Protecting civilians and human rights, the main concern as MONUSCO withdraws from DRC

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Alexis Huguet / AFP

Following the disengagement agreement between the authorities of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), signed in November 2023, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member organisations in the DRC, Groupe Lotus, Asadho, and the League of Voters, call on the UN Security Council and the Congolese authorities to do their utmost to protect civilians and human rights in the country.

Kinshasa, Kisangani, and Paris, December 13, 2023. As it does every year since the beginning of the peacekeeping mission in the RDC, the United Nations Security Council will meet on December 20th to decide on the outcome of the mission by voting on a resolution for its mandate. This year, the highly anticipated resolution will take into account the provisions of the disengagement plan signed by the Congolese government and the UN Secretary General in Kinshasa in November 2023.

The agreement seems to reflect both the UN’s internal position for the need to overhaul the system of peacekeeping missions and funding within the organisation (due to budgetary pressure on member States), as well as the demands of some of the Congolese people, who have called for MONUSCO’s withdrawal for several years, owing to its ineffectiveness. There have been several violent incidents perpetrated against MONUSCO, especially in the east. People there have spent the last 30 years living in a context of armed conflict and have questioned the effectiveness of MONSUCO’s ability to properly protect the civilian population.

The agreement was signed in the run-up to the general election, which is to be held on December 20th of this year. While it is true that it reflects the long-held and firmly established positions both within and outside of the mission, our organisations hope that the upcoming elections will not have a negative impact on the safeguarding of human rights that stem from the application of this pact.

Despite different contexts, this decision is in line with a general trend among UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, such as MINUSMA in Mali and UNITAMS in Sudan, where authorities made clear the fact that they wanted the mission to withdraw as quickly as possible.

A gradual withdrawal plan has been underway since 2019 when President Tshisekedi took office. This plan is based on a series of measurable indicators, notably an improvement in the security situation.

The gradual plan follows recommendations made by FIDH member organisations, that asked that “this withdrawal should not be precipitated, and therefore should be guided by objective indicators on the general situation in the RDC so as not to imperil the transition that is already underway in the country”. Since then, the plan has led to the closure of mission offices in the provinces of Kasaïs and Tanganyika. What sets this withdrawal plan apart from the previous one is the faster pace that is no longer determined by objective indicators that hinge on the advancement of the situation and progress made, including the withdrawal of armed troops at the same time as the closure of local mission offices.

One of the risks of a rapid withdrawal is the proper transfer of priority tasks heretofore carried out by MONSUCO, such as the protection of civilians and human rights. The Congolese government is primarily responsible for protecting its citizens, but given the size of the country and the never-ending security issues, MONSUCO played an important, - albeit imperfect, - part in fulfilling this role. The withdrawal of Blue Helmets in some isolated areas where the government is barely present and where armed guerrillas are still active is of concern.

MONSUCO and the Congolese government should be able to learn from the withdrawals from Kasaïs and Tanganyika. Likewise, it is essential to properly plan the handover of “transferable” tasks to the government, UN, and civil society. Finally, the Office of Human Rights should continue to be present in the RDC so as to continue monitoring, reporting, and applying the UN policy of human Rights due diligence in the areas of security and defence because these tasks are essential and difficult to hand over.

Based on the progress made in the realm of transitional justice, work with expert groups should continue, especially forensic investigations. Defending human rights defenders and journalists should also be a central part of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Office’s mandate. It is also important to coordinate the deployment of SADC troops with MONSUCO troops as well as with the armies of neighbouring countries. This transition should have a clearly identifiable command as well as professional and responsible troops, especially after the recently reported human rights violations committed by SADC troops in north Mozambique.

The withdrawal of EAC armed troops is also underway. These troops have been in eastern RDC for a year, but the Congolese government deems their mandate to be insufficient. It has been calling for an offensive mandate to fight the M23 rebel military group. Indeed, the government and SADC recently decided that SADC troops should take over for the EAC. They are already present in the context of MONSUCO’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), which has an offensive mandate to fight armed troops. The FIB and new SADC command should coordinate. In aligning with SADC, the DRC frees itself from any ties with Rwanda, which is accused of supporting M23 in eastern DRC and diplomatically stymying decisions about its mandate. SADC forces will be deployed alongside DRC armed forces, other armed contingents present under bilateral agreements, Ugandan troops in Ituri and North-Kivu, as well as Burundian troops in South-Kivu, who are fighting armed groups in those provinces.

This is why the FIDH, Lotus Groupe, ASADHO and the League of Voters call upon the Security Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, SADC troops, the African Union, and the Congolese government to:
 Maintain personnel and earmark sufficient resources for the Human Rights office to operate nationwide, even after the departure of MONSUCO;
 Strengthen government presence (especially police) in provinces while enforcing laws in defence of human rights; 
 Responsibly plan for the handover of MONSUCO tasks to agencies, civil society, and competent stakeholders;
 Consult regularly with members of civil society in DRC about MONSUCO’s withdrawal and handing over roles;
 Respect human rights when executing operations, especially in the African Union’s human rights compliance framework.

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