supremacies challenged by an international military force not answerable to their respective governments. The League of Nations, the U.N.’s predecessor, faced a similar challenge – and its inability to back up its actions with military force not only led to its collapse but also helped plunge the world into a second world war.

But the world has changed significantly in the past half-century, and the Security Council’s decision for an offensively mandated Intervention Brigade suggests further change to come. The members of the Security Council have repeatedly insisted that they do not want the Brigade to set a precedent for military intervention, and have even included such language in the Resolution. Yet the mere fact that the UNSC has agreed on an offensive force to solve the world’s deadliest conflict is precedent enough, and it sounds hard to believe that the use of military force, if it proves effective in the Congo, will not be considered in future conflicts.

The African Union has already experimented with offensively mandated peacekeepers, most recently in Somalia in 2009 to combat terrorist group Al-Shabab. The offensive mandate was a success, as it enabled AU troops to reclaim the capital city of Mogadishu. Nevertheless, Somalia remains a long way from stable, and Al-Shabab remains a credible threat, and more importantly the long term implications of the AU mandate have yet to be seen.

Reservations aside, the new U.N. Intervention Brigade represents a major step forward in international peacekeeping, and its impact will reverberate far beyond the outskirts of Goma.

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