The South African component of the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission – MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – will stay in place until at least mid-year.
Antonio Guterres, secretary-general of the world body, last week said rotation and deployments of uniformed personnel in peacekeeping missions is suspended until 30 June to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 coronavirus transmission.
South African soldiers from Zeerust-based 2 SA Infantry Battalion are currently on detached duty as one of three Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries making up the MONUSCO Force Intervention Brigade (FIB). This is the only component of any UN peacekeeping mission worldwide with an offensive mandate to bolster its efforts in keeping civilians out of harm’s way.
The other major South African component of MONUSCO is the SA Air Force (SAAF) composite helicopter unit (CHU) based at Goma in the eastern DRC. The unit’s combat support Rooivalk and medium transport Oryx rotary-winged aircraft are widely acknowledged as making a significant contribution to MONUSCO’s overall success.
In a briefing at UN headquarters in New York Guterres said the rotation and deployment of uniformed personnel – individual officers and formed military and police units – was suspended until 30 June.
“Our peacekeeping missions are working full time to contain and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Our priorities are to ensure COVID-19-free status of incoming uniformed personnel and mitigate the risk that UN peacekeepers could be a contagion vector and simultaneously maintain operational capabilities.
“A few, limited exceptions may be considered to continue delivering on the mandate, but only in extenuating circumstances on the basis of strict conditions to prevent the spread of the virus,” Guterres said.
At the same time, Pierre Lacroix who heads up the UN peacekeeping operation, told French daily Le Monde he was “particularly concerned about areas where COVID-19 will intersect with armed conflict”.
“People in already fragile political environments, where individuals are living in conflict-affected or post-conflict societies with little to no infrastructure or social and sanitary safety nets, are especially at risk. How do you wash your hands without access to clean water? What now for women who pay a disproportionate toll as frontline responders and caregivers and who could lose the ability to feed their families because of collapsing economies?
“And what if, on top of this, people are living under the threat of armed groups or terrorist acts? Just as the body cannot defend itself as well with a compromised immune system, populations deprived of functioning health systems and support networks are even more vulnerable to the pandemic and its consequences. The same can be said for the places where our peacekeepers operate – vulnerable civilians there are the most at risk.
“UN peacekeepers are not the remedy for COVID-19, but in many places they are part of the treatment plan. Peacekeeping operations must continue their work and maintain operational capability, so we can deliver on our lifesaving mandates – promoting conflict resolution and protecting the populations we serve, as well as UN personnel.
“Having the blue helmets stay on the ground to help counter this pandemic is an important step in helping host countries tackle this challenge,” Lacroix is quoted as saying by the influential French newspaper.
In addition to the DRC mission, where more than 18 000 civilian, military and police personnel are deployed, the UN currently operates 12 other peacekeeping missions, six of them in Africa. They are MINURSCO (Western Sahara), MINUSCA (Central African Republic), MINUSMA (Mali), UNAMID (Darfur), UNIFSA (Abyei) and UNMISS (South Sudan).