U.N. Threatens To Forcefully Disarm Congolese Rebel Group

CREDIT: AP Photo/Marc Hofer

Congo Bosco

CREDIT: AP Photo/Marc Hofer

The United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Tuesday warned rebels operating in the country to turn over their guns and reintegrate or face consequences.

The U.N.’s mission to the Congo, or MONUSCO, is the largest peacekeeping mission in the world, with nearly 20,000 soldiers in blue helmets on the ground. As part of their mandate, those forces are charged with protecting civilians from the violence that remains a constant threat in the many areas of the country. A large part of that threat comes from the various rebel groups still operating within the country, including the M23 in the East.

For months now, the M23 has taken and lost land in and around the city of Goma in the North Kivu province. Since May, the area has seen repeated attacks against Congolese army positions in the area, including shelling areas and causing civilian deaths. In response, the U.N. announced on Tuesday that MONUSCO would be supporting the Congolese army in establishing a “security zone” to protect the residents of Goma and the nearly 70,000 people located in the nearby Mugunga camp for internally displaced persons.

Beginning today, the U.N. has said that anyone who isn’t a member of the national security forces within the safety zone must turn in their weapons at a MONUSCO base nearest them. Forty-eight hours later, should non-security force members still possess their weapons, they will be “considered an imminent threat of physical violence to civilians” and the U.N. will “take all necessary measures to disarm them, including by the use of force in accordance with its mandate and rules of engagement.”

Too often in the past, U.N. safe zones have been in words only, most infamously in the case of the one set-up in Srebrenica during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. This time, however, the U.N. may actually have the ability to back up those words. The U.N. Security Council in March voted to authorize a component of MONUSCO to serve as an intervention brigade, provided with heavy weaponry and the mandate to take the fight to the rebels if need be. While this isn’t the first time the U.N. has authorized an offensive force, or even the first time one has been set up in the Congo, the decision to provide that authority to a peacekeeping force was seen as precedent-setting.

How well the disarmament campaign will work is yet to be seen, however. Dr. Laura Seay, assistant professor at Colby College, told ThinkProgress that the announcement likely reflects internal wrangling at the U.N. over what the Security Council intended for the intervention brigade. Disagreement is taking place between the mission, the Department of Peacekeeping operations in New York and the Congolese government, over whether the brigade is meant to mainly provide support to the Congolese or act on its own to fight the rebels. “This is an attempt to buy some time,” Seay said, noting that the United Nations didn’t want to be accused of not exhausting other options before launching an offensive against M23.

Meanwhile, the United States has been attempting to convince Congo’s neighbor Rwanda to halt the support that U.S. and U.N. officials say it is providing to the M23. Last week, the Obama administration called on the Rwandans to cut their links to the rebels, citing a recent Human Rights Watch report on the ties between the two. Rwanda on Tuesday again denied that it is aiding the M23, with Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo saying, “Scapegoating is not going to help DRC.”