The UN peacekeeping mission in the DR Congo comes to an end. This happens at a time when the country and especially the eastern provinces are still experiencing violence and armed conflict. Among others, the conflict situation and the limited success of the UN to keep peace in the country is due to an insufficient understanding of local conflict dynamics within the civilian population. With the UN focussing on the macro level, the root causes of conflicts get out of sight. It is time to reflect on these problems and to consider how a different local ownership approach could foster the exit strategy of MONUSCO.
After more than 20 years of deployment, the UN Security Council (UNSC) decided upon the gradual withdrawal of its peacekeeping forces (MONUSCO) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo). The decision is based on the perception that the overall situation in the country has reached a point where the Congolese government can take over the tasks of the UN mission. The current environment is, indeed, more peaceful than 20 years ago. Still, the situation in the eastern provinces (in particular) is far from being peaceful and stable. Moreover, the UN mission lacks substantial trust: people do not believe in the ability of neither the government nor MONUSCO to secure and stabilise the country and the eastern provinces where conflicts have regionalised. This is demonstrated by protests in Beni and Goma earlier this year, where people demanded the withdrawal of the peacekeeping mission. According to them, MONUSCO is insufficient to ensure the security and protection of the civil population.
This raises the question of local legitimacy of the mission. Usually, the UN tries to build local trust and legitimacy by promoting so-called local ownership – the integration of local actors into dialogue and peace processes. Local ownership requires not only the consent of the host government, but also the support of the civil population. Without the latter, peacekeeping would be unable to convey trust and legitimacy, and thus, could not fulfil the mandate and promote sustainable peace. This problem occurs in the DR Congo: Scholars like von Billerbeck and Autesserre criticise that the mission focusses too extensively on the macro level (state structures, democratic elections) by advocating a strong state and democratic elections. Conversely, the peacekeeping mission tends to avoid root causes of conflicts and dynamics on the micro level (poverty, inequality, unemployment, gender discrimination, poor access to land, justice), which structurally determine the conflict situation in the country. This led to the increasing dissatisfaction of the Congolese civilian population in the provinces in the east. Therefore, it is time for the UN to revise its approach and create better opportunities for the civilian population to become part of the mission and be heard.
The local ownership approach in UN peacekeeping
In 2008, the Capstone Doctrine formally introduced local ownership as a fundamental concept to promote the legitimacy and credibility of UN peacekeeping operations in the field, and hence enhance the missions’ overall chance of success. Through wide representation, inclusiveness, and gender balance considerations, local ownership is expected to contribute to a better understanding of the national context and to include opinions, concerns, and hopes of the civilian population. In the long term, the goal of local ownership is to enable the conflict-affected nation to become part of the peace process, to empower local actors to build their own peace, and to ease the exit of the peacekeeping mission.
Local ownership in the mission in the DR Congo
Although local ownership has become a key pillar in the UN mandates of the first mission in the DR Congo, MONUC, and the follow-up mission MONUSCO, the realisation of inclusiveness and wide representation turns out to be of a greater challenge. With the deployment of UN troops in 1999, the UNSC mandated MONUC to assist the Congolese government implementing the ceasefire agreement and supporting the transitional government to provide security and stability. Among other objectives, the mission was mandated to assist the government in establishing state structures, holding democratic elections, and disarming rebel groups in the eastern provinces. Here, the mandate focussed mainly on the macro level and top-down implementation and did not consider the civilian population as an active force for the planning, mandating, and execution of its operation. While a functioning state structure and disarmament process are important elements on the path to peace, they are insufficient to sustain it. Therefore, a macro-level focused approach on local ownership alone may have a negative impact on the legitimacy and effectiveness of the mission.
The UN’s approach is based on the understanding that peace comes from above, in form of nation building and stable state structures that will eventually lead to nation-wide peace. Although the strategy in DR Congo was partly successful as the elections in 2006 demonstrate, it did not achieve the main aim since conflicts persisted and started to regionalise in the eastern provinces. With these changing dynamics the UNSC established MONUSCO, now focussing on the protection of civilians and the stabilisation of the east. The mission was mandated to transfer resources and responsibilities from the UN to a state level and to prepare the DR Congo for the withdrawal of MONUSCO. The focus on macro level structures is further demonstrated in the exit strategy of the mission mandated in 2019: The government and UN institutions, regional organisations, and independent experts are designated to assess and coordinate further tasks, priorities, and relevant resources. These actors are understood as key agents to facilitate the exit of MONUSCO and to transfer responsibilities to the national government. Yet, the mandate does not contemplate an integration or consultation of the civilian population in the regions in the east, where violence and armed conflict remain a major problem. This has severe consequences regarding the legitimacy of the UN mission in general.
The missing focus on root causes of conflict in the eastern provinces
During a public opinion poll of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and the UN Development Program (UNDP) in 2019, Congolese citizens expressed their dissatisfaction with MONUSCO. Especially citizens in the eastern provinces did not believe in the ability of the UN to deal with the conflict situation and provide security in the region. It was criticised that MONUSCO would rather collaborate with national forces and overlook conflicts deeply embedded in local structures.
The poll demonstrates that the UN and its peacekeepers lack a thorough understanding of conflict dynamics and problems on the micro level which, however, cause and sustain violent conflicts in the country. This means that the UN operation in the DR Congo misses meaningful cooperation with local actors. During an interview for this blog post, Rüdiger Tillmann, Senior Planner and Trainer for Peacekeeping and Peace Support Operations, stated that peacekeeping does consider the competences of the civilian population, but rarely harvests their propositions for the mission. Consequently, the UN approach does not provide sufficient space for bottom-up efforts. This is one of the reasons why Sarah von Billerbeck also criticises the local ownership approach of the institution as a merely discursive tool. Yet, this undermines the effort to enhance the legitimacy of the mission, leaving the affected population unsatisfied with the results.
Revising the local ownership approach
Thus, two major questions arises: What can be done better, and how can the conceptual approach be improved? Although the local ownership approach in peacekeeping has its flaws, peacekeeping in general has shown to improve conflict situations. Peacekeeping had a positive impact on the situation in the DR Congo, too, but could have had an even greater impact if the root causes that sustain violence and conflict in the country were to be addressed. Improving peacekeeping through local ownership requires a stronger integration of civilian population actors and to provide more space for bottom-up approaches to address and facilitate a sustainable peace. Therefore, relationships between international peacekeeping forces and local civilian population demand constant reassessments to improve communication and make interaction fruitful throughout the time of deployment.
With the mandated exit of MONUSCO, the relevance for improving its local ownership approach is rather low. Therefore, the UN institutions, regional organisations, the government, and other relevant actors should thoroughly examine the strengths and weaknesses of the UN’s local ownership approach applied during the MONUSCO deployment – in order to find starting points to further improve it, taking into account a stronger collaboration with the civilian population.