Eighteen years ago, Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) became the hub of a mass civil war due a smorgasbord of ethnic conflict within state borders, instability in Rwanda after a devastating genocide, and power-hungry neighbors determined to take control of DR Congo’s vast natural resources. The rise of various rebel groups backed by those same neighbors and the policies of a corrupt government have created a perfect storm of systematic killing, rape, enslavement, and recruitment of child soldiers. Despite years of international intervention, this conflict continues to threaten civilian lives and stability within the nation.
The persistent violence in DR Congo represents a failure of supranational institutions to prevent dangerous conflict and promote peace throughout the region. Though the United Nations (UN) has maintained a presence in DR Congo with the intent to protect civilian populations and restore state authority, rebel groups continue to create violent conflict and violate human rights. The UN peacekeeping efforts have proven effective in demobilizing rebel groups; however, the lack of well-rounded peacebuilding strategies has allowed new armies to perpetuate violence within DR Congo. Because the UN lacks community level rehabilitation, economic empowerment and conflict resolution, the violent rebel movements remain a persistent threat to international peace and security.
The United Nations intervened in 1999 with its peacekeeping mission MONUSCO about a year after the conflict first began, and suffered failures as recently as 2014 when ethnic violence claimed over 30 lives. Over the past 14 years, the UN has remained rigidly consistent in its intervention strategy; when violence ensues in a particular area of DR Congo, it sends its peacekeeping UN Armed Forces to areas determined as the greatest threat to civilian livelihood. The Armed Forces stay until the rebel group has been demobilized and then provide five-day reintegration courses for former rebel soldiers to assimilate back into their communities. Militarily speaking, the UN certainly provides an invaluable organizational body that has proved necessary for peacekeeping. Without the presence of a higher authority provided by UN Armed Forces, there would be too many different groups with varying agendas on both the national and rebel sides, which would ultimately exacerbate the conflict.
However, the lack of organization and rehabilitation within the community after the soldiers return from rebel armies creates an ideal situation for recidivism. The people fighting for rebel armies fight with a cause, whether they are displaced from their homes, stripped of their rights or marginalized by poverty within DR Congo. Without the proper institutions to foster economic development and peaceful conflict resolution, the UN creates a power vacuum that consequently produces a justifiable cause for the revival of rebel armies. The refusal of the UN to reform its peacebuilding policies could very well be what is stagnating peace promotion in DR Congo. Trends of violent, peace-threatening movements suggest that instability is linked to a sense of injustice due to economic and political exclusion. Instead of increasing the military presence in conflict areas, a policy that has repeatedly proven to be futile in MONUSCO peacekeeping efforts, the UN should adopt the approaches of some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the DR Congo that implement programs to foster sustainable peace through nonviolent, economic empowerment.
One of these NGOs that is offering a new model for peacebuilding and conflict resolution is RESOLVE Network, a nonprofit organization founded by Executive Director Vijaya Thakur in 2012. This organization works within hundreds of communities in DR Congo to promote peace by providing microloans, financial literacy programming, and peaceful conflict resolution workshops. As Thakur stated in a presentation at UC Santa Barbara, the most common reason why former soldiers recidivate is because they feel excluded from the economic prosperity of DR Congo. Rebel soldiers leave their armies and undergo demobilization, but feel disadvantaged by the lack of agency within rural, poor villages. While the UN mitigates the immediate threat of rebel groups, its peacekeeping ultimately fails because it does not empower communities nor inspire hope for a more promising future. This NGO does just that by working at a grassroots level, engaging people across ethnic divides to create sustainable peace initiatives in their communities. Through economic empowerment and education regarding nonviolent conflict resolution strategies, RESOLVE Network gives agency to the people and provides them with the tools they need to cultivate and uphold peace in the DR Congo.
The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo depicts a fundamental disconnect between peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts of the United Nations. While this supranational organization sends in military assistance to protect civilians and monitor political elections, its policies drastically overlook the most basic reasons why these rebel groups exist in the first place. Without acknowledging the economic needs of the communities served and understanding the driving forces of the conflict in question, the United Nations will continue to merely ameliorate the immediate threat of violence to keep peace rather than empower communities to actually build peace. Until this disconnect is properly rectified, violent clashes will continue to plague global communities, both in the DR Congo and in other conflict zones around the world.
Lindsay Apperson, Content Editor