top of page

UN’s Shift in Intervention: A Change in Africa

There has been a distinct change in Africa over the last few years. The potential for awesome powerful economic and social growth is still there. As too, is the extreme violence which afflicts certain regions. This change is something else and has been so subtle it has gone largely unnoticed by most people. Simply put, the United Nations (UN) has begun to take a more aggressive role in the conflicts of the continent.

This shift in policy has not happened by accident and it certainly has not happened in a vacuum with no historical context. But it will have a profound impact on the organization itself, the continent, and the people of the countries it operates in. To understand this phenomena one must understand the distinctive characteristics of this new policy. The UN has always had an ‘active role’ in Africa as its observer missions to Somalia and Rwanda in the 1990s and to Cote D’Ivoire, Liberia and the two Sudans more recently can attest to. In fact, over half of current UN deployments are situated on the continent.[1] What makes this new format so different is that it seems to envision a more ‘aggressive interventionist role’ in peacekeeping operations.

Those familiar with the Rwandan Genocide will understand the nightmarish position only

‘observing’ can lead to. In terms of peacekeeping, if there is no peace to protect anymore because a state of war exists, usually this means that the UN’s mission is over. Even if only oneside is violating agreements or a ceasefire, for a commander to act more forcefully would mean that he or she was exceeding their authority.[2] This is exactly the dilemma the UN General in charge of Rwanda found himself in during the genocide of 1994. Without the backing of the UN, or any of its five permanent Security Council members, he was understaffed, underequipped, and under fire.[3]

In this area today, by contrast, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has 20,000 UN soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This is indeed the largest UN peacekeeping force currently deployed. Originally started in 2000 (under a slightly different name), the force composition and perhaps more importantly, the mandate has since been strengthened.[4][5] In their own words, this operation “has been authorized to use all necessary means to carry out its mandate [author’s emphasis] relating, among other things, to the protection of civilians, humanitarian personnel and human rights defenders under imminent threat of physical violence and to support the Government of the DRC in its stabilization and peace consolidation efforts.”[6]

This mission statement and resource allocation clearly demonstrates the distinct intention to create a shift from ‘active’ to ‘aggressive’ operating. This played out in the field when the UN’s Intervention Brigade took the government’s side by battling the M23 rebel group.[7] Despite earlier criticisms of the UN around the lack of intervention, the current mission, the agencies most ambitious on the continent, clearly enjoys popular support within the higher echelons of New York and at the ground level in the DRC.[8] It has continued to gain additional resources, mostly from neighbouring African nations, and additional praise and recognition from those same governments and many of the communities on the ground. This has only grown after the recent defeat of the notoriously cruel M23 rebel militia.[8]

The UN’s work is clearly not done. There are other violent groups operating in the area. The Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) themselves continue to need training, monitoring and reform and the country remains severely underdeveloped. One or all of these concerns could reverse the progress and gains MONUSCO has made. But a precedent has been set; the UN has crossed its Rubicon (or Congo as the case may be).[9]

This aggressiveness, or perhaps some would prefer the term ‘assertiveness,’ has also translated to the diplomatic and bureaucratic battlefield. Starting in 2012, numerous official and unofficial UN reports began to blame the Governments of Rwanda and to a lesser extent Uganda, on arming, financing training and protecting several vicious militia groups who operate in North and South Kivu Provinces of Eastern Congo.[10] Despite passionate protestations of innocence, the evidence has been sufficient enough that some Western aid donors are pulling their support from the countries (in Uganda’s case, this is also due to the recent criminalization and threats of state execution for homosexuals).[11]

Clearly this new approach is finding support elsewhere, as the bluntly harsh report on North Korean atrocities recently released by the UN demonstrates.[12] However, despite the merits of this innovative shift and the appeal it clearly holds for some at the UN, for several reasons this success will be hard to replicate outside of Africa.

A specific convergence of events and perspectives must take place before the UN is able to act in such a robust manner. Most obviously, nothing substantial can happen unless there is consensus at the UN Security Council among its five permanent members. Realistically, this can only happen in regions where the national interests of these states’ are not at risk. So a tougher approach around the Middle East is not in the cards. More prosaically, it will also only happen in these areas only as a response to brutal and grossly intolerable situations. The M23 militia made itself a loud and palatable target through its dedicated program of mass-rape and use of child soldiers. Other groups in the area may yet find themselves becoming easy targets if they, too, become widely infamous and known for atrocious acts of violence. In the end, the more the media helps identify and familiarize the public with these groups, the more it grants political cover for UN diplomats to allow this new approach to take form.

Despite the caveats and regional restrictions to this method, the UN has made significant progress in Africa. Predictions for the future are never very useful, but clearly the current United Nations in Africa will be a different organization than the one from the previous century. The UN has consciously decided to be a more robust, assertive, and effective force. Moving through the 21st century, this bodes well for the people of Africa and for the organization itself.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone.

Davis, J. (2014). UN’s shift in intervention: a change in Africa, United Nations Association of Canada, Toronto Region, March 26, 2014, available from!articles/c2011.


[1] United Nations, “United Nations Peacekeeping: Peacekeeping operations: Current peacekeeping operations,” Accessed: February 18, 2014.

[2] The rational assumption might be that these soldiers can act on these issues in conjunction with the principle of self-defense, but again in the Rwandan case-study and even during a lot of the Balkan operations the UN soldiers were not granted authority to stop violence and atrocities by engaging the responsible forces. For details please see Roméo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (Toronto: Canada. Random House Canada, 2003). For lack of action in the Balkans consult UN interpreter Hasan Nuhanović’s work, Under The

UN Flag: The International Community and the Srebrenica Genocide (Sarajevo: DES Sarajevo, 2007) and British Broadcasting Corporation, “UN Srebrenica immunity questioned,” British Broadcasting Corporation, June 15, 2008, Accessed: March 23, 2014.

[3] Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil.

[4] United Nations, “United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

Mission Home,” Accessed: February, 18,

[5] . For the Security Council Resolution please see United Nations Security Council Resolution 2098, S/RES/2098 (28 March 2013), available from Accessed: March 2, 2014

[6] Ibid. Force Composition can be found on p. 6. The phrase ‘offensive operations’ can be found on p. 7.

[7] United Nations, “Security Council approves intervention force to target armed groups in DR Congo,” United

Nations News Centre, March, 28, 2013 Accessed:

March 2, 2014. United Nations, “Tanzanian troops arrive in eastern DR Congo as part of UN intervention brigade,” United Nations News Centre, May 10, 2013, Accessed: March 2, 2014.

[8] British Broadcasting Corporation, “Goma: M23 rebels capture DR Congo city,” British Broadcasting Corporation, November 20, 2012, Accessed: March 2, 2014. 8 France 24, “M23 rebels announce 'end of rebellion' in DR Congo,” France 24, November 5, 2013, Accessed: February 28, 2014. For a more detailed report on their destruction see United Nations Security Council, Final report of the Group of Experts submitted in accordance with paragraph 5 of Security Council resolution 2078

(2012), S/2014/42 (23 January 2014) available from Accessed: March 2, 2014.

[9] ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ is an academic term in political science which means a situation or policy has reached a point of no return. It is a reference to a river in Italy which was crossed by Caesars army in order to stage a coup. 10 British Broadcasting Corporation, “Rwanda defence chief leads DR Congo rebels, UN report says,” British

Broadcasting Corporation, October 17, 2012, Accessed: March 2, 2014. United Nations Security Council, Addendum to the Interim report of the Group of Experts on the DRC submitted in accordance with paragraph 4 of Security Council resolution 2021 (2011), S/2012/348/Add.1 (27 June 2012) available from Accessed: March 2, 2014. United Nations Security Council, Final report of the Group of Experts submitted in accordance with paragraph 5 of Security Council resolution 2078 (2012), S/2014/42 (23 January 2014) available from Accessed: March 2, 2014.

The Economist, “The pain of suspension,” The Economist, January 12, 2013, Accessed: March 2, 2014.

[11]See Jim Mahoney, “Uganda’s anti-gay law causes significant cuts to foreign aid,” The Globe and Mail, February 26, 2014, and Philippa Croome, “U.S. suspends some aid to Uganda over anti-gay law,” Reuters, March, 13, 2014, Accessed: March

21, 2014.

[12]United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea --A/HRC/25/CRP.1, February

7, 2014, available from Accessed: March 2 2014.

bottom of page