The implications of Monuc’s withdrawal on child soldiering in the DRC

8th June 2010 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

On 28 May 2010 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1925, changing the mandate of MONUC from that of a peace-keeping force to a ‘stabilisation mission', renamed the ‘United Nations Organization Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO).

The DRC government has asked the UN to withdraw its armed mission from the country by August 2011, but although the UN has found that great progress has been made in the volatile Central African state since the UN intervened more than a decade ago, it remains deeply concerned about the ability of the government to provide the necessary domestic stability without external assistance.

Resolution 1925 authorises the withdrawal of some 2,000 UN military personal by June 2010. The MONUSCO mission's mandate extends to June 2011, with an authorised establishment of 19,815 military personnel, 760 military observers, 391 police and 1,050 personnel in formed police units. After these international forces eventually leave, the security, peace-building and development processes will become the responsibility of the DRC government. But the UNSC has made the total withdrawal of MONUSCO conditional upon the realisation of certain benchmarks. These include: stability in Eastern DRC; sufficient protection of civilians; security sector reform including the demobilisation of rebel groups; and restoring governance to areas currently suffering from a leadership and administrative vacuum. Although progress has been made in the DRC over the past decade, continued instability creates major challenges in terms of civilian protection.

Years of conflict in the DRC have resulted in a ‘lost generation' of youth and a future generation with equally bleak prospects. The conflict environment presents a danger to Congolese youth in two primary ways. First, the government thus far has been unable to institutionalise the rule of law. The government lacks the monopoly of physical force, creating a situation in which various armed groups claim the loyalty of portions of the population. The second major issue is the dire socio-economic predicament in which the country finds itself. The lack of security or of opportunity continuously pits groups within the DRC against each other, further entrenching this vicious circle.

UNSC Resolution 1894 (2009) clearly prioritises the protection of civilians within the MONUC mandate, which will no doubt be extended under the MONUSCO mandate. This is all well and good, but should the 20,000 UN personnel withdraw from the DRC next year - as requested by the Congolese government - the potential ramifications could be extensive, especially for the most vulnerable groups within the country.

The problem of government capacity (or lack thereof) is of particular importance when considering the issues of civilian protection and specifically the prevention of child soldiering. Child exploitation is illegal under the DRC constitution, as well as being specifically forbidden under various other legal acts. The 2002 Labour Code prohibits the worst forms of labour for children, focusing specifically on the recruitment of children for the purposes of armed conflict. Similarly, the 2004 Defence and Armed Forces Law prohibits the maintenance of subversive youth groups or a youth army. Further entrenching this legislation is the 2009 Child Protection Act which prohibits and criminalises the recruitment and use of children in armed forces or armed groups. This law makes the government responsible for separating children from armed groups and providing these children with education and care. Given these examples it is clear that provisions have been made for the protection of the youth within the country's legal framework.

Despite various legal provisions made for child protection in the DRC, however, child soldiering remains a problem. Either because of lack of capacity or political will, policy has failed to translate into practical implementation of the legal framework.

The UN's annual report of the Secretary-General's Special Representative for children and armed conflict identified several groups on various sides of the conflict in the DRC as being guilty of using child soldiers. The Congolese army (FARDC) as well as the Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the Nationalist and Integrationalist Front (FNI), the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and Mai Mai groups are all mentioned in the 2010 report. Many of the groups mentioned are also responsible for various forms of sexual violence.

During the course of 2009, 2,900 PARECO, 3,100 Mai Mai troops and 6,000 CNDP troops were integrated into the FARDC. Although this was a hugely positive step in terms of security sector reform, the groups were not at all well integrated. Perceptions that the CNDP received preferential treatment - because of their alleged support from the Rwandan government - dissatisfaction with the assignment of ranks, poor management and unpaid salaries led to the desertion of many troops who then joined the FDLR. A further problem was the lack of cooperation by groups integrating into the FARDC resulting in child soldiers remaining within the ranks and consequently fighting against the FDLR.

The inability of the government to successfully and sustainably reform the security sector means that Mai Mai groups have stepped up to fill the security vacuum in their respective regions. Mai Mai groups generally have strong links to communities and are seen as their protectors. These attitudes have resulted in many communities letting their children go voluntarily with armed groups in order to provide their families with security. Children are valued beyond their ability to fight as they are believed to hold mystical powers and are used in ceremonies before battles and used as bodyguards to higher ranking soldiers, often placing young children in the front line of danger. The use of rituals and hallucinatory drugs are often used to make children believe that they are invulnerable, further endangering them in conflict situations. The plight of young girls has been particularly sad in these camps. Girls or women are forced to fight, as well as cook in the camps and often find themselves the victims of severe sexual abuse.

To deny the progress made by the DRC government and MONUC would be unjust, but the demobilisation of armed youth has been insufficiently coupled with alternatives for those demobilized. Although many young people may find it undesirable to join a militia, having no education and with the poor general socio-economic conditions in the country, many youth in the DRC are unable to support themselves and subsequently return to fighting for an armed group. Therefore it can only be concluded that without emphasising the role of education and job opportunities within the DDR process a continuation of the status quo for Congolese youth seems inevitable.

Written by: Melanie Roberts, Intern, Peace Missions Programme, ISS Pretoria