For over twenty years, the North and South Kivu Regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have been embroiled in violence. The United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has been active in North and South Kivu since early in the conflict. Still, the mission has failed to fulfil its mandate of bringing stability to the region. MONUSCO facilitated numerous ceasefire and peace agreements, which were all quickly violated, allowing conflict to resume. While the UN security council unanimously voted to extend MONUSCO’s mandate through 2022, there is mounting pressure to draw down the mission and shift towards supporting local peacebuilding efforts, including insider mediation. Prioritising insider mediation and local ownership over the peace process is critical to building sustainable peace in North and South Kivu. The UN mission can best contribute to peacemaking by shifting from its role as chief-facilitator to serving as an interlocutor between local mediators and elites, linking local and national tracks of engagement.
MONUSCO’s Involvement in North and South Kivu
The strategic priorities of MONUSCO’s mandate are to protect civilians and support stabilisation by strengthening state institutions. Towards these ends, the UN has acted as a mediator and negotiator in various peace agreements throughout the conflict. In 1999, the UN mediated the Lusaka Agreement, which sought to end the Second Congo War. In 2008, a new rebellion led by the National Council for the Defence of the People (CNDP) in North Kivu shifted MONUSCO’s attention to the east of the DRC, where it helped facilitate peace agreements at the 2009 Goma Conference. In 2012, a second rebellion in the region, carried out by M23, almost entirely shifted MONUSCO’s focus to the North Kivu region and led to further ceasefire agreements. However, each of these agreements quickly failed, in part, because of several crucial strategic mistakes by MONUSCO.
First, MONUSCO’s political efforts have generally been secondary to its military operations in North and South Kivu. The mission is the largest in the world, comprised of over 16,000 soldiers and police and costing over $1 billion a year. Despite the original strategic objectives of the mission remaining in place, its primary directive since 2013 has been to “neutralise armed groups.” Instead of protecting citizens, these efforts have further displaced Hutu populations, creating an even more perilous environment for locals.
Second, MONUSCO has acted firmly on behalf of the Congolese government, undermining its legitimacy as a neutral mediator. Impartiality is seen as a core strength of outside mediators and a traditional principle of peacekeeping, but MONUSCO has undertaken offensives against militant groups in cooperation with the government. The Congolese government has a notorious track record of human rights abuses and, by acting jointly with its military, MONUSCO has made itself complicit in these activities.
Finally, the peace agreements and political activities which MONUSCO has facilitated have been top-down and elite-driven, without attention to building sustainable peace or consulting local populations. Instead of addressing the concerns of local populations, the UN has sought to diagnose the roots of the conflict itself, primarily viewing the elimination of militant groups as the key to peace. Consequently, polls in North Kivu reveal that, according to local sentiment, MONUSCO “generally fails to protect civilians” and “peacekeepers are distant from and disrespectful towards local civilians.” Therefore, the mission has not obtained the consent of all parties, which is another core peacekeeping principle. Militant groups, in contrast, have embedded themselves in local communities, taking advantage of communal conflict and continued instability to win support.
Insider Mediation in the Kivu conflict
While MONUSCO has undermined its mediation efforts through partisanship, elitism, and the use of force, inside mediators have made significant contributions to facilitating dialogue, building social cohesion, and establishing the environment for formal peace talks. Insider mediation is defined by cultural and experiential closeness between the groups in conflict and the mediator. Essentially, inside mediators have close relationships to conflict parties and deep knowledge of the conflict dynamics, crucial elements of conflict transformation.
Inside mediators are especially effective in the DRC, which is a weak state. Without the presence of a functioning state apparatus inside, mediators have gained trust through personal relationships, not “official” titles, which are often seen as indicators of corruption. CIDDHOPE, a local mediation organisation, is seen as a trusted alternative to corrupt courts in resolving land disputes. MONUSCO’s focus on militant groups has caused it to overlook local disputes as a source of violence. CIDDHOPE and other organisations rooted in communities possess a deeper understanding of which local disagreements can balloon into larger conflicts.
Furthermore, inside mediators in the Eastern Congo maintain communities’ sense of ownership over conflicts while also viewing their work as part of a long-term process. The RHA, a mediation organisation in the Ituri region, does not propose solutions to local conflicts. Instead, they clarify each party’s interests and ensure they are operating under the same premises. Furthermore, unlike MONUSCO and other outside mediators who seek to make specific mediation interventions, RHA remains involved in disputes over a long period of time. This method seeks to not only reduce violence but fundamentally change relationships and behaviours in communities with the goal of sustained peace.
Outlook for MONUSCO in North and South Kivu
While the UN’s years of engagement in North and South Kivu have not brought an end to violence, MONUSCO can still play a crucial role in the region as a supporter of grassroots efforts and as an interlocutor between local and national tracks of engagement. In Resolution 2612, which extended MONUSCO’s mandate in the region, the UN indicated a shift towards this kind of engagement. However, each of its commitments fall short of what is required for sustainable peace.
First, while the resolution lowered MONUSCO’s troop ceiling, the act was largely symbolic as the maximum number of authorised troops was only lowered from 14,000 to 13,500. In cases of UN peacekeeping successes – such as in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala – the role of the UN was sometimes minimal, but UN actions were always directed towards the goal of reaching a mediated settlement. MONUSCO’s use of force detracts from achieving that goal.
Second, the resolution recognized the importance of local-level mediation and committed MONUSCO to engaging and facilitating such efforts. However, supporting inside mediators through funding and research may be more effective than directly facilitating negotiations. International actors are already assuming these supportive roles in the Kivu conflict. The Netherlands’ primary development agency, GIZ, is funding an insider mediation project in North Kivu and Rwanda’s Bugesera District, supporting 90 inside mediators in the two regions. MONUSCO would be more effective in this indirect role, providing predictable long-term support for grassroots mediation projects.
Finally, the resolution stated that MONUSCO will play a role in national and local dialogues. However, MONUSCO must not only be involved in both levels of dialogue, but play the role of interlocutor between these tracks of engagement. While inside mediators can build social cohesion in local communities, they do not have the capacity or influence to generalise their work to make a systemic impact in the region as a whole. Inside mediation must be part of an interconnected, multi-pronged approach to peacekeeping in the DRC that also includes national, Track 1 negotiations. By acting as an interlocutor between these dialogues, MONUSCO can provide local mediators influence with elites that would otherwise be beyond their reach and elites with effective strategies produced by local mediators to inform the broader peace process.
Ultimately, MONUSCO’s mission in Kivu – and the DRC more broadly – has been impeded by an overemphasis on top-down peace agreements, joint action with the Congolese government, and offensives against militant groups. In contrast, inside mediation efforts have successfully built sustainable peace in local communities. By reducing its military presence, supporting insider mediation initiatives, and acting as an interlocutor between local and national tracks of engagement, MONUSCO can reorient towards its original goals of protecting civilizations and supporting stabilisation.
Ishmael Maxwell is pursuing an MA in Conflict Transformation & Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast on a Marshall Scholarship. His research focuses on majority-minority relations and ethnonationalism in deeply divided societies.
He earned is BA in Political Science and International Relations at Carleton College, graduating Summa Cum Laude. He has interned at Atlas Organization, Search for Common Ground, the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.