Protection of civilians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: A new approach
By David Gressly
For nearly two decades, UN Peacekeeping has been at the forefront of a complex security operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It is mandated to protect civilians, build sustainable institutions of governance and promote state authority. MONUSCO is the UN’s longest standing multidimensional peacekeeping operation and the largest UN presence in the country.
Protection of civilians is at the core of MONUSCO’s mandate. Nearly 19,000 personnel, including approximately 14,000 troops and 1,500 police, are in the country in support of that objective. And although it is the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has the primary responsibility to protect civilians, MONUSCO has an important support role to play covering critical gaps remaining in the national security framework.
MONUSCO is delivering its protection mandate through a series of actions such as.
a) Providing physical protection through early warning and response as well as neutralizing armed groups through targeted strategies
b) Supporting the military justice for the prosecution of grave human rights violations by armed groups and security forces
c) Managing small arms and weapons for national security forces, who are often a source of weapons for armed groups, and
d) Strengthening prison security to minimize prison breaks which had become a source of new recruits for armed groups.
Rethinking our physical protection strategy
There have been a number of recent innovations in MONUSCO’s protection of civilians strategy that are changing the way in which we respond to these alerts thus enhancing the physical protection of civilians.
Historically, physical protection has been achieved through static positions on the ground — protection through presence — with, at its peak, nearly one hundred operating bases providing area security in a radius around each base. However, this approach was limited in its ability to react to a dynamic and changing environment with emerging threats in areas where the Mission did not have a base. Furthermore, with the recent reduction in troops, the capacity to maintain the same number of permanent bases has been reduced, subsequently reducing our capacity to protect through presence. This has prompted us to rethink our physical protection strategy.
MONUSCO has taken a comprehensive approach combined with increased mobility and a proactive posture facilitating both civilian and military interventions in areas where the Mission does not have a presence. This approach has become known as “protection through projection”. It relies on greater mobility and agility of military forces and civilian personnel, as well as an expanded and strengthened early warning system, allowing rapid deployments whenever and wherever needed either to prevent or respond to violence or conflict and provide physical protection to civilians.
Furthermore, protection through projection is intended to be comprehensive and is tailored to the specific alert or threat. Most importantly, it is not only a military action or response that is projected, it is a platform for various civilian interventions, such as investigation of human rights abuses or assessment of future protection needs as well as implementing conflict resolution initiatives, creating the space for local authorities and security forces to be able to respond more effectively or arranging for the surrender of armed groups. It can also facilitate humanitarian access to certain areas.
Early warning system: a key tool in responding to conflict
In order to be able to respond effectively and project to areas where the Mission is not present, an expanded and strengthened early warning system is fundamental. This system was introduced by the head of our mission and Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the DRC, Ms. Leila Zerrougui, in her previous role as Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in MONUSCO (2008–2012). This system allows the Mission to have a better situational awareness on the ground and be aware of the need to respond as well as the kind of intervention required to be projected. Situational awareness is also being enhanced through improved analysis and information gathering systems that can also identify hot spots or feed into the development of appropriate interventions.
Our network presently has 65 nodes based at the community level which link protection committees and various alert systems. It allows the Mission to identify threats and respond by channeling information from communities to our operating bases and headquarters. Today, 900 communities are covered by the early warning system network in Eastern DRC and we continue to expand the coverage. Since the system relies on mobile phone connectivity, we are continuously working with phone operators and assisting them expand their coverage area to allow more communities to be part of our early warning network. Currently, we receive approximately 500 alerts per month and have a response rate of 86%. This is an improvement on the 2017 response rate of 70% and we continue to try and improve this rate.
Projecting presence is just one of MONUSCO’s protection tools. It is used in combination with static positions that the Mission maintains in locations where conflict may be more protracted. These positions are normally in areas where state authority is virtually absent or where multiple armed groups are competing for territory or natural resources creating a high protection risk for the local population. In these areas, early warning systems also remain a vital tool to address conflict and provide effective physical protection to civilians in the surrounding area.
Given our key role in the protection of civilians, we are committed to continuing to innovate, improve and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our approaches to better protect the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Protection through projection is one more step forward in the evolution of UN protection doctrine.
The author is the Deputy Special Representative in the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO).