The current situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has its roots in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, during which ethnic Hutus – some of whom had participated in the genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsi population – fled that conflict to resettle to the west in the DRC (then Zaire). In addition to facing obvious friction with the Congolese Tutsis who were their new neighbors, some of the Hutu refugees initiated plans to retake power in Rwanda. Rwanda in turn backed The Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL), and its leader, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, in a rebellion which deposed Mobutu in May 1997. The relationship between Kabila and backers in Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi quickly soured, with those countries backing a new rebel group, the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD).
In the decades since, there has been near-constant conflict in the eastern part of the DRC. UN peacekeeping forces have been there for most of that time, beginning with the authorization of the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) in early 2000. Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 and replaced by his son Joseph, who quickly consolidated power and jailed his political rivals, ruling until 2019. Despite the ongoing presence of MONUC forces, conflicts in the Ituri province and particularly the North and South Kivu provinces continued to fester. The mission was renamed the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) in 2010, and given broader authorization to assist the Kinshasa government with stabilization and peace consolidation efforts using “all necessary means.” After increasing the presence of peacekeeping forces through an “intervention brigade” in the mid-2010s, the UNSC has gradually called for a reduction in UN-authorized forces in the conflict region, as it has become more and more clear that the mission is failing to accomplish its objectives. In recent years, the DRC conflict has become tied into the broader international conflict centered on the Islamic State (IS), with elements of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamist rebel group based in Uganda and the Kivu provinces, merging with IS’s Central Africa Province.
In the last few years, anti-MONUSCO protesters have at times violently attacked Congolese and UN-authorized forces. Rather than being opposed to MONUSCO’s presence in principle, most protesters are dissatisfied with the mission’s inability to pacify a region that is home to more than 120 armed groups of varying sizes and allegiances. The situation in the eastern DRC remains, as of late 2022, a roiling international conflict, and it is unclear whether MONUSCO’s presence is aiding more than undermining a long-term resolution to the underlying disputes and resulting humanitarian disaster. Tens of millions have been displaced from their homes in a conflict that has now spanned more than two decades. Millions more have died, either as a direct result of conflict-related violence or due to a deficit of food, water, and medical resources. Sexual violence and the conscription of child soldiers are rampant, and none of the many parties to the conflict – including the government of the DRC – is likely free from blame in terms of human rights abuses. It is the UNSC’s responsibility to determine the way forward. Would a reconfigured peacekeeping mission finally be able to help bring an end to this conflict? What would that reconfiguration look like? And how can the UN alleviate the worst parts of the humanitarian crisis – not just in a hypothetical future where the conflict draws to a close, but in the interim, which at minimum will be a period of years?