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For more than two decades, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has struggled with ongoing conflict in its eastern provinces. Today, an estimated 2.6 million Congolese are internally displaced, and more than 460,000 have fled their homes into neighboring countries. Armed groups such as the M23, FDLR, and Mai Mai threaten civilians in North Kivu, South Kivu, Katanga, and Orientale provinces. Increasingly, regional dynamics have also contributed to instability that extends beyond the DRC's borders. While local government officials, UN agencies, and NGOs are striving to mitigate the suffering of the displaced, the level of violence and insecurity has in many cases prevented significant improvements from being made.
Current Humanitarian Situation
In November 2012, a series of conflicts and violent incidents in North Kivu unleashed an overwhelming wave of new civilian displacement in an area already inundated with hundreds of thousands of internally displaced. A rebel group known as M23 briefly took hold of North Kivu's capital, Goma, and the Congolese army withdrew its forces from rural areas in an attempt to recapture the city. In the space created by the army's departure, other rebel groups carried out a campaign of violence and terror against the civilian population, displacing up to 700,000 people. In the fall of 2013, M23 announced it was ending its rebellion. However, tens of thousands or people remain displaced.
The conflict in DRC has been characterized by high levels of sexual violence, perpetrated both by non-state armed groups and the Congolese army. While investigations into incidents of mass rapes have confirmed the scale of the problem, little has been accomplished in preventing such tactics from being used in the future. Support for survivors continues to be inadequate, and there is a need for a renewed commitment to addressing sexual violence in the country.
Humanitarian agencies working in the DRC also must rethink the way they provide support to what is, in many ways, an atypical displaced population. Unlike many other conflict-affected countries, the vast majority of the displaced persons in the DRC do not live in official camps. Rather, they live with host families, or in what are called "spontaneous settlements" - often in rural areas. Furthermore, many of the conflict-affected populations in the DRC have been displaced multiple times, often moving from one settlement to another. Given these complexities, there is a need for a new approach that considers the unique context of DRC's eastern provinces.
While progress has been made toward resolving some of the conflicts in the east (for example, the significant reduction in the threat posed by the Lord's Resistance Army), disputes between the DRC and Rwanda have increased tensions and led to concerns about further conflict. The appointment of new UN and U.S. special envoys seeks to address this challenging dynamic, but the relationship must continue to be monitored closely if conflict is to be avoided.
The UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO (reconfigured from MONUC as of July 2010) changed forms once again in 2013. It will now include an "intervention brigade" authorized to carry out offensive operations designed to "seek and destroy" rebel groups. MONUSCO has, however, been hampered by an uneasy relationship with the abuse-ridden national army, and many fear that the new intervention brigade could worsen the humanitarian crisis in the east rather than improve it.
When violent conflict breaks out, the United States and other United Nations member states often call for the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces to create stability and protect people from harm. The UN Security Council has explicitly instructed peacekeepers to protect civilians under “imminent threat of violence” in most UN peacekeeping mandates since 1999. But there is no clarity as to what “protection” means in practice. Which circumstances require action and what level of force should be used? This has resulted in a lack of proper training, guidance and resources for peacekeepers to accomplish protection activities.