The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has faced ongoing conflict since 1994 after refugees from the Rwandan genocide fled into the eastern Kivu provinces. Hutu refugees formed armed groups in the region, which caused Tutsi refugees to partner with local groups in response. Weak governance and security in the region allowed the conflict to flourish, eventually leading to war.
As of 2020, there were more than 130 armed groups in the Kivu provinces and 250 different ethnicities in the country. Ethnic tensions, food scarcity, corruption, and access to mineral wealth have exacerbated the conflict. In turn, these conflicts have worsened the economic situation, increased starvation, and perpetrated rampant sexual violence. Armed groups compete for mineral access in the eastern and southern provinces as they use the sales to fund weapon purchases. According to Amnesty International, the primary weapons suppliers to the DRC are China, Egypt, France, South Africa, Ukraine, and the United States. In 2020, United Nations (UN) experts also accused additional countries like the United Kingdom, Israel, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan.
Despite efforts by the UN to mitigate the conflict, armed groups continue to emerge and capitalize on the growing instability. In 2010, the UN established the Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC, or MONUSCO, to protect civilians from violence and promote peaceful solutions. The mission has deployed 17,572 personnel as of May 2021 but has struggled to combat issues like sexual violence and resource exploitation in the eastern provinces. In February 2021, President of the DRC Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo was appointed as Chair of the African Union (AU). Tshisekedi emphasized insecurity in Africa, including in the eastern DRC, as a top priority.
As Severine Autesserre notes in her book The Trouble with the Congo, international peacebuilding culture relies heavily on established norms and large-scale responses to dictate conflict solutions. However, top-down solutions proposed by the UN and its partners have ignored the realities of the local people. The conflict in the DRC is not one-fold: it is a multidimensional and multigenerational problem that warrants more than a one-size-fits-all solution.
According to Autesserre, the top-down method has failed in the DRC because it neglects to consider local culture and develop tailored processes for addressing issues. Peacebuilders are trained to follow pre-established protocols and procedures that prohibit adaptability to changing situations. As a result, peacekeeping missions often force generalized humanitarian aid onto local people without significant effects. This is what happened in the DRC. Peacebuilders failed to consider local politics and history that have shaped the current conflict.
In an interview with Deutsche-Welle, Phil Clark from SOAS University of London stated, “It [MONUSCO] has struggled to maintain cordial relations with the government in Kinshasa and instead cautiously aligned itself with the Congolese army, even when the army has been committing atrocities against the civilians.” Locals have seen this partnership with the Congolese army and view MONUSCO as fueling the fire. In fact, in November 2019, young Congolese in Beni and Goma protested for the departure of MONUSCO from the country.
But the lack of localized partnerships and tailored solutions are not the only reasons for MONUSCO’s failure. Sexual violence perpetrated by UN peacekeepers has run rampant from Haiti to Somalia, and the DRC is no exception. In her 2004 testimony before the U.S. House Committee on International Relations, Anneke Van Woudenberg, Senior Researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch, described the so-called sexual abuse and exploitation across the country. She noted the sexual abuse of Congolese women and girls by MONUSCO peacekeepers, some as young as 13 years old. Woudenberg also testified that girls aged between 12 and 15 years old were engaged in exploitative survival sex in exchange for food, money, or protection. The sexual abuse and lack of accountability impede the trust that locals have in UN peacekeepers and inhibit the mission’s success.
Why have inefficiency and generalized solutions become the status quo of UN peacekeeping missions? Can things ever be done differently? Experts have asked these questions for decades and continue to build new ways of thinking about conflict resolution in the DRC.
Autesserre grasped the crux of the issue in stating that bottom-up, localized methods must be paired with preexisting top-down norms to craft situation-specific solutions. The process starts with cultural fluency. Peacebuilders must have a solid understanding of local cultures, history, and norms before they partake in peacekeeping missions. The values that a given culture holds must not only be respected but, more importantly, incorporated as a centrepiece in conflict resolution.
With over 250 ethnicities in the DRC, peacebuilders in one region might be experiencing a culture vastly different from peacebuilders in another area. Understanding gender roles, etiquette, and ethnic relations are only a few arenas for cultural fluency. What works in one region or country may be unsuccessful in another, and it is time to abolish this one-size-fits-all notion.
Only once cultural fluency is prioritized can peacekeepers begin to focus on long-term solutions. Security sector reform (SSR) is at the heart of this issue. With the support of MONUSCO, the Kinshasa government must be willing to coordinate SSR. SSR must include retraining soldiers from militia groups under the Congolese army. The reform, however, will only be successful if the soldiers are incentivized to stay with the Congolese army and do not maintain loyalties to militia groups.
Furthermore, soldiers must be held accountable for human rights abuses through Congolese courts, not just the International Criminal Court (ICC). According to OCHA, some experts have called for establishing courts in the DRC specialized for trying human rights cases.
Finally, the government in Kinshasa must be representative of all Congolese. The multitude of ethnicities in the Congo has caused many of the conflicts seen today, and the government mustn’t prioritize one group’s objectives over another’s.
Ultimately, long-lasting peace in the DRC will only succeed with the support of the Congolese. As Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a political scientist at Makerere University, said, “The causes of violence in that country [DRC] are internal. The solution therefore lies in resolving the internal problems that fuel the fighting. Only [the] Congolese can solve their problems in a sustainable way. Foreigners will not do it for them.”