First as Tragedy, Second as Farce: MONUSCO’s Response to the Beni Massacres

On August 13th, somewhere between 50 and 100 people were hacked to death by militia in a neighborhood on the edge of Beni, DRC. According to activists and reporters in Beni, people had seen the assailants in town earlier in the day and had alerted the authorities as to the threat. Yet, when the attacks began later that evening the FARDC were nowhere to be found. MONUSCO, for its part, once again lived up to its reputation as the most costly debating society on the planet; UN peacekeepers arriving on the scene only after the fighting had ceased.

In response, on August 30th the head of MONUSCO, Special Representative Maman Sidikou announced a change in strategy, specifically stating that ‘compassion is not enough’, that MONUSCO must change its approach to the fight against armed groups in Beni. Sidikou offered no details, however, as the exact nature of this strategy change. There is good reason to believe that MONUSCO’s promised strategy change is merely a PR stunt; that they will continue to pursue the same offensive, ‘neutralization’ approach to the fight against so-called ADF terrorists in Beni, while ignoring the need for better civilian protection.

Following from the most recent Beni massacre, NGOs in North Kivu sent a letter to the SRSG imploring them to improve their protection of civilian efforts in Beni area. The letter identifies three gaps in MONUSCO protection programming in Beni: a lack of community access to MONUSCO, a lack of knowledge of the perpetrators and a lack of contingency planning. With this in mind it recommended that MONUSCO: Increase regular consultations and communications with communities in Beni, establish an early warning system drawing on best practices from MONUSCO’s Community Alert Networks elsewhere; establish a permanent Joint Mission Analysis cell in Beni town, and enhance accountability by launching a formal investigation as to when and in what format MONUSCO has received alerts on the massacres in Beni.

None of these recommendations are particularly controversial and the overall tone of the letter is non-combative. In fact, prior to drafting the letter the authors consulted with MONUSCO staff in Goma who all agreed that more civilian staff were needed to properly research and respond to the Beni massacres.

The NGO community was therefore more than a little surprised when it received the following response from MONUSCO:

The SRSG of MONUSCO is in receipt of the joint letter from … a number of INGOs, pointing out perceived gaps in MONUSCO’s protection mandate. While a formal response is being prepared please note that the suggestions and recommendations in the mentioned letter to the SRSG, have been in place for some time. The regular HCT and HAG briefings from MONUSCO provide some of the information apparently lacking to INGOs.

MONUSCO’s response, in other words, was a rather curt ‘Don’t speak about what you don’t know’; a clearly defensive reaction meant to insulate the UN from culpability and deflect from the urgent need for change. While it has subsequently come to light that the author who penned these words does not represent the opinion of all MONUSCO ‘brass’, it is nevertheless telling that this rather ignorant response was released the same week as Sidikou’s promised shift in strategy.

As if this were not enough, on August 27th civil society activists in Beni reported that MONUSCO conducted a massive leafleting campaign aimed at convincing ADF terrorists to surrender. While these reports remain unconfirmed, the photo which is presently circulating online depicts a letter displaying both MONUSCO and FARDC’s logos, addressed to members of the ‘ADF’. The leaflets, written in French (odd given MONUSCO’s past claims that ADF is a Somali-backed Islamic terrorist network), warn ADF that they must lay down their arms, cease their illegal economic activities and join a demobilization program or else face the joint wrath of the FIB and FARDC. If this is in fact true, this would suggest that MONUSCO’s promised strategy change is mere dissimulation.

As is by now well known, the UN’s own Group of Experts report found that ‘ADF’ no longer really exists, the group having broken up into a number of smaller armed elements scattered across Beni, none of which exhibit the traits of an internationally-backed Jihadist network. What is more, the Congo Research Group, headed by former Group of Experts member Jason Stearns, has documented witness testimonies which suggest that the massacres in Beni have been perpetrated by a diverse mix of assailants including FARDC soldiers and former members of the ADF, M23, CNDP and RCD/K-ML armed groups. The fact that MONUSCO’s leaflets continue to identify ADF as the ‘enemy’ suggests a stubborn refusal to admit their past misconceptions and an inexplicable willingness to proceed without proper knowledge of the context.

Above and beyond these two rather damming anecdotes, there is also a more structural reason to doubt Sidikou’s promised strategy change. MONUSCO remains bound by its mandate, a mandate which commits peacekeepers to the neutralization of armed groups in support of the state. While it is true that the mandate has, since 2000, also called for the protection of civilians (PoC), in reality PoC has been gradually subsumed under the rubric of stabilization and neutralization. What this means in practice is that those battalions willing to use force are deployed on offensive operations against armed group positions, while those who prefer not to engage are given the task of protection. Indeed, despite the well intentioned efforts of civilian PoC and stabilization staff, the entire Mission now seems to operate on the assumption that neutralization = state stability = protection of civilians. In other words, the UN helps protect the state and the state protects civilians.

The present electoral crisis has exposed the fallacious nature of this assumption. Kabila and his party have done everything in their power to delay the present electoral cycle. This includes the deployment of state security organizations to intimidate, imprison and abuse civil society and opposition party activists who want nothing more than to uphold the constitution. MONUSCO, in other words, is presently supporting a state which systematically abuses its citizens for the personal gain of the president and his cronies.

It is in Beni, however, that this contradiction is most glaring. Activists in Beni are convinced that the massacres have been perpetrated by Kinyarwanda-speaking civilians and soldiers on behalf of President Kabila, if not the Rwandan state. While this conspiracy theory is hard to square with the facts, there is nevertheless a growing body of evidence linking the regime to at least some of the massacres. FARDC informants, for instance, have suggested that some of the massacres were part of a state sanctioned counterinsurgency effort to drive a wedge between the population in Beni and an emergent armed group linked with the still popular RCD/K-ML. If this is true, then the Beni massacres may arguably qualify as war crimes or even crimes against humanity; charges which ought to trigger an R2P-style ‘humanitarian intervention’ rather than continued ‘state support’.

MONUSCO has known of these accusations since at least March 2016, if not earlier. In fact, civil society activists have been calling for UN-led investigations into the massacres since 2015; a demand which MONUSCO ignored when it chose to recommence joint operations with the FARDC earlier this year. MONUSCO thus seems intent on supporting the Kabila regime at all costs, even at the cost of its own reputation.

Without a significant rethinking of the present UN mandate in DRC, any proposed change in strategy is unlikely to bear fruit. While the continuation of the status quo risks fanning the flames of popular resentment against MONUSCO itself.

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