The decision by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) at a summit meeting in Maputo early in February to deploy a peace-keeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was a brave one. It challenged existing peace-keeping procedure and could have far-reaching consequences for all future peace-keeping operations.
Historically, peace-keeping responsibilities are entrusted to an international military force comprising troops from a number of individual states under the flag of the United Nations.
Operating under strict orders, peace-keeping troops are expected to carry out their duties in an unbiased and passive manner, acting as a buffer to keep antagonists apart in an attempt to restore the peace.
Discussing solutions to the on-going conflict in the eastern parts of the DRC, the SADC member states agreed to put together and deploy a force of 4 000 SADC troops to the region.
In itself, this was a historic and significant decision, but what made it extraordinary was the announcement that the SADC troops would enforce peace rather than just try and keep peace.
In elaborating on the decision, SADC Secretary-General Tomas Salaam said the expectation is that the United Nations Security Council will approve, and allow, the SADC troops “to engage with whoever is trying to destabilise the situation in the eastern part of Congo.”
The SADC at a 2007 meeting in Zambia approved the formation of an SADC Standby Brigade (SB). All member states are expected to contribute to the brigade with the purpose to intervene in conflict situations in the SADC region or further afield if, and when, assistance is requested. To date, the SB has yet to become truly operational. The eastern DRC could be its first taste of action.
The SADC request for a mandate to “enforce the peace”, is a radical deviation and fundamental change from the international norm. If approved, the disposition, structure and command of the to-be-deployed SADC force look markedly different from conventional UN peace-keeping forces.
The idea of “enforcing the peace” is in stark contrast to all previous UN peace-keeping operations and the dispensation under which the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) is currently deployed in eastern DRC.
UN-sanctioned peace-keeping operations are traditionally reactive by nature and aimed at preventing the escalation of a conflict and to create conditions under which law and order can be re-established.
The 17 000 MONUSCO peacekeepers, the biggest UN peace-keeping force currently deployed, is under strict orders to only react in self-defence and respond only when under direct attack. Under these circumstances it is impossible for MONUSCO to carry out its mission.
The M23 rebels are well aware of MONUSCO’s handicap and are exploiting it with a ruthlessness, causing wholesale disaster and untold misery to the eastern DRC while peacekeepers can only look on helplessly.
The SADC's decision in Maputo resulted from growing frustration with the failure of MONUSCO to end the conflict in the eastern DRC.
It was judged that the time has come to try a more direct and pro-active approach and in the SADC’s view the answer lies in engaging head-on those responsible for what has become the killing fields of the DRC.
There are, however, some big obstacles to overcome before SADC troops can enter the conflict zone.
While SADC officials are in talks with the UN and members of the Security Council for approval, the regional body is facing the challenge to find the financial resources needed to deploy 4 000 troops and which is estimated to be at a cost of at least US$ 100 million.
Peace-keeping operations are expensive and with much uncertainty about the duration of their mission, the cost of the SADC operation is likely to increase. It was reported that South Africa will limit its contribution to 100 troops only. Although this figure is yet unconfirmed, South Africa will find it difficult to contribute significantly more troops in the face of limited available military manpower and its domestic needs, such as securing its borders against illegal immigration and game poaching.
Credit must go to the SADC for its revolutionary resolution that, if proven successful, could signal a new approach to limit the escalation of conflicts in Africa.
But it could also become Southern Africa’s own Vietnam should coffins draped in national flags start arriving back home.
Only time will tell.