Explained: The violent conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in which two BSF personnel were killed

Two Border Security Force personnel who were part of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), were among the 15 people who were killed during the violent protests in the city of Butempo on Tuesday (July 26).

Anti-UN protests had first begun in the city of Goma on Monday, before intensifying and spreading to Butempo the following day with multiple UN buildings targeted in both cities. On Wednesday, four protesters were electrocuted to death in the city of Uvira, after troops fired shots which hit an electricity cable that fell on them, Reuters reported. As of yet, it is unclear whether it was MONUSCO or the Congolese security forces who fired the bullets.

A United Nations Organization Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) peacekeepers rides on their helicopter above the compound of United Nations peacekeeping force’s warehouse in Goma in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo July 26, 2022. (REUTERS/Esdras Tsongo )

According to UN officials, large mobs of protestors had fired at peacekeeping forces, thrown stones and petrol bombs, broke into various UN bases and set its facilities on fire. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the violence and underscored that any attack against UN peacekeepers might constitute a war crime, UN spokesperson Farhan Haq said on Tuesday.

The DRC has witnessed a decades-long conflict between state forces and rebel groups that has resulted in the death and displacement of millions of people. The UN, which has deployed peacekeeping forces in the country since 1999, is routinely criticised by locals for being unable to protect civilians from the militias in the region.

India has contributed more personnel to UN Peacekeeping Missions than any other country. Since 1948, more than 2,53,000 Indians have served in 49 of the 71 missions across the world.

What is the latest conflict about?

The DRC’s army is engaged in battle with more than 100 armed militias that are jockeying for power and territory in the eastern part of the country, and violence has escalated over the past few months. Chief among them is the M23 rebel group, which has been able to take control of key territories, and in June it captured the town of Bunagana located on the Ugandan border towards the east.

DRC’s eastern region holds massive reserves of valuable minerals such as gold, diamond, copper, zinc, tin, cobalt and coltan, worth an estimated $24 trillion, according to the think tank Council on Foreign Relations. Rebel groups are aiming to control these resources to buy weapons and recruit more fighters.

The conflict has had a severe impact on the Congolese people. In June, the DRC topped the Norwegian Refugee Council’s list of the world’s most neglected displacement crises in 2021. It had previously done so in 2020 and 2017 as well. Food insecurity is at an all-time high, with 27 million people or a third of the population going hungry. By the end of 2021, more than 5.5 million people were internally displaced–the third highest in the world. According to human rights groups, another million people have fled to other countries.

What is the M23 and how do they play a role here?

The rebel group known as M23, short for the March 23 Movement, refers to the date of failed peace accords signed in 2009 between the DRC government and the rebel group known as the National Congress for the Defence of People (CNDP). After claiming that the terms of the deal were not followed by the DRC government, the CNDP members formed the M23 movement.

The rebel group primarily consists of ethnic Tutsis, and they claim to defend the interests of people of Rwandan ancestry in eastern DRC, especially against the Hutu rebels associated with the 1994 Rwanda genocide, Bloomberg reported. The DRC has accused Rwanda of backing M23 rebels, however, it has denied these charges and claims that the conflict is a domestic one.

Demonstrators clash with police during a protest against the United Nations peacekeeping force (MONUSCO) deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Sake, some 15 miles (24 kms) west of Goma, Wednesday July 27, 2022. Officials say more than 15 people have been killed and dozens injured during the demonstrations against the UN mission in the country, heading into their third day. (AP/PTI)

The militia, which was believed to be defeated by joint UN-Congolese troops in 2013, resurfaced in November 2021 and has carried out a series of attacks since March this year, when they seized key territories in the region bordering Uganda and Rwanda. Civilians that do not support them are frequently targeted. M23 fighters have summarily executed at least 29 civilians since mid-June 2022, in areas under their control in eastern DRC, Humans Rights Watch reported on July 25.

In November 2012, the militia had briefly captured the city of Goma, located on the border with Rwanda. The Congolese army, along with the 1,500-strong UN forces drove them out of the city the next month. According to a UN report from June, M23 forces are planning on taking over Goma again, to extract concessions from the government such as amnesty for their fighters, recovery of confiscated assets, positions in government and integration into the Congolese army.

Bintou Keita, the head of MONUSCO said on June 29 that the M23 pose a growing threat to civilians and peacekeepers, as they have begun conducting themselves more like a conventional army and possess sophisticated weapons and equipment, such as precision fire against aircraft.

What is the history of UN presence in the DRC?

The first UN peacekeeping mission arrived in DRC in 1999, and in 2010 a new mission known as MONUSCO was established. The 12,400 MONUSCO troops stationed in the DRC that cost the UN more than $1 billion a year, have been withdrawing from the country over the years in a piecemeal fashion, according to Reuters. The recent protests against MONUSCO forces are not new, as the peacekeepers have long been criticised for failing to protect citizens.

UN troops were criticised in 2012 after they did not fight back against the approaching M23 rebel forces who would temporarily take over the city. The UN had said that while it would continue to support citizens, its forces could not substitute the nation’s security forces, Reuters reported. This had drawn the ire of France, which claimed it was “absurd” that a substantial UN force had been unable to defend the city against a few hundred fighters, and called for a review of the MONUSCO mandate. Much like this week, demonstrators in 2012 had burned MONUSCO buildings and destroyed UN vehicles after the fall of Goma.

The Washington Post reported similar protests took place in 2013, 2014 and 2019, as there has been growing anger among civilians. The recent round of protests come after Modest Bahati, the president of the DRC Senate, told supporters in Goma on July 15 that MONUSCO should “pack its bags.”

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