The Democratic Republic of Congo has been engulfed in conflict of one sort or another since 1996.
The fighting, between the government and a complex, ever-shifting array of rebel militias, has resulted in the deaths of an estimated six million people and the injury, rape and forced displacement of a great many more.
The international community has tried many times to help the country resolve some of these problems – or at least to mitigate their consequences – with the United Nations maintaining a peacekeeping presence since 1999. Known as MONUSCO (United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DR Congo), it is currently the largest and most expensive such mission in the world, comprising 21,000 uniformed personnel from 50 different nations with a budget of just under $1.5bn.
But for all its size and resources, the force has frequently been criticised in the past for being ineffectual, overcautious and for failing to meet its responsibility to protect the country’s vulnerable citizens from harm.
In practice this has meant that while civilians have frequently sought and found sanctuary at UN bases, its troops have rarely been allowed to venture out of those compounds to engage with the armed groups and militias. Indeed, on more than one occasion, the most brutal acts have been carried out even as the peacekeepers looked on. For example, as recently as last July, a militia known as Mai Mai Cheka took over a town called Pinga, decapitated civilians and threw the severed heads at the local UN base, shouting: “Take these, you’re the ones who like meat.”
But at long last things are changing. The UN force now has sharper teeth and new rules of engagement.
In March last year, the UN Security Council sanctioned the creation of a new Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), made up of 3,000 well-equipped combat troops from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi and gave it a mandate to “neutralise and disarm” the various armed groups.
It was a crucial decision because it meant that for the first time in the organisation’s history, soldiers wearing the UN blue helmet were being allowed to go on the offensive, rather than having to sit helplessly by as atrocities took place. In other words, the peacekeepers could become peacemakers.
As it took shape last summer, this beefed-up force was placed under a new commander, Lieutenant-General Carlos Santos Cruz, an energetic 62-year-old Brazilian. He was tasked with cutting through the inertia that has brought the UN so much criticism in the past.
Half-way through his one year appointment it is already clear the general has wrought some dramatic changes.
The first tangible signs of the new approach came towards the end of last year when the Congolese Army, the FARDC, closely supported by the new UN force, successfully defeated the rebel M23 group, which had humiliated the FARDC a year earlier when they marched largely unopposed into Goma, the regional capital of North Kivu province.
On that occasion the UN did not intervene, even when troops from both sides went on a rampage of looting and raping women and children in the area. But in October and November 2013, under General Santos Cruz’s watchful eye and provided with better training, intelligence, back-up and logistics support, the FARDC was both more effective and (for that moment at least) more disciplined. Crucially, the fact that they were also fighting alongside a potent UN force that was prepared to go on the offensive made a significant difference.
As the general explained later, this new proactive stance is now the UN’s guiding principle in the DR Congo. “We are going to protect the civilians, eliminate and neutralise the threats,” he said. “We are not going to wait for the threat to come here against the civilians.”
To find out what this means in practice, People & Power went behind the scenes with the general and his FIB force as they consolidated their gains, gathered intelligence on rebel activity, and prepared to launch a new joint UN/FARDC offensive.
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