Interview with Martin Kobler, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Martin Kobler, Special Representative and head of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO). UN Photo//Myriam Asmani

22 January 2014 – In June 2013, Martin Kobler of Germany was appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as his Special Representative for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission there (MONUSCO), which is mandated by the Security Council to focus on protection of civilians in the violence-plagued eastern provinces of the vast country.

Before taking his post, Mr. Kobler was the top UN official in Iraq, heading the Organization’s Assistance Mission in the country (UNAMI), and was previously the Deputy Special Representative with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Prior to joining the UN, Mr. Kobler served for more than 25 years in his country’s foreign service.

The UN News Centre spoke to Mr. Kobler after his first 2014 briefing to the Security Council, in which he outlined the progress of the previous year – including the dismantling of the 23 March rebel movement (M23) that had caused much suffering and displacement in the east – and spoke of the challenges ahead.


UN News Centre: Mr. Kobler, thank you for speaking with the UN News Centre.  You’ve been in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for five or six months, is that correct?

Martin Kobler:  Yes, I arrived mid-August.

UN News Centre: What were your first impressions of the situation in theWe are in a good position now to tackle the problems in the eastern DRC: restitution of State authority, strengthening democratic institutions – but regional integration will be very important for this. DRC, after serving in several other UN missions?

Martin Kobler: I was running a special political mission in Iraq before.  Now I’m at the largest mission the UN has, with 25,000 people, 20,000 soldiers and 5,000 civilians working there.  I was very much looking forward at that time to see what can be done, because I have a very strong feeling of impatience, of frustration.  In my briefings here in New York, people said that MONUSCO has been there for 14 years now and had kept the peace, but it was difficult to sense an overall improvement of the situation.  I was told just try to find out what you can do in order to make the situation better.  I arrived in mid-August very much thrilled at what could be done in the DRC. 

UN News Centre:  Did the situation in the east and the problem of militias turn out to be more complex than you expected?

Martin Kobler: No not really.  There is a mountain of problems but I read a lot about them.  There are those who say there will never be a solution.   I do not believe that theory.  I think every problem in the world has a solution.  It has proved to be difficult, yes, but we have achieved some achievements in recent months.

UN News Centre: How would you describe the current situation in the east?

Secretary-General's Special Representative Martin Kobler arrives at MONUSCO headquarters in Kinshasa, DRC, to take up his duties on 13 August 2013. Photo: MONUSCO/M. Asmani

Martin Kobler: The eastern part of the country is a territory that is as big as Afghanistan.  Much of it is controlled by militias, and the challenge is how to reinstitute State authority over these areas.   We achieved a lot in the last months but there is a lot of work ahead.  Our mandate, as given by the Security Council, calls for the neutralization of all armed groups.  We started in August, when Goma was attacked, by retaliating against the M23 militia.  This problem is hopefully now solved militarily – not politically, but militarily.  Our priority now is the fight against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Ugandan Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF), but also the many, many Mayi Mayi groups that terrorize the population. 

We are there to protect the civilians, not only to react, but to protect them in a preventive way.  It’s difficult with a force of 20,000 in an area as big as Afghanistan to be everywhere at the same time.  Very often we are too late when massacres are committed by Mayi Mayi groups and other forces, and we just find the dead and tortured bodies.  This is not satisfactory.   But on the other side, we also try to be preventive.  Let’s take the example of the surveillance of the border with Uganda.  I think this is something we are doing very well; we really can prevent armed groups from crossing.

UN News Centre:  What are some of the new elements introduced last year to meet the challenges?

The first one was the Addis Ababa agreement [the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the DRC and the Region], with international cohesion among the group of international envoys from the European Union, the African Union, the United States, the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General Mary Robinson and myself.   We work together in an exemplary, close way.  We write emails to each other every day and are in contact to coordinate our actions and to coordinate our messages to the Governments of the countries and to other forces.  This is very important. 

Mr. Kobler and Mary Robinson, the Secretary-General's Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region, speak to correspondents in New York in December 2013 after both briefed the Security Council. UNTV

The Intervention Brigade was also introduced in 2013.  It has a mandate from the Security Council to offensively neutralize armed groups with the Congolese Army (FARDC).  It’s very important to do it jointly.  We assist the FARDC where we can, including with military forces.  It has worked quite well and we do hope that in 2014 we can continue this success.

UN News Centre:  This is the first time such a mechanism has been used, if I’m correct.  Do you think it will become something that will be utilized elsewhere?

Martin Kobler:  Yes, it’s innovative, but it has to be handled with responsibility.  So at this stage, I would not dare to say it’s a model for any other country.  Every situation is different.   For the DRC I think it’s the right thing to do. The Intervention Brigade was born out of impatience and frustration – after 14 years of MONUSCO the town of 1 million in Goma was taken over by the M23.  The international community said, “We have to do something,” and the idea of the Intervention Brigade, with a robust mandate, was born.    There is a deterrent effect.  We do not want to fight, but the aim is very clear – the end of the armed groups in eastern DRC.  This can be done voluntarily by surrenders – as of now there are 8,000 surrenderees.  This is the preferred option.  However, if the armed groups do not surrender, then we are not shy to use the force.

UN News Centre: Has the Brigade concept, with its robust mandate, in the way that it has worked in the DRC, gained the acceptance of the international humanitarian community?

Mr. Kobler thanks a peacekeeper from the MONUSCO Intervention Brigade in November 2013, after action in support of an offensive of the Congolese armed forces that led to the liberation of areas occupied by M23 rebels in North Kivu. Photo: MONUSCO/S. K. Singa Gali

Martin Kobler:  Well, it gained first of all the acceptance of the population.  On my first visit to Goma after arrival a few days, my car was stoned.  After the action against the M23, civil society in Goma and the population of Goma changed course and said okay, for the first time we have seen that the UN is doing something.  So the attitude in Goma, in the east, changed a lot.  I understand the international humanitarian organizations who say force is not the right way to do it.  I myself come from a pacifist background.  It’s not pleasant to fight.  It’s not pleasant to give instructions for helicopters to attack and possibly cause the death of people.  But it has to be done in these cases. 

At the end of last year, we had unspeakable atrocities being committed by groups in the north of North Kivu, with babies dismembered, with girls raped, with pregnant women also dismembered and beheaded.  These are things that one cannot tolerate.  The international community has the obligation to put an end to atrocities, human rights violations, rape in war and recruitment of child soldiers and for this purpose we have now also the possibility to morally employ the force on behalf of the UN, on behalf of the international community.  I know that not everybody shares this view and we are in constant dialogue with humanitarian actors.  Of course, humanitarian actors also say that these atrocities have to stop.  So they have a kind of ambivalence to the actions of the Intervention Brigade. 

UN News Centre: Another new tool that you’ve introduced into peacekeeping has the use of unarmed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).   How did this come about and what has been the result so far?

Martin Kobler: Yes, these unarmed drones were introduced beginning of December.  There are two UAVs right now and we have another three coming by March or April.   They are used extensively. The purpose is if we do military action, we need reconnaissance before.  This can be done by helicopters and by other means, but it can be best done by high technology.  The unarmed drones have really good technical set up to gather information.  On the basis of this information, the force can plan military activities.

UN News Centre:  And what are the results so far?

Mr. Kobler visits a transit camp for members of armed groups who have decided to lay down their arms. Photo: MONUSCO/S. Liechti

Martin Kobler: Well, for example if we speak about border surveillance, armed groups crossing from one side to the other can be detected with the UAVs.  We see that they work as a deterrent also.  People know that the UAVs are there and they cannot hide as easily as they could before.

UN News Centre: One more thing that has been introduced this year is the “islands of stability” concept.   Could you describe it?

Martin Kobler: Well, if you want to bring stability to the eastern DRC, it’s clear to everybody that military action alone is not enough.  You need to have these actions accompanied by a civilian build-up.  Now whenever a territory is liberated from Mayi Mayi groups, from the M23 or others, then the Government declares them together with us islands of stability.  There should be no return of armed groups into these islands of stability, into these territories that were liberated.  There must be Congolese police and troops to secure the place.  This cannot be done on the long-term by MONUSCO elements.  And then there must be all the ingredients of the State – a functioning judiciary system, basic service deliveries and schools must be built.  Seventy per cent of the population of the DRC is below the age of 18; they must be educated.  Hospitals must be rebuilt.  Consolidation of State authority, security, stability, economic prosperity -- people must be safe in going to their fields, to do their agriculture, transport their agricultural products to the markets. 

For all this you need, number one, the engagement of the Government.  The UN should not replace the Government.  But we assist by deploying our own personnel into these islands of stability to advise and assist the Government in building up State functions again.  This is the concept.  It is a process that takes some time but the more islands you have, the fewer armed groups you have terrorizing the population, and at the end of the day, there will be a “continent of stability.”  That’s the idea behind it. 

UN News Centre: Has the Government been able to play its role up to this point?

Mr. Kobler, with Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Herve Ladsous and other officials, inspects an Unarmed Aerial Vehicle (UAV) during launch ceremony in Goma, in December 2013. UN Photo/S. Liechti

Martin Kobler: Well it’s very difficult.  The Government has now a budget of $8 billion per year in a country of almost 18 million inhabitants.  This is for sure not enough.  That’s why it’s difficult to build up the police, to build up the judiciary, to get basic service delivery.  It’s very important to get private companies involved, because they might have the means to build up the economy.  The vision is to make Goma and the eastern DRC an economic hub.  It is a rich country. There is gold, there are diamonds, there is copper, tin, tungsten, coltan and other needed minerals. Every cell phone has a piece of the DRC in it, the mineral coltan.  It is very important to tap the wealth of the country and to have a regulated legalization of  mineral exploitation and to work with the Government on the reduction of corruption and other issues.  Then gradually I hope [the resources will be used] to improve the living situation of the population in eastern DRC, in particular. 

UN News Centre: In the coming year what are the risks that you see to progress and what will you do to reduce those risks?  

Martin Kobler:  Well, I think we are on a good track, but one has to be very careful.  The year 2013 ended on a positive note, after the national dialogue with President Kabila’s speech at the end in November there seemed to be a chance of national reconciliation.  After the defeat of the M23, President Kabila toured eastern DRC and was received very warmly.  However, at the end of the year there were also security incidents, where a group of armed people stormed the airport in Kinshasa, the Defence Ministry, the National Radio and TV, in Lumbumbashi and in Kindu in parallel.  Three of our peacekeepers were injured. 

Mr. Kobler visits a school in Eastern Province in December 2013. Photo: MONUSCO/S. Liechti

This means also that the State institutions are still fragile.  The whole process is fragile.  We have to make it very clear that there should not be a military rollback in the east and that the achievements that we have so far that they are kept.  For example, we helped to liberate an area in Masisi called Walikale.  We then had an attempt of a group headed by a warlord called Cheka who attacked this town again.  The Congolese army was successful after a few hours of fighting in repelling these attacks.  We had successes, yes, 15,000 refugees had come back to these areas after liberation.  However, it’s very fragile.  And it’s not irreversible.  We have to work to make this process durable.  We need State institutions to go back.  We have to tackle root causes, minerals, corruption and governance.  These are the challenges for 2014. 

UN News Centre: What the other priorities of the coming year?

Martin Kobler:  Well, I think we are in a good position now to tackle the problems in the eastern DRC – restitution of State authority, strengthening democratic institutions and good governance – but regional integration will be very important for this.  The region of the Great Lakes has to integrate more economically above all for the benefit of all populations in the different countries.  Everybody has to be convinced that stability, economic integration, regional political integration, confidence-building between the States – this is the right way to go in the long-term.

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