The most recent outbreak of fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo appears to be winding down as rebel leaders and leaders from regional African nations have signed a UN-brokered peace accord. While the accord will likely wind down violence in the Congo, which has long been plagued by conflict, the question of how long the peace will be maintained remains to be seen. The peace deal comes on the heels of a unilateral cease fire announced by the M23 rebel group in January. In theory the accord will bring peace to Northern Kivu, the province that suffered the most in the recent spat of violence, and will ensure that neighboring African countries do no support any rebel groups. In practice, however, the United Nations has long been mired by failures in the region and many are already questioning whether the accord will have any meaningful impact.
The peace deal was signed by 11 countries in the region, including Rwanda – which has been accused of arming and supporting the rebel M23 group. Further, the peace deal calls for the establishment of the UN “intervention brigade,” which will step in to combat rebel groups when necessary. The M23 group has already ceded control of Goma, one of North Kivu’s largest and most important cities, but still holds some territory in Eastern Congo.
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In theory the peace accord will be enforced by Monusco, the local United Nations armed force meant to maintain peace and stability in war torn Congo. Monusco is supposed to aid the Congo’s national army in its efforts against various rebel and militia groups fighting to control the Congo’s vast deposits of mineral wealth. Unfortunately, however, Monusco has a poor track record and on numerous occasions has failed to enforce international law and prevent conflicts from starting and spreading.
While the United Nations brokered the peace deal, the entire UN operation in the Congo has been heavily criticized for years. When rebels took the key northern city of Goma in November of 2012, so-called peace keepers merely stood by and let the rebels overrun the city without offering any resistance. In 2011, one of the worst mass rapes in Congo history occurred near a UN base and peace keepers failed to respond.
At the outbreak of the conflict, which has been largely contained to Northern Kivu, the United Nations did offer air support to the DRC’s national army – but this support failed to do little more than slow down the rebel advance, led by the M23 rebels. Admittedly, the UN’s peace keeping forces in the DRC are small with less than 2000 troops being in North Kivu at the outbreak of the conflict. Further, the DRC’s national army has demonstrated little stomach for engaging the rebels themselves, frequently fleeing after putting up only a light resistance.
UN peace keeping forces and its infamous “blue helmets” were established to enforce peace and to provide international clout to ending regional and national conflicts. At least in theory UN forces are supposed to be divorced from local politics and are supposed to maintain and when necessary, enforce peace. Unfortunately, numerous failures of UN Peacekeepers to maintain peace and prevent conflict have called the entire nature, scope, and capability of the peace keeping force to carry out its objectives.
Perhaps the most egregious example, the Rwandan genocide, was carried out in neighboring Rwanda in 1994. The United Nations and other international armed forced failed to intervene, and as many as 1 million people paid with their their lives in one of the worst genocides in modern history. Infamously, the United Nations and other international armed forces initially failed to recognize the situation as a “genocide” which would have required them to intervene, instead stating that only “acts of genocide” were being carried out.
With a long and poor tack record of managing conflicts in Africa, it is fair to question whether the UN brokered peace deal will last long. After so many failures and set backs, the UN’s peace keeping forces have lost much of their luster and ability to intimidate local rebel leaders with the threat of intervention. If peace is to be maintained, it will depend more on the actions and commitment of local rebel and national leaders, most of whom are seeking increased access to the DRC’s rich mineral deposits, than on the hallow words of empty UN proclamations.