The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Do U.N. forces work closely with host country governments? Not in Congo.

U.N. troops in armored vehicles drive through the streets of Kinshasa, Congo, on Aug. 21, 2006. (John Bompeng/AP)

Last week, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, accused MONUSCO, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, of “aiding a government that is inflicting predatory behavior against its own people.” This assessment appeared to justify the budget cuts to the mission she has been advocating, leading eventually to a 7 percent reduction in the number of deployed troops and police.

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Haley’s judgment, however, did not follow from an in-depth review of MONUSCO, the largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission in the world, which previously had an authorized ceiling of 22,016 uniformed personnel. Upon closer inspection, a less harmonious picture of the relations between the Congolese government and the U.N. mission emerges.

Deployed since 1999, MONUSCO is charged with stabilizing the country’s restless east, which has been plagued with violence since the mid-1990s. It also has to help reinforce state authority and press for sensitive governance reforms. This is no easy mission, as its deployment ultimately depends on consent from the Congolese government, which has repeatedly called for the mission’s departure.

In recently published research, I analyze how these tensions affect interactions between the “blue helmets” of the U.N. and the FARDC — the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The two forces are tasked with conducting joint military operations, which are a crucial pillar of the U.N. strategy to address the dozens of armed groups roaming the east.

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These joint operations have not always run smoothly

In 2009, as the civilian costs of joint operations mounted, U.N. support to the Congolese army came under fire. Not only was the effectiveness of the operations called into question, FARDC forces engaged in serious human rights violations.

Blamed for allowing these abuses to take place within the framework of joint operations, MONUSCO developed a conditionality policy for support to the FARDC. Battalions and commanders receiving U.N. support are now screened for their human rights record, and MONUSCO personnel have to monitor the FARDC closely.

These measures were designed to prevent direct or indirect MONUSCO involvement in abuses. The United Nations also hoped the guidelines would improve FARDC behavior. But a 2010 interagency mission charged with reviewing the conditionality policy stated it could not determine whether the policy was “having an impact on FARDC behavior, which is a central objective.”

The two armed forces have weak interoperability

Examining FARDC-blue helmet relations holistically provides some insights as to this limited impact. While they engage in joint security activities, U.N. and FARDC troops remain worlds apart. Staying in separate bases and speaking different languages, interaction between the two forces is limited — and joint activities do not necessarily help break down social barriers.

There is no equal division of labor between the troops. U.N. blue helmets are generally clustered around their bases, unable to quickly reach the difficult terrain where FARDC goes on foot. During military operations, MONUSCO often provides primarily air support, leaving the more dangerous ground fighting to the FARDC.

Profound asymmetries in the forces’ working and living conditions further complicate relations. FARDC soldiers receive limited pay and social benefits. Their families live in improvised dwellings in barracks or camps, sometimes consisting of little more than plastic sheeting.

The contrast with U.N. troops is stark. Even in bases in remote locations, I observed blue helmets continuing to enjoy familiar foods from their home country, flown in by helicopter. Congolese soldiers, therefore, call their U.N. colleagues “luxury soldiers” and “armed tourists.”

MONUSCO forces, for their part, regard the FARDC as a fundamentally unprofessional, “ragtag” military that is perpetually “in development.” They have difficulties with the FARDC’s ad-hoc style of operating, being trained to work with elaborate planning and strict time schedules.

There is a lack of trust between the two forces

My research also revealed a lack of trust between the two forces. MONUSCO troops are largely dependent on the FARDC for situational awareness and intelligence. Yet they are concerned that the FARDC manipulates information, for instance to cover up involvement in economic activities or abuses.

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The FARDC does not have much more trust in the blue helmets. Reflecting conspiracy theories that have widespread currency in Congolese society, many officers believe the U.N. mission perpetuates the country’s lack of security to prolong MONUSCO’s presence. This allows U.N. personnel to continue to benefit from their generous salaries and risk allowances. These beliefs have given rise to the popular expression “no Nkunda, no job,” referring to one of DRC’s most notorious ex-rebel leaders.

These negative mutual perceptions are both a cause and a consequence of weak interoperability between the two forces. Many officers interviewed for my research were skeptical about the “jointness” of joint operations, stating that MONUSCO has limited influence on drawing up operational plans. Such weak interoperability hampers MONUSCO’s capability to protect civilians and circumscribes the possibility for knowledge and skills transfer.

Honest assessments of military collaboration are needed

Relations between the two forces became even more tense in January 2015, when MONUSCO suspended support to the FARDC, after the nomination of two generals “blacklisted” by the United Nations to command positions in upcoming joint operations. The suspension reduced MONUSCO influence on the unfolding military operations and limited possibilities to address civilian protection issues. And FARDC officers criticized the unilateral decision, given that there had been no military justice investigation of the two generals in question.

While cooperation between the two forces resumed in January 2016, relations have remained strained. Last month, the FARDC tried to restrict MONUSCO movements in Kasai Central province. As violence is spiraling, the Congolese army is suspected of using disproportionate force to quell an insurgency in the region.

These difficulties do not suggest that MONUSCO collaboration with the FARDC should be suspended. After all, an exit strategy for MONUSCO will depend on the FARDC’s capacity to take over security responsibilities. Yet they do call for reconsidering expectations regarding the beneficial effects of collaboration between the two forces.

Any efforts to work toward smarter and more effective peacekeeping operations — an urgent task in the light of U.S. efforts to slash the peacekeeping budget by more than $1 billion — should look into the issue of U.N. collaboration with host country military forces. Yet, rather than being driven by budget cuts, such efforts should be guided by thorough and honest assessments.

Judith Verweijen is an FWO postdoctoral research fellow at the Conflict Research Group at Ghent University. Follow her on Twitter @judithverweijen.