UN extends Congo peacekeeping force with an eye to its exit

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UNITED NATIONS — The Security Council voted unanimously Tuesday to extend the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo with an eye to its eventual exit, and to lift a notification requirement on some arms purchases which Congo’s foreign minister recently called “unjustified and humiliating.”

The separate resolutions were approved amid worsening security in Congo’s mineral-rich east, a region rife with rebel groups and an upsurge in violence and civilian killings that has uprooted tens of thousands of its inhabitants.

The resolution extending the UN peacekeeping force known as MONUSCO until Dec. 20, 2023, strongly condemns all domestic and foreign armed groups operating in the country and demands they immediately cease all violence and destabilizing actions “and the illegal exploitation and trafficking of natural resources.”

It also demands the immediate withdrawal of M23 rebels, who have been fighting a coalition of armed civilian protection militias in the east for more than a year, as agreed at a mini-summit in the Angolan capital Luanda in late November and endorsed by the African Union. It also expresses concern about reported links between Uganda-based Allied Democratic Forces rebels and “terrorist networks” in eastern Congo.

The Security Council said Congo “continues to suffer from recurring and evolving cycles of conflict and persistent violence by foreign and domestic armed groups, which exacerbate a deeply concerning security, human rights and humanitarian crisis, as well as inter-communal and militia violence” in areas of the country.

It expressed great concern at the humanitarian situation in the country that has left an estimated 27 million Congolese in need of aid, a growing number of internally displaced people now estimated at 5.7 million as well as 523,000 refugees from other nearby countries, and 1 million refugees from Congo elsewhere in Africa as a result of ongoing hostilities.

The resolution strongly urged all Congolese political players to implement “critical governance, security and economic reforms,” and to deliver on President Felix Tshisekedi’s commitments to pursue national unity, strengthen the rule of law and respect for human rights, fight against corruption, and launch development programs to reduce poverty.

It urged the government to hold accountable those responsible for violating human rights and international humanitarian law. It strongly condemned sexual violence, especially by armed groups, welcomed government efforts to combat and prevent the scourge, and urged the government to strengthen its efforts to combat impunity for rape and other sexual abuse.

The resolution maintains MONUSCO’s troop ceiling at 13,500 military personnel, 600 military observers and staff officers, and about 2,000 police.

MONUSCO’s mission, which was streamlined in Tuesday’s resolution, is primarily to protect civilians threatened by violence, secondly to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate combatants, and thirdly to provide strategic and technical advice on reforming Congo’s security sector.

US deputy ambassador Robert Wood, noting that the United States is the largest single financial contributor to MONUSCO, said her government voted for the resolution because it maintains human rights as “a priority task” for the mission.

In April, east African leaders decided to deploy a regional force to eastern Congo to tackle tensions and violence fueled by the armed groups.

Wood said the resolution “crucially” urges the regional force to coordinate operations with MONUSCO.

The UN peacekeeping force was the target of deadly summertime protests by residents who said armed groups were still roaming the east and the UN force wasn’t protecting them. The peacekeepers were also accused of retaliating against the protesters, sometimes with force.

After the anti-UN protests, President Tshisekedi called a meeting to reassess MONUSCO’s presence. The government called for a review of the transition plan for MONUSCO, and Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula later mentioned 2024 as the goal for the force’s withdrawal.

The Security Council encouraged the UN and Congo’s government, in collaboration with civil society, to “identify concrete and realistic steps to be undertaken, as a matter of priority, to create the minimum security conditions to enable the responsible and sustainable exit of MONUSCO.” It called on MONUSCO and other UN staff in Congo to collaborate on priority actions to prepare for the force’s exit.

Wood, the US envoy, said the UN, Congolese officials and civil society should agree on any further steps toward MONUSCO’s eventual drawdown, and they “should avoid exposing vulnerable populations to further harm.”

Congo’s Lutundula urged the council earlier this month to drop the requirement for the government to notify the Security Council sanctions committee of certain weapons purchases, saying the country couldn’t reorganize its military and security forces to address terrorism without the freedom to equip them.

The second brief resolution raised this requirement, a decision welcomed by Russia, China and others that had been advocating for ending notifications.

Gabon’s UN Ambassador Michel Biang said ending the requirement “will lift all of the obstacles” Congo faces “to give a proper and effective response to armed groups who are pillaging resources and committing atrocities on civilians in the east.”

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