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More harm than good? UN's Islands of Stability in DRC

Posted by Hannah Cooper Protection Policy Advisor, Democratic Republic of Congo

8th May 2014

An armored personnel carrier drives past the wreckage of a UN vehicle that was hit the previous year in an ambush by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel militia. Copyright: UN Photo

As the UN renews the mandate for its peacekeeeping mission in DRC, Oxfam's protection adviser Hannah Cooper questions the mission's 'Islands of Stability' approach and calls for the safety and security of civilians to be prioritised.

On 28 March 2013, the UN Security Council adopted an exceptional resolution with the potential to dramatically change peacekeeping forever. Resolution 2098 authorised the creation of a Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), the UN's first-ever 'offensive' combat force. It was created within the UN's existing Stabilisation Mission in DRC (MONUSCO) and was given the responsibility of 'neutralizing and disarming armed groups'.

One year on... the humanitarian situation remains dire in eastern DRC

One year on from the introduction of the FIB, the humanitarian situation remains dire in eastern DRC. MONUSCO has been present in DRC for the past 14 years and is under pressure to produce results. However, the latest manifestation of this desire for results, a concept known as Islands of Stability, risks doing more harm than good.

The 'Islands' are centred around a counterinsurgency approach based on the mission's shape, clear, hold and build military strategy. Resolution 2098 mandates the FIB to 'make space for stabilization activities'. As a result, implementation of the Islands is being encouraged in those zones 'cleared' by the military actions of the FIB and the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC). However, identifying priority areas necessarily means that other areas will be deprioritised and then risk becoming what have been referred to as 'Swamps of Instability'.

Islands, continents and seas

A member of an armed group in North Kivu, posing with a radio. Credit: Alberto Roja

The intention of the Islands is that they eventually join together to make 'continents', unified by a stabilisation agenda which has the consolidation of state authority at its centre. However, in the meantime, the implication is that the 'seas' around the Islands will remain security vacuums, as has so often been seen in the past in eastern DRC. 

Moreover, the expectation of these Islands joining up is overstated: one example of an island that has been identified is the town of Pinga, in Walikale (North Kivu), which is currently 'held' by the FARDC. However the immediate vicinity remains far from stable. 

As a result, whatever stabilising effects the Islands may have will not be felt around them: protection of and assistance to civilian populations could be neglected.

Vulnerable communities need more than quick fixes

Even in those areas defined as Islands, the capacity of the FARDC to hold areas is limited, meaning that this approach, based on short-lived military victories, is unlikely to prove sustainable in the long-term. 

Civilian populations are often the first in the line of fire when areas change hands. And quick fix approaches will not improve the ability of communities to mitigate the negative effects that security threats have upon their physical integrity and livelihoods. To continue an analogy, the Islands risk being flooded, with the FARDC unable to hold back the water.

Risk to funding for areas in great need

Not only this, but the Islands of stability concept could lead donors to focus on these areas, to the detriment of other zones in great need. A shift in programming by humanitarian actors or donors to reflect the military model that currently frames the Islands of stability concept would effectively aid and abet the mission's highly political (and politicised) stabilisation agenda

UN patrol in Goma. Credit: Alberto Rojas

This channelling of funding is already being seen, albeit indirectly: the 2014 Humanitarian Action Plan (HAP) has been reduced (and is under 30% funded). Moreover, a rhetoric is currently developing that focuses on the importance of increasing development activities (and therefore funding) in eastern DRC, often based on the stabilisation agenda.

The combination of scaling down humanitarian funding and a growing focus on stabilisation-led development activities risks both reducing humanitarian interventions and also creating a real or perceived association of humanitarians with the mistrusted stabilisation agenda. 

This could create an aversion on the part of non-state armed actors to humanitarian interventions in their zones of influence, thus reducing the space available for humanitarian interventions, potentially putting them at greater risk of being targeted by armed groups, and thereby widening the gap in needs between the Islands and the sea around. 

Humanitarian aid... must not be co-opted... by a stabilisation agenda.

The impact could be extremely harmful to the vulnerable populations that humanitarians are first and foremost supposed to prioritise. The result may be a shift from basing assistance on needs to a kind of geographical lottery.

The Islands of stability approach risks increasingly blurring the lines between humanitarian interventions and the political agenda of MONUSCO in eastern DRC. 

In a situation such as eastern DRC, humanitarian assistance and development approaches will inevitably collide in the field. Many actors will be involved in the two processes, simultaneously or at different moments. For dual mandate NGOs such as Oxfam this is a particularly fine line to tread. However, the two are fundamentally different in their aims and approaches. Humanitarian aid, governed by the key principles of independence and impartiality, must not be co-opted, either inadvertently or intentionally, by a stabilisation agenda. 

In the face of MONUSCO pressure and funding needs, humanitarian organisations need to continue to navigate the choppy waters of the areas in need beyond the Islands of Stability.

Images (top to bottom)

  • An armored personnel carrier passes the wreckage of a UN vehicle that was hit the previous year in an ambush by rebel militia. Credit: UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti
  • A member of an armed group in North Kivu, posing with a radio. Credit: Alberto Rojas
  • UN patrol in Goma. Credit: Alberto Rojas

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Blog post written by Hannah Cooper

Protection Policy Advisor, Democratic Republic of Congo

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