“We have won 
respect”

He is a pacifist and the head of the UN’s biggest mission in Congo. Martin Kobler explains in an interview how he reconciles those positions.

picture-alliance/dpa - Martin Kobler

Mr Kobler, for over a year now you’ve been the head of MONUSCO, the biggest United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo. There, the UN is fighting rebels belonging to the M23 militia. You describe yourself as a pacifist. Isn’t that a contradiction?

I was “socialised” at the Federal Foreign Office under Foreign Minister Joschka 
Fischer, another pacifist. That was at the time when the Federal Government opted for German involvement in the Kosovo War. The debates over this – and later over the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq – had a formative influence on my thinking. One thing I know for sure: military intervention is sometimes the only way to stop people being displaced and countries being destabilised. That is quite consistent with basic pacifist convictions.

How long do you expect the mission to last?

For the first time in its history, the UN has launched a mission involving offensive combat action. This reflects the realisation that peacekeeping doesn’t work in a country where there is no peace. There is simply none to keep. First, peace has to be created. I can’t tell you when that will be the case.

Has the UN set itself a time frame?

MONUSCO is one of the UN’s longest-running missions – in November 2014 it will have been going on for 15 years. At some point, the member states run out of patience. My job is to undertake a strategic analysis of the mission and work out an exit strategy by the end of the year. The reality is that we can’t stay there forever, but then again we can’t quit and leave behind a fragile state.

That’s a huge challenge. How do your combat troops go about getting the parties in the conflict to accept peace?

Of the 20,000 MONUSCO troops, 3,000 are involved in the combat mission. With their help we have managed to disarm and disband the M23 militia. The M23 rebels had brought many villages – and for a time the provincial capital Goma as well – under their control. They plundered and terrorised the population. Hundreds of thousands had sought refuge in refugee camps around Goma and in the neighbouring countries. It was a military success that made other rebel groups more willing 
to negotiate. Unfortunately, other rebel groups are still fighting.

How did MONUSCO win respect?

The intervention brigade comprises troops from South Africa, Tanzania und Malawi, who have deployed combat helicopters and drones. That has won them respect. We have demonstrated that we’re not only capable of issuing threats, but also of carrying them out if it proves impossible to achieve political solutions. In eastern Congo, the UN is showing that its troops are no longer just “toothless tigers”.

Who is training the Congolese soldiers?

There is a certain lack of coordination in terms of structuring and training. On one side, you have MONUSCO helping and, on the other, there are bilateral training agreements – with Belgium, South Africa and China, for example. The Europeans – and that includes Germany – need to do a lot more here. Without a powerful army, but one that at the same time respects human rights, there will be no peace in Congo. And that should matter to us as Europeans, if only for our own sakes.

There are a great many countries with interests in Congo. What effect is that having?

It means that many countries, including Congo’s neighbours, are more or less directly involved in the conflict. They are supporting the various rebel groups and exploiting ethnic differences. But it’s also clearly about naked economic interests.

You’re alluding to the country’s mineral resources. Where does the problem lie?

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is poor because it’s incredibly rich. Your recording device contains materials from Congo: cassiterite and coltan. The mobile telecommunications industry couldn’t manage without these rare earth minerals. For the right to extract them, wars have been waged in eastern Congo for decades. Some of the mines are located in rebel-held areas, with rebels making money from the mining activities.

And what’s the solution?

The mines must be brought under the control of an accountable regime. Together with the EU and Germany, we have launched a project to ensure that industry only imports minerals from eastern Congo in the future that are from mines that meet certain standards. We want to arrive at a situation where the materials used in mobile phones and laptops all come from monitored mines and not from mines where children are forced to dig in deep shafts in which they quite often die of suffocation or drowning. The world’s not going to get better overnight, I realise that. But if Congo succeeds in getting a grip on its economy, providing the state with tax revenue, that will also have the effect of pulling the economic rug from under the rebels’ feet.

You are fighting rebels, attempting to deprive them of their economic basis. That sort of action is not just making you friends. How dangerous is life for the UN’s High Representative in Congo?

It’s OK. I’m well protected. But let’s not forget that we’re a party to a war, and that means the person who bears political responsibility is at risk. But it doesn’t stop him doing his job. ▪

Interview: Marco Seliger

Martin Kobler has been the United Nations Special Representative for the Democratic Republic of the Congo since June 2013. He is also head of the UN’s biggest peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, in the country. He previously held diplomatic posts including that of German Ambassador to Egypt and Iraq. From 2011 to 2013, he was the UN Special Representative for Iraq and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq.