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Explainer: UN Move To Give Peacekeepers First-Ever Combat Mandate

Lebanese soldiers take positions as UN peacekeepers gesture toward Israeli soldiers at the Lebanese-Israeli border in Adaisseh village in August 2010.
Lebanese soldiers take positions as UN peacekeepers gesture toward Israeli soldiers at the Lebanese-Israeli border in Adaisseh village in August 2010.
The United Nations is expected to vote on March 28 on a draft resolution that would allow a peacekeeping brigade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to engage in combat against the M23 rebels. If approved, it would be the first UN peacekeeping mission authorized to use such force.

What does the draft resolution say and why is it being proposed now?

The draft resolution, a copy of which was leaked to RFE/RL, would give a one-year mandate to a UN peacekeeping brigade in the mineral-rich eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to use force against a group known as the M23 rebels. It says peacekeepers would have the "responsibility of neutralizing armed groups...and the objective of contributing to reducing the threats posed by armed groups to state authority and civilian security in eastern DRC."

The resolution is the result of fatigue and frustration felt by diplomats in the UN Security Council over the fact that a peacekeeping force in the Central African country, which has suffered through decades of conflict, has thus far failed to have any significant impact on security.

Richard Gowan, associate director at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, says the resolution is a "very controversial option" but one that Security Council members felt had to be put on the table.

"It's a response to that fact that you've had peacekeepers in the eastern Congo for over a decade, and actually, the force has been pretty well-armed by UN peacekeeping standards," Gowan says. "[But] the force has been repeatedly unable to deal with militia offensives in the region."

Congolese troops, aided by UN peacekeepers, have been battling the militias -- which UN experts and the Congolese government say are backed by neighboring Rwanda -- for more than a year in the chaotic eastern part of the country.

In December, the UN mission in DRC reported that 126 women had been raped after the Congolese Army fled a town that rebels had seized -- an incident that brutally underscored how lawless the region has become.

What would the resolution's passage mean?

This resolution would grant peacekeepers their greatest authority to engage in combat in the history of the United Nations. Peacekeepers currently cannot open fire unless they are attacked. The newly empowered "intervention brigade" -- part of the 20,000-troop mission in DRC -- would be authorized to "search and destroy," as an anonymous diplomat told Reuters.

The draft resolution explicitly states that the force would be authorized on an "exceptional basis and without creating a precedent or any prejudice to the agreed principles of peacekeeping."

Some observers, however, say the resolution reflects an increasing willingness by the UN to allow peacekeeping troops to use force against threats on the ground.

The draft language also says that a Congolese "rapid reaction force" should be created with the aim of taking over the work of the intervention brigade, which would take the combat mission off the UN’s hands.

Jeffrey Laurenti, a UN expert at the New York City-based Century Foundation, says the mandate will be a "very different kind of presence" than the UN has ever deployed before.

"This would not necessarily be a precedent -- but it certainly would be an experience from which the international community would learn, and which would inform future difficult operations where neutral peacekeeping is not able -- even after 10 years -- to assure quietness and stability," Laurenti says.

Of the brigade, he says, "This cannot be considered a UN peacekeeping operation now."

Is there any opposition to the move?

French Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters that the resolution successfully passed a "silence procedure" on March 27 in which no Security Council members objected to it. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t opposition.

NYU’s Gowan says troop-contributing countries -- including India and Pakistan, which have large contingents in the DRC -- have expressed concern about the new mandate and what it could mean for the safety of their forces.

He says that there is also opposition among some UN staff to peacekeeping troops conducting offensive operations.

Equal to these critics, however, are those who are pushing for the UN to engage more forcefully in such seemingly endless conflicts.

"I think there's a huge debate in [Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's] office and also in [the Department of Peacekeeping Operations] about this general trend toward more aggressive operations. And I think that it creates divisions all the way through the UN system," Gowan says.

"There are some UN officials who feel that it's really giving up the basic principles of peacekeeping and endangering the reputation of the organization. And there are others who feel that it's an unavoidable task, and share the view that traditional peacekeeping has broadly run out of credibility in places like the eastern DRC."

Several African human rights organizations released a statement on March 27 expressing concern. The statement says the force could cause an "escalation in military confrontations and increased risk of retaliatory attacks by armed groups against civilians."

The NGOs pressed the UN to provide further human rights protections for civilians if it gives its peacekeeping force a mandate to engage in combat operations.

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