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International Cooperation

An elderly woman at a displaced people’s camp

Reuters RTX4LPD by Ho New

An elderly woman walks with the aid of a stick at the Kirolirwe internally displaced people’s camp, 10 December 2007.

“First we hold our noses, then we seek justice.”
  The Application of the Soft Approach in the Chapter VII Operations Conducted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo


by Brigadier-General (ret’d) Larry Aitken

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Conflict Background in Brief

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is, in many ways, typical of post-colonial Africa. It has as its antecedents the long and often brutal colonial administration by Belgium, followed by a hurried and fragile independence with a small hope of democratization, and, finally, by years of rule under the thumb of a despot dictator. In the dying days of his rule, a fledgling democracy once again materialized, but even these embers were smothered by the civil wars that ensued. The conflict in the DRC was exacerbated by the spillover of more than 10,000 Hutu rebels with links to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994,1 and also by the unbridled exploitation of the Congo’s natural resources by its neighbours and by multinational consortia. 

During the past two decades, the country has been ravaged by two wars: The First Congo War (1996-1997) ended when the Zairian President Mobutu Sésé Seko was overthrown by rebel forces backed by foreign powers, such as Uganda and Rwanda. Rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila declared himself to be president, and he changed the name of the nation back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This war provided the foundation for, and was quickly followed by, the Second Congo War, which began on 2 August 1998. Also known as Africa's World War and the Great War of Africa, and although it officially ended in 2003 when the Transitional Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo assumed power, its aftershocks continued to threaten a third war. The largest war in modern African history, one of the deadliest conflicts since the Second World War, it directly involved eight African nations, as well as at least 25 armed groups, during which 3.9 million people died, mostly from starvation and disease. Millions more were displaced from their homes or sought asylum in neighbouring countries.2  The UN mission, Mission de l' Organisation des Nations Unies en République démocratique du Congo (MONUC), was authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1258 in August 1999 to assist in the peace process to end this war.3

Six months later, UN Security Council Resolution 1291 authorized the deployment of a maximum of 5537 military personnel to the DRC, including 500 military observers, with an ambitious mandate to monitor the implementation of the Ceasefire Agreement and the redeployment of belligerent forces, to develop an action plan for the overall implementation of the Ceasefire Agreement, to work with the conflicting parties to obtain the release of all prisoners of war and military captives and the return of  human remains, to facilitate humanitarian assistance, and to assist the Facilitator of the National Dialogue.4Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, the UN Security Council authorized MONUC to take necessary action in the areas of deployment of its infantry battalions, to protect UN personnel, facilities, installations, and equipment, to ensure the security and freedom of movement of its personnel, and to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence

The buildup of peacekeepers in the DRC was gradual, starting with 90 UN observers in 1999, and building gradually to 2003, when the failed deployment of UN troops to Bunia demonstrated that the UN had little leverage without greater firepower against many thousands of armed belligerents and rebel groups. The death of two UN observers, and the loss of control in Bunia, prompted the United Nations Security Council to raise the troop ceiling to 10,800 personnel.5 Eventually, on the eve of the elections, the total deployed strength would reach 18,700 troops.6 However, for a country the size of the DRC, this represented less than one peacekeeper for each 125 square kilometres, not including 10,730 kilometres of borders. By way of comparison, the NATO-led UN mission in Kosovo deployed 2.6 soldiers per square kilometre, in Sierra Leone, one UN soldier for each four square kilometres, and in Haiti, one UN peacekeeper for each three square kilometres. The MONUC military planners requested a troop level of 32,000, or eight brigades; the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) had requested 24,500 troops, but the final total for the mission in support of the elections of 2006 was 17,400 personnel.7 The UN mission in the DRC was to discover that, without sufficient troop strength to complete the mission of ‘peace making,’ it had to engage in the process of stability operations with the assistance of the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC).

Figure 1: MONUC Deployment17 Wing

Figure 1: MONUC Deployment

Politically, the country had ‘danced’ with the start of a democratization movement in 1980 – which Mobutu quickly suppressed, jailing its leaders. The eventual defeat of Mobutu by Laurent Kabila was effectively the transfer of powers between dictators; the concept of democracy would have to wait for the wars to end. This seat of power was also the epicentre of political seismic activity: the assassination of President Laurent Desire Kabila in 2001 nearly brought the country into another war.  The Global and Inclusive Agreement on Transition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, signed in Pretoria, South Africa, on 16 December 2002, was brokered by South Africa, and brought with it a roadmap to elections, an agreement by warring Congolese parties to assist in the transition of power, and an agreement for disarmament.8 The power-sharing agreement that became known as ‘1+4’ served to stabilize the politics of the country, and it provided the necessary impetus toward disarming more than 200,000 armed combatants throughout the country through Disarmament, Demobilization, and Repatriation (DDR), and dealing with foreign combatants through Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Resettlement, and Reintegration (DDRRR). The road to stability was therefore to be guided by political, economic, and, later, by security sector reform (SSR). 

Application of the Chapter VII Mandate

The UN SC Resolution 1565 of 1 October 2004 provided a robust mandate to MONUC to use preventive force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to protect civilians, to stabilize the security environment, and to disarm combatants. This was later built upon, following the national elections in 2006, to include:

  • Building a stable and secure environment;
  • Consolidating democracy and promote effective governance; and
  • Supporting the local peace process.9


United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed William Lacy Swing on 1 July 2003 as his Special Representative for the Secretary General (SRSG) for the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the rank of Under-Secretary-General.10  He was the key figure for the transition of power within the DRC. He was also the one who coined the phrase that would typify MONUC’s successful interaction with the host nation, namely: “First we hold our noses, then we seek justice.” 

This strategy had three lines of operations (LOOs): engagement at the diplomatic level through the Comité International d’Accompagnement de la Transition (CIAT), direct engagement with each of the signatories to the 1+4 accord and the electoral commission, and working with national authorities to support the DDR process. The supporting military mission was to:

“…deter armed challenges to the transitional process through proactive operations, particularly in the East, in order to improve the security environment and set conditions for post election stability and reduction of spoilers’ interference.”11

This translated into a military operational level campaign plan (Figure 2) with three Lines of Operations: 

  • To Support the processes of security sector reform through the training of 18 FARDC brigades, as well as through the DDR process;


  • To compel armed groups to surrender and attend DDR; and
  • To protect UN personnel, facilities, and the local population under imminent threat, as well as protection of the borders of the country from the illegal crossings of armed groups.
An elderly woman at a displaced people’s camp

17 Wing

Figure 2: Military Operational Level Campaign Plan

Knowing whom to support

The most critical question to answer was determining whom to support. Although the Transitional Government had a mandate, the president had considerable powers, and was often in direct and indirect conflict with his four vice-presidents. Several of them were very unsavoury characters, one of whom would eventually be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity,12 but since the peace had been made between these militia warlords and the government, they were ‘the only players in the game.’ The UN had to appear neutral, supporting compromise and conciliation amongst the parties, while not being impartial to the conflict. On 20 August, one of the greatest tests of the mission occurred when the president’s Republican Guard attacked the residence of Vice-President Jean Pierre Bemba. Unfortunately for the government forces, the head of the UN Mission and 12 members of the CIAT were visiting Bemba at the time, and they became ‘caught in the crossfire.’13  The UN had both the clear need and the authority to intervene, and some hours later, the combined efforts of the MONUC Western Brigade and the European Force (EUFOR) were able to stop the attack and to convince the government forces to withdraw. The UN needed to ensure that all parties (signatories to the peace process) received impartial support to maintain political space for them. 

Supporting the Sovereign Government

Recognizing the vulnerability and sensitivity of the new government to international media, MONUC chose not to publicly criticize the government. Secondly, the SRSG worked to ensure that the UN was there to support the government, not to supplant it. For a new sovereign government of a country just out of war, coupled with bad memories of colonial rule, this was the first order of the day. MONUC consistently chose to work with the Government, not to embarrass it publicly. In the aftermath of the bloody civil war uprisings in Kinshasa and of the political-religious group, the Bundo Dia Kongo (BDK) in Bas Congo, the UN mission brought the results of its human rights investigations to the government, not the press. And although the UN was roundly criticized for this approach, it ensured that these investigations did not publicly criticize the government. The SRSG engaged the leaders of the government in closed door sessions on all aspects of alleged human rights abuses.

Do not directly challenge the government

This was a difficult tenet to follow, particularly when it was revealed that the government was undertaking operations in an underhanded manner. In September 2006, UN observers in the port city of Matadi discovered the off-loading of a cargo of tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) into a portside warehouse. Caught in an apparent violation of the UN arms embargo, the government first denied that they were the owners of these vehicles, and then later explained that they were a legitimate purchase made by the previous government. MONUC viewed these armaments as potential ‘peace breakers’ in the days ahead if used by the president’s Republican Guard against his political adversaries. Later, after these vehicles were shipped to the nation’s capital, Kinshasa, they were kept under constant surveillance by UN observers.  Blocking positions were developed with anti-tank obstacles to prevent the rapid deployment of the tanks and APCs into the city core, but the rules of engagement given to the UN troops were those of self defence. Lieutenant General Gaye held that if UN forces were to attack the government forces, they would lose the support of the government, and the mission would fail. He reasoned, correctly, that the government troops would not fire upon UN troops.

Keep dialogue going ~ As long as they are talking, they are not killing each other

Following the armed uprising in August 2006, the heads of the warring forces in Kinshasa signed a ceasefire accord and agreed to two key actions. A verification team consisting of MONUC, EUFOR, Police National Congolais (PNC), Forces Armées de la Republique du Congo (FARDC), and representatives of the warring parties was to patrol the streets of central Kinshasa to ensure adherence to the agreement, and a Joint Commission was formed to investigate the cause of the hostilities.14 The daily, direct dialogue of the concerned parties served both to keep the main issues on the agenda of the day, and to ensure that a mechanism of inquiry could investigate the claims of each side. This close engagement also ensured that all allegations were addressed, and that rumours did not spiral out of control. The actions of joint patrolling, joint investigations, and verification meetings continued for several months, ending only in December after the run-off election established the National Government.  During this period of time, it maintained the peace in Kinshasa.

Take action to protect the population

Although a Chapter VII mandate authorizes, indeed requires, the UN to take action where civilians are at risk of physical attack, in the DRC, the UN forces were thinly dispersed, too dispersed to effectively respond across the nation. Complicating this work even more was the reality that, in the DRC, the major perpetrators of human rights abuses were the members of the national security establishments, specifically the FARDCand the PNC. The UN had no power of arrest over these forces, and intervention would bring the UN into direct conflict with the national government. Accordingly, MONUC worked to achieve the effect of holding the national government responsible by reporting human rights abuses to them while, at the same time, working through training and joint operations to stop these incidents from occurring.  Security sector reform, although very much the ‘long pole in the tent,’ would take years to achieve, but could be started through joint actions between the UN forces and those of the DRC. A joint doctrine was developed that focused, not only on the issues of command and control, and logistical support of operations, but, more importantly, upon action to stop human rights abuses wherever they were reported or observed. The FARDC and the PNC were required to intervene, arrest, and investigate all incidents of observed abuse. Additionally, cases of human rights abuses reported by Military Observers (MILOBs) or by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were collated and formally handed over to the government on a monthly basis. Sadly, these lists were always quite long, and were seldom acted upon.

Downed UN helicopter

Reuters RTR1UT3 by James Akena

Policemen guard a MONUC peacekeepers’ light helicopter after an emergency landing at Barriere Iga near Bunia, 1 November 2006


Understanding that to be neutral is not to be impartial

Being neutral means that you stand there and say: “ ‘Well this has nothing to do with me,’ while being impartial means that you stand there, you judge the situation as it is and you take action.”15 UN forces are impartial and not neutral. When the UN bluffed but did not intervene, such as in Bukavu and Bunia in 2003, hundreds of persons died, and the subsequent rioting in the capital, more than 1500 kilometres away, threatened the safety of international personnel and shook the foundations of the UN mission. When, in December 2006, a similar operation was launched by N’kunda’s militia, the UN intervened quickly and decisively, utilizing the full weight of the Indian brigade, including MI-24 Hind gunships, to ensure that a key city was not lost. In the days that followed, support for the UN by the Congolese people was at an all-time high, as the UN was seen to take action to protect the population.  

Support the lead of the Government

SRSG Swing and Lieutenant General Gaye were careful not to become embroiled in the process of solving problems for the government. Rather, they supported actions that were led by the national government. Military operations were initiated from a joint context, and, although the UN was required to provide additional logistical support for the FARDC, MONUC did not act independently of the FARDC in conducting operations against militia groups. When asked to intervene against General N’kunda in North Kivu, MONUC did not take independent action, as this would have placed UN personnel and NGOs at risk of attack by the rebel forces, and generated an escalation of military action when a political compromise was needed. MONUC neither contacted nor met with rebel force leaders without the agreement and support of the national government.

Intervene when necessary, and do not fail

There were several occasions when MONUC had to act against the wishes of the President to ensure peace and stability. These interventions were done to save the lives of the local population, to prevent violence from escalating, and to ensure that a proper handover to civilian authorities was achieved. During the recent history of bloody uprisings and violence, the government had demonstrated a willingness to send in its poorly-trained army to deal with situations of civil unrest that its police forces could not contain – an action that only served to exacerbate the situation and start a spiral of further civil unrest and disproportionate military intervention.  MONUC therefore had to send both troops and police units (experts in crowd control) to various flashpoints across the country, from Kinshasa to Bas Congo in the east, to M’bjui Mayi in the interior. The arrival of the UN forces had a calming effect upon the situation. Neither party fired upon the UN forces, and a disengagement of the combatants was achieved. The final stage in the interventions consisted of human rights investigations that were initiated as quickly as possible after the events. These investigations often revealed systemic problems with respect to the security forces, and they were the only unbiased reports that all parties of the government could use as the basis for further action.  Events in 2003 clearly indicated that, if the UN chose to intervene, it must do so with sufficient firepower, mandate, and training to control events. The arrival of EU military forces (EUFOR) in 2006 in support of the elections was a clear indication of this lesson having been learned.

Use of UN Force Reserves and telegraphing intentions

Given the size of the DRC and the paucity of UN troops, MONUC frequently had to move its Force Reserve and divisional reserves across the country, from one flashpoint to another, to restore peace and stability. It required at least 36 hours to move a battalion, on an emergency basis, from one part to another part of the country, and, given the abysmal state of the road networks, these forces were almost always moved by air.  While the arrival of troops did quell the violence on the ground, frequently, these troops were late to need, arriving after the major skirmishes had occurred. To reduce the lag time for arrival, the UN often telegraphed the movement of the troops to the government, and, whenever possible, pre-positioned the troops in areas where conflict was anticipated.  Of course, this was a ‘two-edged sword,’ for once the troops were committed, few additional troops could be made available to reconstitute a new reserve. The movement of the reserves became a focal point for the militias and the government. Luckily, there was only one crisis at a time during this period.

UN Peacekeepers

Reuters RTX4OBE by James Akena

UN peacekeepers take up positions in Goma, 12 December 2007.

Use of Information Operations (IO)

One of the challenges associated with working in a multinational UN headquarters that employed many Congolese nationals was that it was very difficult to keep a secret.  None of the radio channels or telephones was secured via encryption and it was widely believed that the national intelligence service kept a close eye (and ear) upon UN communications.  Recognizing this, MONUC began to use IO to influence the outcome of events by allowing the release of key information, particularly the movement of the Force Reserve.  In one example of IO, MONUC planned a deployment of forces to Garamba National Park, just south of the Sudanese border, to influence the movement of the sectarian guerrilla force, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and to encourage their adherence to the peace process.  Although the deployment did not occur, the impression that an operation was imminent had the desired effect to contain the LRA and support the peace process.


If the success of a mission can be measured in terms of effect, then the application of soft power was effective in the Congo during the critical transition years of 2005-2007, bringing peace, and then the first free and democratic elections to the DRC in over 40 years. This application of power required not only the sustained engagement of all major political actors and support from the international community, but a careful consideration of the needs and the development of a fledgling government. It allowed the UN mission to pursue the higher objectives of peace building while not being distracted by local crisis management. The military campaign designed to support the UN strategy of nation-building needed to be flexible, but decisive, and clear lessons can be learned from this campaign that could assist in future Chapter VII mandates conducted on the continent of Africa.

Brigadier-General (ret'd) Aitken

DND photo IS2007-0358

Then-Colonel Larry Aitken and a ‘little friend.


CMJ Logo

Brigadier-General (ret’d) Larry Aitken, OMM, CD, a Signals officer and a veteran of MONUC , is the former Director of Professional Development and Acting Commander of the Canadian Defence Academy.


  1. Inter-nation Crisis Group:  Africa Briefing Number 25, Nairobi/Brussels, 12 May 2005.
  2. Coghlan et alMortality in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: An Ongoing Crisis.  <http://www.theirc.org/resources/2007/2006-7_>. Accessed 20 October 2008.
  3. Press Release SC/6711. Security Council authorizes deployment of  UN military liaison personnel to capitals of signatories of Agreement on Democratic Republic of  the Congo.
  4. S/RES/1291 (2000) Security Council resolution 1291 (2000) on the Situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  5. History Repeating Itself.  The DRC and the UN Security Council, Virgil Hawkins.  <http://www/issafrica.org/ASR/12No4/EHawkins.html>. Accessed 28 October 2008.
  6. http://monuc.unmissions>. Accessed 20 October 2008.
  7. Author’s notes from meetings with DPKO, Force HQ MONUC.
  8. Inter-nation Crisis Group: Aprical Report Number 108,  27 April 2008.
  9. http://www.un.org/Depts/dpko/missions/monuc/monucDrs.htm>. Accessed 28 October 2008.
  10. <http://www.un.org/News/ossg/srsg/africa.htm> . Accessed 20 October 2008.
  11. <http://monuc.unmissions.org/>. Accessed 20 October 2008.
  12. <http://www.afriquejet.com/news/africa-news/international-criminal-court-indicts-former-dr-congo-leader-2009061729891.html>.  Accessed 18 November 2008.
  13. Author’s notes from Crisis Action Team meeting, 20 August 2006.
  14. <http://www.dfa.gov.za/docs/2006pq/pg161w.htm>.  Department of Foreign Affairs, Republic of South Africa, Published in Internal Question Paper No. 26 of 2006.
  15. J. Cammeart, Learning to use Force on the Hoof in Peacekeeping <http:/www.issafrica.org/dynamic/administration/file_links/MONUCSITREPAPR07.PDFlink.>

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