DRC Rebels' Surrender Could Mark New Chapter In U.N. Peacekeeping

There's been a rare bit of good news in Eastern Congo this month. One of the rebel groups that have terrorized civilians in the mineral rich part of the the Democratic Republic of Congo agreed to end its rebellion. There's still a lot of work to do to disarm the M23 and to keep other rebel movements in check. But this small victory is a boost for U.N. peacekeepers, who are under a new, tougher mandate to protect civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some experts wonder if this could be a new model for peacekeeping.

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Now a glimmer of hope from a war torn region in Africa. A rebel group that terrorized civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo is poised to sign a peace deal with the government. The M23, as the group is known, agreed to lay down their arms after coming under pressure, not just from Congo's own army but from a new brigade of U.N. troops with a new mandate. The United Nations has been experimenting with this force in mineral rich eastern Congo, and some experts wonder if it could be a new model for peacekeeping.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The United Nations has long had a bad reputation in Congo, says Jason Stearns, who's advised the U.N. there in the past and has written books about the country's devastating wars.

JASON STEARNS: The U.N. has deployed the biggest peacekeeping mission in the world. They spend $1.3 billion a year on this mission and it's to really little effect, in terms of bringing an end to the conflict. So I think many Congolese were just, you know, wondering what are these guys doing here.

KELEMEN: But Stearns says that perception may be changing. Congo's army defeated the M23 rebel group and the U.N., he says, played a key role in that.

STEARNS: They used air force and artillery to back up the Congolese army. They also played a very important role in making sure the logistics of the Congolese army was secured. The Congolese army was using U.N. military rations, they were drinking U.N. water, they were being medevaced by U.N. helicopters, and given medical treatment. And so, they played a role, I think, all around in these operations.

KELEMEN: U.N. peacekeepers are operating under a robust Security Council mandate, which calls on them to help Congo's army neutralize rebel groups. Adam Smith of the International Peace Institute, a think tank that advises the U.N., says there's something else that's new - a 3,000-strong intervention brigade, made up of only three countries, all African.

ADAM SMITH: You have the South Africans who came with attack helicopters. And then you also have countries from the region who really cared about resolving this issue and came committed to doing that. Which I think is a bit of a change from some in the past.

KELEMEN: The more robust military mandate also came at a time of more concerted diplomatic pressure from U.N. officials and the U.S. envoy to the region, former Senator Russell Feingold.

RUSSELL FEINGOLD: This may have long-term consequences for what people believe could happen if United Nations peacekeeping forces were given a stronger capacity to deal with violence and threats to civilians. This has exciting potential and the initial signs are that this is a very successful operation.

KELEMEN: But it may not be so easy to replicate elsewhere, says Adam Smith.

SMITH: It was a unique circumstance where you had the host country, the Congo government, supportive of it. You had the countries of the region supportive of it and willing to provide the troops and the firepower to do this risky operation, which you don't always have. That's difficult to get for some of the U.N.'s other missions in other places.

KELEMEN: And there are other concerns about the U.N. becoming peace enforcers rather than peacekeepers.

LISE HOWARD: They have gotten into the peace enforcement business and this is kind of a brave new world for the U.N.

KELEMEN: Lise Howard teaches at Georgetown University and is author of the book "U.N. Peacekeeping in Civil Wars." She says aid workers are worried about this trend toward more forceful U.N. mandates.

HOWARD: They are afraid that they are going to be targeted now because the humanitarians are so closely associated with the U.N.; they use white U.N. vehicles and helicopters. You know, they rely on their affiliation with the U.N. as an impartial arbiter in these disputes.

KELEMEN: She and other experts also caution the U.N. against reading too much into this one victory in Congo. There are still many more rebel groups active in the mineral rich eastern part of the country.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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