Severine Autesserre recently joined Francis Fukuyama at SAIS to discuss state-building in the DRC. (My hat is definitely off to African Studies at SAIS, who have pulled together some fabulous events this term despite being a relatively small department.) Autesserre’s talk largely drew from her recent book on the failure of international peacekeeping in the Congo, and made clear the insight she’s gained from the more than ten years she’s spent living on and off in the DRC.
As scholars like Laura Seay have noted, the continuing conflict in eastern Congo is fundamentally predicated on local factors, like land rights and citizenship, and Autesserre makes a similar argument about the failure of peacekeeping to reconstruct eastern Congo. Whilst a common criticism of forces such as MONUC is that they enforce a hegemonic Western “liberal peace” agenda of free markets, free elections, and human rights, which may not be appropriate for the reconstruction of countries like the DRC, Autesserre points out that most peacekeepers are not in fact neutral enforcers of Western liberalism. Instead, they often act in manners influenced by their own (frequently non-Western) beliefs & backgrounds, and within the constraints of a state that remains durably more interested in extorting its citizens than protecting them. Even if the liberal peace agenda were sufficient to reconstruct the DRC, it has proven quite difficult to carry out on the ground.
Whilst the salience of promoting democracy and human rights may go unquestioned among the top echelons of the UN, Autesserre observes that peacekeepers usually have substantial operational autonomy on the ground. This may lead to correspondingly idiosyncratic interpretations of their mandate. For instance, peacekeepers whom Autesserre interviewed during fieldwork in North Kivu often preferred technical missions such as military training to more open-ended missions to reduce human rights abuses by the FARDC. Some of this hesitance surely has to do with the sheer challenge of promoting better human rights records among the FARDC, but Autesserre also recounted an instance where reports of the recruitment of child soldiers were written off by South Asian peacekeepers, one of whom observed to her that he’d known children who had found discipline and purpose after they were recruited into his own nation’s military.
Many peacekeepers also doubted the overall value of their mandate to support the FARDC, an understandable concern given that civilians often suffer more from its predations than from those of rebel groups. (C.f. this 2009 HRW report on sexual violence in the DRC.) Autesserre notes that “the Congolese state is still a predatory structure,” and shares the worries of some peacekeepers that reconstructing the state may simply amount to a reconstruction of the state’s ability to harass its citizens. Unsurprisingly, many Congolese civil society groups have felt that MONUC was misguided or even malicious in attempting to work with local government bodies to build their capacity. With this in mind, Autesserre closed in calling for fundamental revisions to the normative ideas of state-building that MONUC (and now MONUSCO) have been called to carry out. She shared Fukuyama’s insistence that it’s dangerous to consolidate state power before establishing the rule of law, and proposed sequencing judicial sector and security sector reform before attempts at rebuilding the capacity of the Congolese state.