A year ago, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo seemed headed for another protracted war. The rebel group M23 had taken over Goma, a provincial capital. Aid workers and civilians fled. The United Nations peacekeeping force charged with protecting the city was humiliated. But this week, Goma is celebrating some surprisingly good news: M23 has surrendered. Its foot soldiers are disarming. Its leader, Bosco Ntaganda, will be turned over to the International Criminal Court.
The turnabout stems, in part, from an experiment: the creation of a new unit of UN peacekeepers who were given the authority and equipment to take offensive action. The “intervention brigade,” composed of about 3,000 troops from Tanzania, Malawi, and South Africa, is almost unprecedented in the history of UN peacekeeping. It shows what the world can accomplish when it pairs effective military force with smart diplomacy.
Commanded by Lieutenant General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, of Brazil, the special unit gave crucial back-up to the Congolese army as it routed the rebels in recent weeks. The force led by dos Santos Cruz, who also headed peacekeeping operations in Haiti, was widely praised for its skill and professionalism. Previous blue helmets were plagued by allegations of sexual misconduct against locals, and their mandate was too weak to protect civilians effectively.
In carefully chosen situations, forces similar to the intervention brigade could provide a cost-effective, creative mechanism for global intervention on behalf of countries whose armies are too weak on their own to put down deadly rebellions. But military action alone would not have been enough to rout the M23. The group is a pawn in a larger game. Supported by Rwanda and, to a lesser extent, Uganda, it is accused of plundering the mineral resources of the region for the financial benefit of senior figures in those two neighboring countries.
Rwanda and Uganda have denied involvement, but the proof became too obvious to ignore. In July, US officials sent a strong message to Rwandan President Paul Kagame by freezing $200,000 in military assistance. Last month, the United States invoked the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 to sanction Rwanda and halt military training and foreign military financing.
Just as notably, Secretary of State John Kerry picked up the phone and called Kagame directly. Kagame, who has long been a darling of the West, took notice. Kerry also appointed his former senatorial colleague Russ Feingold as a special envoy to the region. Feingold has traveled to Africa three times since September to participate in talks about the fate of M23. This unprecedented US involvement has helped bring about the group’s surrender. Now that it has been achieved, US officials must remain involved. Dozens of other rebel groups are still active in the region. The world must seize the opportunity to root out lawless militants and strengthen the Congolese government. It is time for the people of the eastern Congo to get the peace that they deserve.