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German diplomat criticizes UN mission in DR Congo

Judith Raupp
April 18, 2023

Martin Kobler says the blue helmets in eastern DR Congo are not doing enough to stop new attacks by the M23 militia. The retired German envoy headed the MONUSCO peacekeeping mission in the DRC between 2013 and 2015.

https://p.dw.com/p/4QCo4
A UN peacekeeping soldier.
The UN peacekeeping mission in DR Congo has been operating there for decadesImage: Moses Sawasawa/AP Photo/picture alliance

German diplomat Martin Kobler accused the United Nations peacekeeping mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) of "performing poorly." Speaking to DW in an exclusive interview, Kobler said the international community lacks the political will to take action against the resurgence of the M23 militia

The UN and several African leaders accuse the Rwandan government of President Paul Kagame of backing the predominantly ethnic Tutsi militia, but Kigali denies the accusations.

The M23 launched renewed attacks in May 2022 and now occupies strategic trading points in the province of North Kivu. In addition, its fighters have blocked the main trading routes to the eastern provincial capital Goma. 

The Congolese have been demanding MONUSCO to leave the country.
Young Congolese have been demontrating against MONUSCO and calling for an end to the peacekeeping missionImage: Moses Sawasawa/AP/picture alliance

M23 defeat in 2015

Kobler, now a retired diplomat, was head of the MONUSCO peacekeeping mission in DR Congo from 2013 to 2015. Under him, the blue helmet soldiers battled and defeated M23, supported by the Congolese army in 2013.

After that defeat, M23 went into hiding but resurfaced in late 2021, attacking and capturing large swathes of territory in North Kivu.

In the renewed clashes between government troops and M23, MONUSCO opted to stay away from combat operations. At a March press conference in Goma, France's UN representative Nicolas de Rivière said MONUSCO's mission is to help implement a peace agreement and protect the population. It is not there to "make war."  

Martin Kobler
Martin Kobler was head of MONUSCO from 2013 to 2015Image: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

MONUSCO's mandate in DR Congo

Kobler told DW he disagrees with this new position, arguing that MONUSCO's robust mandate allows for a combat mission. He said the Intervention Brigade Force with 3,000 soldiers was explicitly created in 2013, adding that it still exists in the same strength today.

"New York [The UN Security Council headquarters] and MONUSCO just have to both want this," Kobler stressed, referring to a possible combat mission.

DW asked MONUSCO's press department for comment several times. However, the peacekeeping mission had not responded when this article was published.

Kobler said he regrets that the crisis in eastern Congo, which has been going on for decades, is being neglected internationally, even though numerous raw materials originate from Congo and are processed by industries worldwide. In addition, the war in Ukraine is pushing other trouble spots, such as the Congo, out of the UN's focus.

UN Helicopters
The United Nations has diverted most of its resources from Congo to UkraineImage: Gerard Gaudin/Belga/imago images

Congolese caught in a spiral of violence

The UN peacekeeping mission has been present in DR Congo with various mandates since the 1960s. However, it has not effectively protected the population from violence. As a result, its credibility is suffering.

"Peacekeeping should have been more robust," said Kobler in retrospect and self-criticism.

The former MONUSCO chief noted that after the defeat of M23, the UN troops should have turned their attention to the other dozens of rebel groups. However, the UN mission lacked intelligence capabilities. At the time, he says, it was taboo at the UN to even utter the word intelligence. "We have de-tabooed it to some extent," Kobler said. 

MONUSCO had to rely on intelligence from the Congolese population to fight the militias in the east of the country. But the government in Kinshasa at the time had primarily sent army officers with dubious human rights records after the war against the M23. Since MONUSCO could only cooperate with units whose commanders and soldiers respected human rights, cooperation became increasingly difficult.

DR Congo: Anger in Goma over incessant militant attacks

Lucrative business for troop-contributing nations

Kobler said he understands why the Congolese are frustrated and are calling for MONUSCO's withdrawal. However, a good mission makes itself superfluous, Kobler explained.

He cited that the mission generates revenue for the troop-contributing countries and that numerous military and civilian jobs depend on MONUSCO's deployment.

MONUSCO's growing loss of confidence comes at a time when security forces would be desperately needed. At least 600,000 people have fled their villages since July 2022 alone.

According to aid organizations, 1,400 civilians have been killed. Ten million urgently need aid — Oxfam, Care and Danish Refugee Council wrote in a joint press statement.

A refugee camp
M23 attacks have led to a humanitarian crisis in the regionImage: Guerchom Ndebo/AFP

Political negotiations needed

In addition to a robust military response, there must be political negotiations to bring peace to eastern Congo, Kobler said. He referenced a certification system for Congo's raw materials, similar to the Kimberley Process against blood diamonds.

The certification system negotiated in South Africa has helped remove the ground from the financing of violence through the sale and purchase of diamonds.

Onesphore Sematumba, a political analyst at the International Crisis Group, told DW MONUSCO is weak. Because of the war in Ukraine, he said, the mission has to do without combat helicopters. In addition, he said, the force is preparing for its withdrawal from Congo, which was agreed upon with Kinshasa.

Of the original 20,000 troops, 12,800 are still deployed, according to MONUSCO. However, it is also known that troop-contributing countries such as India do not want to send their soldiers to the front lines, he said. This, he said, is "convenience logic." He said that one must ask what benefit MONUSCO can provide in this way.

Weapons belonging to a Rwandan Hutu rebel of the FDLR (Democratic Force for the Liberation of Rwanda) are pictured in a dense forest on February 6, 2009 outside Pinga, 150kms north west of Goma.
Rwanda blames FDLR fighters of participating in the 1994 genocide against the TutsiImage: Lionel Healing/AFP/Getty Images

DR Congo army accused of siding with FDLR

Congolese historian Aloys Tegera also sees MONUSCO in a quandary. Even if it wanted to, it could not fight with the army because the latter cooperates with militias, especially with the FDLR rebel group, which is hostile to the M23. Human rights activists accuse the FDLR, which Rwanda alleges is seeking to destabilize Paul Kagame's government, and the M23 of killing civilians, looting, and rape.

This article was translated from German 

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu