Strengthening the Rule of Law and Protection of Civilians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

By Zerrougui, Leila | UN Chronicle, August 2018 | Go to article overview

Strengthening the Rule of Law and Protection of Civilians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo


Zerrougui, Leila, UN Chronicle


In recent years, approaches to the provision of support to the rule of law in conflict and post-conflict settings have evolved significantly. While in the past the provision of support to the justice sector was generally deemed to be most effective in post-conflict settings, recent experiences by peacekeeping missions have demonstrated that supporting the fight against impunity and the strengthening of the justice sector can be used to engage politically with key stakeholders and influence their behaviour, in both conflict and post-conflict settings, laying the foundations of a more sustainable peace, even before it is fully achieved. As such, it has increasingly been recognized that the provision of support for justice can be used as a key element of United Nations political engagement in the process of maintaining sustainable peace.

This experience has been particularly profound in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) over the course of the past decade. In 2008, armed group activity in the eastern DRC began to pick up again, and the commission of serious crimes against the civilian population became an increasing concern. In 2009, a large-scale integration of armed group elements into the Forces Armees de la Republique Democratique du Congo (FARDC) took place without adequate vetting. While this succeeded in ending much of the fighting at the time, it also allowed some of those who had committed serious crimes against the civilian population to join the national army that was still fighting the remaining armed groups.

From late 2008 onwards, the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) had increasingly been mandated to support FARDC operations against armed groups as a means of contributing to the protection of civilians. Between 2008 and 2010, the Mission's mandate evolved significantly, and an increasingly comprehensive approach to the provision of support to FARDC was developed. The United Nations would work jointly with the national armed forces in operations designed to deter and weaken armed groups that posed a real and present danger to civilian populations. However, the Congolese armed forces would need to respect international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law while conducting their operations. Here, a two-tracked approach was developed for the MONUC/United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). First, a conditionality policy was developed, whereby elements of FARDC that committed violations against the civilian population in the conduct of their operations or as a result of indiscipline would not be eligible for support. Second, the Mission was mandated to provide assistance to the justice sector, in order to support the Congolese Government in its fight against impunity. Where armed groups and Congolese forces committed abuses, they would be held to account.

Combining prevention and accountability, this approach resulted in the establishment of a conditional provision of support to FARDC, which later became the foundation of the United Nations human rights due diligence policy, and allowed further strengthening of the military criminal justice chain. Priority would be placed on high-ranking military officers as a way of setting an example and ensuring that those who committed violations would be held accountable to the national judicial system and would not benefit from United Nations support. At the time, this was a pioneering approach for the United Nations, which until then had been wary of supporting military justice systems. In the DRC, however, this went hand in hand with the provision of support for a national army and provided a means for the Government and the United Nations to work together in the fight against armed groups, to advance the fight against impunity, and to strengthen the rule of law even while conflict was still ongoing in parts of the country. As such, this comprehensive approach to the support of the rule of law was a valuable political commitment, enhancing the engagement of the United Nations in the peace process in the DRC. …

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