The United Nations is in the process of deploying a 3,000-strong intervention force in the Democratic Republic of Congo to fight armed rebel groups in a move that some foreign policy experts say sets a dangerous precedent and could do more harm than good in the region.
While the United Nations already has over 17,000 peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo who are allowed to use force to protect civilians under immediate threat, the intervention troops, who will be part of the existing mission, will have more flexibility when it comes to fighting rebel groups.
"These 3,000 have basically been given the role to ‘neutralize’ the armed groups, and that means they can proactively use force against armed groups who do not put their weapons down," said U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer. "They don’t have to wait until they directly threaten civilians. That’s the difference."
For over a decade, the United Nations has had a peacekeeping mission in Congo, which has been locked in bloody conflict between the Congolese government and rebel groups backed by Uganda and Rwanda.
While the Second Congo War officially ended in 2003, violent clashes continued. Last April, the March 23 (M23) militia seized Goma, a major city in the eastern part of the country.
Eleven African countries signed onto a security deal to help stabilize Congo in February. The U.N. Security Council authorized 3,000 intervention troops, under U.N. command, who began to arrive in May. The forces will come from neighboring African countries, and the arms will be provided by states, not the United Nations itself.
"It’s not that we’re setting up a war-fighting group," Dwyer said. "But to deal with the really recalcitrant ones who were fighting to not give up their weapons and continue to threaten civilians."
He said the hope is that the security framework will also pressure the rebels to lay down their arms.
"The idea is with the political and security framework, that many of these armed groups will already start to put down their weapons," Dwyer said.
But some foreign policy experts are skeptical that the United Nations can effectively execute a military-type intervention.
"I think it’s a mistake," former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton told the Washington Free Beacon. "The risk of a disaster, I think, is high. These peacekeepers could well find themselves in trouble from a number of the parties, without adequate training. So the likelihood of success is very low and the potential for real trouble, I think, is very high."
"What this really calls out for is an African Union solution rather than a U.N. solution," Bolton added. "It is a stateless area in many respects, and something which the states of Southern Africa really ought to resolve themselves, rather than to try to do it from remote control from the Security Council."
Claudia Rosett, the journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noted that the United Nations has had peacekeepers in Congo for over a decade with little progress.
"After how many years we’ve been in there, and here we go again—one of [the UN Peacekeeping Operations] latest press releases tells us rape and other forms of brutal sexual violence are on the rise in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, due to the increase in the fighting, et cetera," Rosett said. "They have been in there for years and the UN simply isn’t configured to deal with this type of problem. It’s a way of spending money and putting a Band Aid on things that fester."
Rosett noted that there have been reported abuses by U.N. peacekeeping forces, including rapes and other assaults.
"The U.N. just turns them back over to their home companies to avoid embarrassment, so the thing usually just disappears," Rosett said. "It’s a problem built into the UN system [and] they have yet to solve it. And in the meantime they spend billions on these operations. Too often U.N. peacekeepers become part of the problem."
Bolton said he was concerned that the operation was "being entered into without a lot of thought and discussions in key capitals."
"How much have you heard about it in Washington, for example?" he said. "We’re going to pay 25 percent of the cost of it, even though there’s no tangible U.S. interest anywhere at stake."
As for the new precedent set by the intervention force, Dwyer said, "People do interpret this brigade as sort of an interesting step forward for peacekeeping."
However, he said this is not the first time U.N. peacekeepers have used force in Congo or elsewhere when civilians were at risk.
"The armed groups have to go," he said.