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Peacekeeping missions are aspirin: what we need is antibiotics
20 October 2015

The United Nations (UN) Special Representative for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Martin Kobler, stepped down from his position at the end of last month.

The PSC Report asked him about his term at the helm of one of the world’s biggest peacekeeping missions, the UN Mission for the Stabilisation of the Congo (MONUSCO).

Your term as UN Special Representative has come to an end. Do you believe the UN has fulfilled its role in stabilising the conflict in the eastern DRC?

Martin Kobler (MK): I am leaving the Congo with a feeling of satisfaction with what has been achieved, but the work is far from over. In August 2013, when I first arrived, the M23 rebels had taken control of large parts of North Kivu province and were regularly shelling Goma.

Today, as I leave the DRC, Goma has become a vibrant city, whose citizens go about their daily activities without any major security threat. The economy is really taking off and there is a new international commercial flight connecting the city to the world. This is just one example of how the situation has improved. 

With its offensive mandate, the Force Intervention Brigade is a real game changer
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In addition to the defeat of the M23, all major armed groups, including the ADF [Allied Democratic Forces], FRPI [Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri], FNL [National Liberation Forces] and various others, have been considerably weakened. This is mainly thanks to the operations carried out jointly by the FARDC [Armed Forces of the DRC], and the MONUSCO force. Our troops are deployed in critical areas in the eastern DRC where their presence has a very important positive impact in terms of improvement of the security situation and stabilisation.

Therefore, yes, I am very proud of what we have achieved so far. But of course not everything is perfect and there is still a lot to do. So, while I am largely satisfied and proud of what we have achieved, I am also frustrated, as we could have achieved much more with full cooperation between the FARDC and MONUSCO. This is especially true of our operations against the FDLR [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda] in North and South Kivu, where progress in the fight against this group has been meagre.

What has been the role of the UN Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in neutralising armed groups in the eastern DRC?

MK: The FIB has played a critical role in neutralising armed groups in the eastern DRC, particularly in the fight against the M23. Of course, this was a collective effort not only of the FIB but also of other military contingents of MONUSCO. However, it is important to keep in mind that this was the first time that the UN decided to use a dedicated robust brigade to actively go after armed groups. This is unprecedented and it has been critical in helping us get rid of the M23.

The FIB shows that our role is not only about joint planning and logistical support, but also about engaging in real jungle warfare with the FARDC – going into the bush and living and fighting together. With its offensive mandate, the FIB is a real game changer and its firepower can help the FARDC fight the armed groups more effectively.

That is why we call on the DRC government to work more closely with the mission to neutralise all remaining armed groups, in particular the ADF and the FDLR. We need to make better use of this very powerful new tool that we have in our hands, and we are hopeful as we make progress in our talks with the government to that end.

Have relations between the UN and the government of the DRC improved? 

MONUSCO has to leave: the only question is now to agree on our exit strategy
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MK: As in any relationship, we have had our ups and downs and at times also disagreements with parts of the DRC government on certain issues. For instance, we did not agree on the government’s request that MONUSCO reduces its troops beyond the 10% ceiling decided by our mandate. In our view and the view of the Security Council, any further reductions must be linked to concrete security improvements on the ground and the effective restoration of state authority in areas liberated from armed groups.

The Strategic Dialogue with the government was for us an excellent forum where we made good progress in jointly assessing the security situation on the ground. We will continue to use that forum to work together to identify a suitable timeline for our gradual withdrawal.

Our objective is common: MONUSCO has to leave, and the question is now only to agree on our exit strategy and in particular the conditions that will trigger further reductions.

Our main concern is to make sure that the country will not be destabilised by our premature, hasty departure. We also insist, in line with our mandate, on a credible electoral process as well as the respect for human rights and political space.

How the situation regarding these elements evolves will determine how quickly we can pull out. But I would like to stress that I have enjoyed excellent friendship with many among the members of the DRC government.

Do you foresee political conflict in the DRC in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2016?

MK: The 2016 elections will be critical for the consolidation of democracy in the DRC. This is a truly historic opportunity: for the first time in the history of the country, there can be a peaceful transfer of power from one elected president to another. I remain optimistic, but there are several problems that need to be addressed first. In particular, the electoral calendar needs to be realistic in terms of elections that can actually be held.

The 2016 elections will be critical for consolidating democracy in the DRC
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There is also the question of updating the electoral register to include the youngest voters, as well as of ensuring sufficient funding. MONUSCO is mandated to support the process with logistics and good offices, and we stand ready to do so as long as the constitutional requirements are respected and the timely holding of presidential and legislative elections is not in peril.

With 13 months to go till November 2016, I believe that the government still has the time to organise the presidential and legislative elections. But it has be aware that the Congolese people’s expectations with regard to these elections are very high, and if these are to be organised in a timely manner, the time to act is today.

What kind of early-warning role is there for the UN and the AU to prevent an escalation of conflict as we have seen in Burundi this year?

MK: There are always clear signs when a political situation starts to deteriorate and risks turning into a violent conflict. The UN and AU [African Union] both have a very important role in alerting the international community on the risks of conflict escalation.

Conflict prevention is perhaps the single most important aspect of our work. In a context of heightened tensions related to pre-electoral periods, we need to be especially proactive, working together closely to ensure, through diplomacy and negotiations, that tensions and unrest do not escalate into conflict.

In the Great Lakes region, it is worth mentioning the effective shuttle diplomacy of the members of the team of international envoys representing the UN and the AU, as well as the US [United States] and the EU [European Union], who tirelessly travel across the region, engaging in discreet ‘behind the scenes’ advocacy and diplomatic mediation aimed at identifying and disarming conflicts at their earliest stages. UN- and AU-mandated peacekeeping missions are like aspirin, but what we really need to look for are antibiotics that address the root causes of the conflict, such as good governance and the respect for democratic principles and human rights – the basis of each society. This alone will guarantee sustainable peace.

A longer version of this interview first appeared on the PSC Report.

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