America’s UN Cuts Cost Lives in the DRC
by Sean Bennett
Following the rapid political and humanitarian decline of 2017, could the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo get any worse? Given the government’s massive wave of crackdowns over the past months, the unfortunate answer seems to be yes. Just last week, state security forces killed at least six and wounded dozens amidst demonstrations in Kinshasa and other cities organized by the Catholic Church.
The international community is already struggling to keep the DRC from crossing the point of no return. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is not doing those efforts any favors. Even as Washington voices its support for a peaceful handover of power, the White House has led the drive to cut peacekeeping operations and other parts of the UN’s budget with no regard to the human cost.
Those efforts come at an especially bad time. The security situation in the DRC has progressively gotten worse since the beginning of December, when rebel forces killed 14 MONUSCO personnel in the biggest attack on the UN peacekeeping mission since its inception in 1999. A slew of human rights abuses perpetrated by both Congolese troops and rebel outfits followed in the ensuing weeks. The year ended with the government banning peaceful protests on December 31st and firing live ammunition and teargas into assembled crowds. At least seven were killed and scores detained.
As last week’s demonstrations show, the streets of Kinshasa and other Congolese cities have no intention of calming down. This violence has already resulted in massive internal displacement. While the Syrian refugee crisis might dominate Western headlines, the DRC has exceeded all other nations in terms of conflict displacement for the second year running. In 2016, 922,000 people were forced to leave their homes. For the sake of comparison, 824,000 people in Syria had to do the same.
One man above all bears the blame for the current crisis: incumbent President Joseph Kabila, who was scheduled to step down in December 2016 after a 15-year tenure but is still clinging to power over a year later. After mounting criticism from the opposition and the international community saw him agree to cede the presidency and hold elections by the end of 2017, his government cited budgetary constraints to kick the deadline back for another year. Civic resistance has grown increasingly strident as the political standoff continues.
Kabila has done his best to keep that resistance from coalescing by robbing it of effective leadership. One of the critics he seems to fear most is Moïse Katumbi, the former governor of Katanga province who is viewed by many as the DRC’s best chance at a functional democracy. Katumbi achieved the unprecedented feat of uniting seven opposition parties when he announced his candidacy for the presidency in May 2016. Conveniently for the government, Katumbi was forced into exile shortly thereafter over allegations of organizing a coup and engaging in real estate fraud. He claims those charges are politically motivated, an accusation echoed by one of the judges involved in the case. His exile and the death of veteran opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi have nonetheless undermined efforts to unite the opposition.
While Kabila goes after the political class, the one of the few other institutions held in high regard by average citizens – the Catholic Church of Congo – is doing its part to save the country from the brink. The church has issued two pleas to Kabila to honor his promises regarding his tenure. The Church has garnered support from both Muslim and secular organizations, bringing a modicum of unity to a deeply fractured country.
Of course, peaceful opposition groups and religious communities can only do so much when faced with armed militias. In many regions of the Congo, civilians are in dire need of support from MONUSCO to protect them from the predations of both government forces and the multiple rebel groups fighting them. Unfortunately, the MUNESCO mission is currently being downsized with the intention of pursuing a “protection through projection” approach.
In practical terms, this means committing fewer resources and deploying fewer troops with an emphasis on mobility and versatility. The UN is trying to reduce inefficiencies by doing more with less, but the reductions have been implemented with little thought to the current crisis and without a realistic timeframe. The tight turnaround has seen five bases in North Kivu closed in March without adequate contingency measures in place.
MONUSCO was the first UN mission to face budget cuts in 2017: the number of boots on the ground were slashed from 19,815 to 16,215 in March, while its budget for 2017/18 was cut by 8% ($92 million) in June. The Trump administration was the most vociferous proponent of these cuts, lamenting mismanagement of funds by the UN in the past and promising American taxpayers their contributions would be more highly appreciated and more “responsibly” distributed in the future.
Indeed, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has crowed over Washington’s role in the budget cuts and promised further reductions are in the pipeline. That effort is directly undercutting other purported US priorities. For one, Haley’s eagerness to slash spending comes mere months after a trip to the DRC, where she said the country must hold votes by the end of 2018 or lose the international community’s support. The US has also voiced support for increased mobility in MONUSCO, but that rhetoric doesn’t match the reality of further cutbacks to the mission’s aviation and travel budget.
Ultimately, it seems Haley and the White House are trying to have their cake and eat it too. Empty calls for an obstinate president to step down doesn’t make up for depriving a critical UN mission of resources just when they are needed most. Prioritizing balanced budgets and ideological agendas ahead of human lives ultimately comes at far greater cost, and the people of the DRC will be the ones footing the bill.
Sean Bennett expert in development economics and trade issues currently working in Washington, D.C.