The Congo Crisis of 1960 to 1964 was a period of armed conflict and political turmoil that followed the decolonization of modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo. There were a number of contributing factors to the eruption of civil war in the Congo; dissatisfaction with the redistribution of power after decolonization, the disruptive influence of external powers and the presence of unprecedented political opportunity for change.
Minimal efforts had been made by Belgian authorities to prepare the government for a transition to democratic, multi-ethnic rule, and the resulting collapse of the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and President Kasa-Vubu eventually paved the way for the dictator Joseph Mobutu’s rise to power.
Within weeks of the country’s acquisition of independence on June 30th, 1960, the country was subject to a military mutiny, an incursion by Belgian paratroopers and two secessionist movements, in South Kasai and in Katanga. The central government made appeals to the United Nations for assistance with the expulsion of foreign military groups and the repression of the secessionist movements that undermined the legitimacy of the state.
The United Nations responded swiftly with the passing of a number of Security Council resolutions that granted the Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold the authority to head ONUC: the United Nations Mission to the Republic of the Congo. The initial mandate was to coordinate the withdrawal of Belgian forces, to assist the central government in the maintenance of peace and order and to offer technical assistance wherever possible. The mandate evolved to include the maintenance of the Congo’s territorial integrity and political independence, alongside the prevention of civil war and the expulsion of foreign military elements operating in the region.
Hammarskjold’s diplomatic efforts were replaced with direct military advances by his successor U Thant. The shift became an unexpectedly complex and costly endeavor for the United Nations peacekeeping force, which had expanded to almost 20,000 men. UN forces escalated operations, apprehending and arresting foreign military elements, engaging in firefights with Tshombe’s forces and seizing strategic roadblocks and positions. Peacekeepers ultimately overran Katanga’s capital, Elizabethville and coerced secessionist leader Moise Tshombe to sign a declaration disavowing Katangese independence.
The evaluation done for this analysis was accomplished through the application of three criteria from the wider literature on peacekeeping success. The mission was assessed based on its ability to accomplish basic operational goals, to alleviate the suffering of the host population and to generate a lasting peace.
Based upon ONUC’s performance on the assessed criteria, the verdict is that the mission could be assessed as a partial success.
ONUC successfully met objectives set out for the eradication of the Katanga secession, and expelled foreign military forces from the country quickly and effectively. Their efforts were followed by a lasting peace, (wherein peace can be described as the absence of war) in which the government in place was strong enough to put down flare-ups in pro-Lumumbist groups in the east for three decades.
But the United Nations mission to the Congo failed to reduce human suffering in the country, exacerbating battle deaths and civilian casualties. ONUC failed to affect positive change upon the intensity and frequency of armed clashes, nor did it succeed in limiting ceasefire violations. The intervention had no significant impact upon the resettlement of refugees or internally displaced persons.
The choice to engage the United Nations in a peacekeeping effort, in itself, is not problematic. Peacekeeping has been proven in reducing the likelihood of conflict resurgence, conflict contagion and in the reduction of battlefield deaths between hostile parties. With that in mind, we can consider the options that may have been available to United Nations peacekeepers, in their effort to fulfill their mandate in the Congo.
Countering ONUC’s shortcomings in the alleviation of suffering could be accomplished through the application of modern peacebuilding tactics. The establishment of robust, comprehensive institutions for the protection and resettlement of refugees would be a strong place to start any kind of initiative for the protection of a vulnerable population.
United Nations peacekeeping missions should work cooperatively with the central government to generate growth and development. This can be accomplished through the construction of physical infrastructure, the provision of economic and political expertise on reforms and stability, and the presence of observational missions to reflect and respond to progress as it moves forward.
Finally, the question of impartiality remains incredibly problematic. The presence of clear bias in engagements with secessionist movements in Katanga and South Kasai could’ve undermined the credibility of ceasefire agreements and peace negotiations facilitated by UN forces. Though the use of force against rebels by the United Nations ultimately led to the resolution of the secession in Katanga, this bias toward the central government could have harmed the appearance of the United Nations as a credible third-party enforcer.