Negotiating Peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Unpicking Challenges, Opportunities, and the Role of Regional and International Actors


Conflict and identity are constructed phenomena. Both are rooted in historical, sociocultural, and psychological origins – arguably, one cannot exist without the other. We are either in conflict with ourselves or with someone else. Perhaps both. Nevertheless, conflict is not inherently negative – neither is power inherently ‘bad’ – but it is about how they are wielded to resolve differences and effectuated to achieve change. In the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), conflict and identity are intertwined. In the DRC, collective identity exists through conflict, while simultaneously, crises of identity also exist because of conflict (Clark 2014, 309; Lemarchand 2009, 119). However, to understand the tapestry of conflict and identity (ultimately through the lens of mediation), we must start with history. René Lemarchand, a French-American political scientist whose research specializes in ethnic conflict in Africa, posits ‘the past’ as a focal point through which to understand the present. Lemarchand argues that: “Connecting the dots between past and present is nowhere more fraught than where history is a violently contested terrain, where claims to citizenship are heavily determined by ideological constructions, and the tendrils of violence rooted in long-ago events” (Lemarchand 2013, 418). Still, by uncovering the underlying catalysts for differing rhetorics justifying violence and rewritings of history, it is possible to approach the history of the DRC. The frameworks and lenses used in this paper aim to unravel the past and present through decolonial, historical, and ethnic lenses. Acknowledging that none of these spheres of influence exist independently, the land and resource question is also briefly considered. Upon this foundation, an analysis of peace negotiations will be regarded as through mediation and negotiation frameworks. The analysis will explore the role of regional and international actors, (constructed) historical narratives, and the different ‘layers’ of crisis as relevant concepts in the DRC’s cycles of violence and failed peace agreements.

This paper aims to see mediation as more than just “fire fighting” and instead understand what complementary activities are needed for mediation to be a substantive mechanism for genuinely addressing the conflict in the DRC (Nsengimana, Kemenade, and Tobie 2010, 11). Several key concepts should also be defined: While conflict resolution encompasses various approaches to resolving disputes, mediation specifically involves an outside intermediary facilitating communication and negotiation between conflicting parties. Thus, this paper covers mediation, negotiation attempts, and ceasefire agreements, where ‘conflict resolution’ falls into several categories. In the context of conflict in Congo and with Rwanda, regional actors involve countries with a direct interest or involvement in the conflict due to geographical proximity or historical ties – which can include but are not limited to neighboring countries like Burundi and Uganda, but can extend to Angola for its involvement in negotiation processes. In contrast, international actors can consist of entities like the United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU), and those with broader diplomatic, political, or humanitarian agendas.

The outline of this paper can be traced as follows: the ‘problem’ –the different layers of crisis and understanding, the history and context of conflict, broken down into the history of conflict and mediation, mediation frameworks to understand peace attempts in the DRC, and embedded within all of these is the role of regional and international actors. This paper will conclude with recommendations for action or policy, echoing other scholars’ previous affirmations of what needs to change to achieve sustainable peace. But I am just one person. I am ‘an outsider looking in.’ All academics and intervenors or mediators are (Mathys 2017, 487). Thus, I must acknowledge that this is ultimately an ‘outsider’ perspective. While I endeavor to bridge the distance between reality on the ground and the comfort from which I posit this analysis, the reader must also be aware of this distance. Nonetheless, this paper aims to contribute to the discourses surrounding the ‘gap’ between the failure of peace accords and the research on why peace has failed.


There is a paradox in the vast expanse of numerical abstractions – while numbers are used to denounce value, it is entirely context-dependent. The death toll in Congo since 1996 lingers at more than six million, and more than six million people remain internally displaced in eastern DRC (Lawal 2024). Each digit in this number represents not just a numeral but a life extinguished and a story left untold. Six million lives intertwined in a tapestry of anguish and despair, their voices silenced by the cacophony of chaos. “There’s a sense of fatalism about Congo […] People seem to think, ‘That’s just the way it is,’” said Cynthia Jones, the World Food Program (WFP) head in eastern Congo (Walsh 2023). This sentiment is implicitly echoed within international discourse. Thus, the ‘problem’ is three-fold: the first layer is at the surface: the humanitarian crisis in Congo; the second layer speaks to the roots of violence, the “mechanism that makes violence a self-perpetuating phenomenon,” and the final layer, the third layer is about the ‘outsiders’ looking in (Lemarchand 2013, 423). The third layer is the most complex: for example, Séverine Autesserre, an author and researcher focusing on peacebuilding in the DCR, posits that since 2003, “UN staff and diplomats defined the Congolese context as a ‘post-conflict’ environment in which various bouts of large-scale fighting became mere ‘crises’ rather than evidence that the war was continuing” (Autesserrre 2011, 62). Scholars have emphatically affirmed that peacebuilding measures have been insufficient and ignored the deeper issues and tensions beneath the surface (Lemarchand 2009, 121). Thus, an irony presents itself: spanning decades of conflict and signed and broken peace agreements, research exists about why peace has failed in the DRC – from regional involvement to the role of resources and investments in the perpetuation of the conflict, to be explored further below – the agonizing question remains about bridging the gap between why peace has failed to achieve sustainable peace. The challenge lies in transcending the fatalistic resignation that pervades the discourse surrounding Congo’s plight. It demands a reevaluation of our perceptions, a reorientation of our strategies, and a resolute commitment to addressing the multifaceted layers of this humanitarian crisis. Delving deeper into the context and history of the region, it becomes apparent that the roots of violence are deeply entrenched, nourished by a complex web of historical grievances, political instability, and economic exploitation. Only by acknowledging and confronting these underlying issues can we hope to pave a path toward lasting peace for the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo.


The past is just stories that have been passed on – but each of these stories has already been interpreted; each ‘telling’ of history is already a perspective of a version of reality. Moreover, any analysis of any ‘history’ is subjected to presentism: we ‘must’ study the past to understand the present; we are fallible to this desire to understand everything in our present context (Mathys 2017, 466; Eltringham 2006, 443). Thus, most historical research is pursued through constructivist lenses of presentism, where intellectual and emotional projections lead us to parochialist understandings of ‘the past.’ In the context of (historical) trauma, colonial oppression, and psychological biases, different strands of thought and reason become tangled with anger, vengeance, and different perceptions of fairness. Nonetheless, an exploration of ‘the past’ is essential for this paper. Thus, it must be acknowledged that any discussion of ‘the history of conflict’ in the DRC and with Rwanda is likely to be tarnished with varying degrees of didacticism and biases (Reynthjens 2016, 64). The historical narrative below, therefore, aims to unravel what motivates the different perceptions of ‘the past.’ “Violence cannot be understood without understanding the discursive concepts that justify it for the actors” (Mathys 2017, 467).

a) Navigating the Depths of Conflict: A History of Violence and War in the DCR

The history of conflict in the DRC is marked by a chronology of violence over a century. Throughout its various manifestations, as the Congo Free State (1885-1908), the Belgian Congo (1908-1960), the Congo Republic (1960-1971), Zaire (1971-1997), and finally, the Democratic Republic of Congo (since 1997), a consistent symbol for the DCR has been its violence (Swart 2012, 43). The roots of this strife are multifaceted, intertwined with colonial legacies, post-colonial power struggles, ethnic tensions, and the question of resources. Beginning with the brutal colonial rule under King Leopold II of Belgium in the late 19th century, the Congo Free State witnessed widespread atrocities, including forced labor, mutilations, and mass killings of indigenous populations (Swart 2012, 43-44). Following independence in 1960, the country plunged into internal conflicts, rebellions, and power struggles. The secession of Katanga province under Moise Tshombe in 1960 and subsequent interventions by UN forces highlighted the fragility of the newly formed state (Kisangani 2012, 44). The reign of Mobutu Sese Seko, from 1965 to 1997, was characterized by authoritarian rule, corruption, and repression, fueling discontent and internal strife (Ikambana 2007, 1). Thus, the foundation of Congo was built upon a legacy of violence and exploitation perpetuated by colonial oppression and post-colonial power struggles. From the atrocities of King Leopold II’s regime to the tumultuous reign of Mobutu, the narratives that would become history were set to be fraught with identities and frameworks for stability to be constructed within the oppression of trauma.

In the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, which resulted in the mass slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, Rwanda’s invasion of the DRC further escalated the conflict. The genocide, rooted in ethnic divisions and fueled by extremist ideologies, left an indelible scar on Rwanda’s history, reshaping its trajectory and regional dynamics and putting further pressure on the ethnic dimension of tensions in the DCR. However, delving deeper into the historical narratives of Hutu and Tutsi sheds light on the intricate complexities of ethnic identities and perceptions in the region. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) puts forward a version of history that “portrays pre-colonial Rwanda as a harmonious society, where Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa were not ethnic labels but categories referring to wealth and status” (Reyntjens 2016, 62). According to this narrative, the three groups shared a common history, culture, religion, and space. Intermarriage was prevalent, and social mobility was feasible, determined by one’s possession of cattle. Despite occasional conflicts, they were not primarily ethnic in nature. However, while further scholars echo the manipulation of a constructed narrative of hierarchizing and ethnicizing these identities to favor justifications for violence or victimhood, these categorizations of identity go beyond mere documentation or evaluation of the past (Mathys 2017, 469; Lemarchand 2009, 129; Eltringham 2006, 434). The Hutu historical narrative represents a subversive recasting and reinterpretation of its moral terms, termed “mythico-history” (Malkki 1995, 54-55). Termed by Liisa Malkki, “mythico-history” intertwines factual events with moral frameworks to reorder social and political categories, define the self in distinction to others, and establish a world’s moral order. In addition to the complexities of Hutu and Tutsi identities, the region’s history is also influenced by the ‘Hamitic Hypothesis,’ which posits that African ‘civilization’ was due to racially distinct Caucasoid invaders from the north/northeast of Africa (Eltringham 2006, 425-426). Both the Hamitic hypothesis and the manipulation of ethnic identities are cataclysmic forces that have fueled the flames of conflict in the region, perpetuating divisions and providing ideological ammunition for violence. However, the roots of conflict extend beyond simplified ethnic binaries. Economic interests in Congo’s rich natural resources, well-intentioned international interventions exacerbating divisions, and proxy conflicts have perpetuated cycles of violence and instability.

The Kanyarwanda War – Kanyarwanda translating to ‘Sons of Rwanda,’ but encompassing a constructed ‘Rwandanese’ identity that moved beyond Tutsi and Hutu – lasted from 1963 to 1966 and marked a pivotal moment in the history of conflict in the Congo (Prunier 2001, 147). This war erupted amidst discussions regarding provincial administrative boundaries in Kivu, but it quickly evolved into a struggle for local power dynamics and identity. They were primarily fought between the “autochthons” and the Rwandophone population, particularly the immigrants or the second wave of Rwandan migrants (Mathys 2017, 478). The concept of ‘autochthony’ encompasses the inherent connection between people and land, often influencing notions of citizenship and resource access. This is particularly evident in Kivu, where it shapes social mobilization and livelihoods, affects land rights and employment opportunities, and historically influences legal citizenship claims (Mathys 2017, 469). The conflict was about territorial disputes and access to political authority at the local and provincial levels. The Kanyarwanda War foreshadowed the deep-seated tensions that would plague the region for decades. It represented one of the earliest manifestations of violence rooted in ethnic identity and manipulation of historical narratives. The war saw the deliberate burning of archives aimed at redefining populations and categorizing Kinyarwanda speakers as “strangers” or “refugees,” effectively erasing their historical presence in the region (Mathys 2017, 478-479). This manipulation of historical records and ethnic categorizations would resurface in later conflicts, exacerbating divisions and fueling violence.

Following the Kinyarwanda War, the Congo continued to experience cycles of instability, punctuated by brief periods of fragile stability. The ousting of Mobutu during the First Congo War (1996-1997), backed by Rwanda and Uganda, led to Laurent-Désiré Kabila assuming power (Lemarchand 2013, 422). However, internal divisions and external pressures quickly led to the Second Congo War (1988-2003), drawing in multiple regional actors and proxy militias in a complex web of violence and resource exploitation. The Second Congo War unleashed a wave of brutality and suffering unparalleled in the region’s history. Estimates that the conflict resulted in the loss of approximately 3.3 million lives between August 1998 and November 2002, with millions more displaced and subjected to unspeakable atrocities (Lemarchand 2013, 422). The war was not simply a battle for political power but also a scramble for the Congo’s vast mineral wealth, which attracted many external actors with vested interests (Ahere 2012, 4). Whoever controlled the mines and local economy had financing for their military endeavors. The exploitation of resources, coupled with the failure of governance and the proliferation of armed groups, rendered the DRC essentially ungovernable, perpetuating a cycle of violence and instability (Ahere 2012, 4). The assassination of Laurent-Désiré Kabila in 2001 further destabilized the already volatile situation, fueling suspicions of external involvement in Congolese affairs (Lemarchand 2009, 122). Kabila’s death highlighted the precariousness of political leadership in the region and heightened tensions among various factions vying for power and control over the country’s vast resources.

Throughout its history, the Congo’s internal conflicts have been aggravated by external interventions and the manipulation of historical narratives and ethnic identities by both domestic and foreign actors. The legacy of colonialism, with its arbitrary borders and divisive policies, continues to haunt the region, contributing to the fragmentation of national identity and the proliferation of violence (Mathys 2017, 478). The failure of international interventions to address the root causes of conflict has only perpetuated the cycle of violence, as external actors often prioritize their strategic interests over the well-being of the Congolese people (Reyntjens 2016, 65). The more recent ‘crises of violence’ from 2003 to 2009 highlight the persistent challenges faced by the nation (Human Rights Watch 2009). Despite efforts at transitional governance, the proliferation of armed groups, internal power struggles, and external interventions continue to fuel the conflict and undermine peace-building initiatives. With news agencies reporting “panic” and “alarm” over escalating violence in 2023 and 2024, it is clear that the Congo remains ensnared in a cycle of instability where a sustainable peace that addresses the underlying causes of conflict is essential to stop the suffering of decades (Cyuzuzo and Jones 2024; Mukoni 2024).

In the intricate tapestry of Congo’s history, woven with threads of colonial oppression, post-colonial power struggles, and ethnic tensions, this historical narrative intended to unfurl a ‘neutral’ depiction of the past. However, perhaps there is no ‘one version’ of history. The Congo’s story is a mosaic, fragmented and refracted through the diverse lenses of those who have experienced its tumultuous journey. From the brutal reign of King Leopold II to the convoluted conflicts of the present day, the narratives that emerge are as varied as the voices that tell them. In this recognition of multiplicity, the essence of understanding lies – that history is not a fixed entity but a kaleidoscope of perceptions, each offering a glimpse into the intricate layers of human experience.

b) A History of Mediation and Negotiation Attempts – Beyond Why Peace Has Failed

The history of mediation, negotiation attempts, ceasefires, and peace accords in the DCR is a complex tapestry woven with threads of hope, discord, and intermittent successes overshadowed by frequent failures. Since 1999, numerous agreements, summits, and dialogues have been pursued to bring peace to a nation ravaged by internal strife and external interventions. However, the path to sustainable peace has been fraught with challenges, ranging from deep-rooted political rivalries to external interference and the complexities of resource exploitation.

In 1999, amidst escalating conflict in the DRC, the talks commenced for the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement, reflecting early attempts at negotiation and mediation. However, these agreements faced significant hurdles from the outset. The absence of key stakeholders, such as Lauren Kabila and the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), a critical rebel group, undermined the effectiveness of these initiatives (Swart and Solomon 2004, 8). Delays were also experienced over the technicalities of the draft agreement, consensus on the agenda, and choosing a suitable, ‘neutral’ mediator – eventually, the former president of Botswana, Sir Ketumile Masire, was deemed acceptable for this role (Swart and Solomon 2004, 10-13). The talks also simultaneously suffered the fragmentation of rebel factions, further complicating the peace process and highlighting the deep divisions within Congolese society. Gerrie Swart and Hussein Solomon offer a pretty condemning summary: “The Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement was born out of a desperate attempt to end the conflict in the DRC. The agreement was negotiated on idealistic and overly optimistic terms, yet on many occasions, negotiations took place in bad faith amidst the backdrop of continuous fighting among disparate participants” (Swart and Solomon 2004, 49). These initial forays into peace negotiations set the stage for the subsequent involvement of the UN Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), which played a pivotal, albeit controversial, role in facilitating peace efforts and providing stability in the region.

The transformation of the MONUC into MONUSCO in 2010 marked a symbolic shift in the UN’s interventionist approach to the Congolese conflict. Throughout its deployment, MONUC’s mandate underwent several adaptations in response to changes in the national political context, delineated into pre-transition (1999-2003), transition (2003-2007), and post-transition (2007-10) phases (Reynaert 2011, 14). Initially established as a traditional peacekeeping mission under Chapter VI to observe and monitor the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement, MONUC quickly transitioned to a more robust Chapter VII operation due to its complex conflict environment. The mission’s evolution towards a mix of peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and peace enforcement, with civilian protection as its priority, reflected the escalating violence and humanitarian crises in the DRC. Two essential factors will be acknowledged: MONUC military and civilian staff committing severe acts of sexual exploitation and abuse against the people they promised to protect, and MONUC as a ‘peacekeeping force’ using excessive force (Reynaert 2011, 11-25). While these transgressions are outside the focus of this paper, its acknowledgment is essential as it points to the broader failure of the mission in upholding its mandate. Thus, MONUC’s transformation into MONUSCO in 2010 was partly a compromise between the DRC government’s request for the mission’s withdrawal and the UN’s eagerness to consolidate its peace work while simultaneously an attempt at regaining legitimacy – hence why, arguably, this ‘transformation’ was more symbolic in nature than anything else (Swart 2012, 54). Scandal notwithstanding, MONUC/MONUSCO’s role in responding to the crisis has been mixed, with instances of intervention and failure to protect civilians. Lemarchand offers a somber analysis: “MONUC is everywhere except where it should be – at the front lines” (Lemarchand 2009, 128-129). While, at crucial moments, its interventions have saved lives, the mission’s legacy is marked by inconsistency, inefficiency, and a failure to operationalize its mandate effectively (Swart 2012, 54-55). Despite efforts to adapt and address different sources of conflict, MONUC/MONUSCO continues to grapple with systemic challenges and limitations in its ability to bring about lasting peace and stability in the DRC.

The Inter-Congolese Dialogue (ICD) in 2002, held in Sun City, South Africa, coexisted with the MONUC’s mission and, at the time, represented another ‘milestone’ in the quest for peace. However, despite its potential, the ICD faced numerous challenges and setbacks, reflecting the deep-rooted divisions within Congolese society. International disputes among Congolese factions and concerns about the neutrality of mediators hindered the progress, highlighting the complexities of navigating peace negotiations in such a volatile context (Swart and Solomon 2004). The divergence in pace between MONUC’s objectives and the slower process mandated by the ICD led to frustration within the peacekeeping mission, underscoring the practical challenges of coordinating multiple peace initiatives simultaneously (Swart and Solomon 2004, 49). But perhaps the failure of the ICD can be traced back to the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement, their ‘pillars’ mercilessly interdependent, where “the collapse of one can cause the collapse of them all:” Thus, “without the disarmament of the negative forces, the withdrawal of foreign troops was not seriously pursued, failing many of the agreements undertaken during the ICD” (Swart and Solomon 2004, 49). Despite efforts to address these issues, the Sun City Accord initially lacked inclusivity, prompting a subsequent phase of the dialogue in Pretoria. This culminated in the conclusion of the Global and Inclusive Agreement in December 2002, followed by the finalization of the Sun City dialogue in April 2003, resulting in the Final Act (Mangu and Lingandu 2011, 45-46). This agreement aimed to establish a transitional government and pave the way for free and democratic elections, offering hope for ending the legitimacy crisis that had plagued the DRC since its independence in 1960. While significant in their intentions, the culmination of the ICD and subsequent agreements ultimately failed to address the underlying issues perpetuating conflict in the DRC. However, the dissolution of these peace talks did not mark the end of challenges in the quest for peace.

In 2002, the Pretoria Agreement further sought to address the ongoing conflict by expanding the scope of dialogue and inclusivity. Suddenly, the peace movement gained momentum. Purportedly isolated by the regional and international community – being held accountable for the failure of the Sun City dialogue – Rwandan leadership made the surprising concession of withdrawing troops from the DRC, contingent upon effective measures implemented to address security threats posed by armed groups (Rogier 2003, 33-35). This arrangement allowed MONUC to gradually shift its focus towards eastern DRC from 2002, with the latest foreign troops withdrawn from the Congo in May 2003. MONUC was granted the use of “all necessary means to fulfill its mandate,” where its track record of exploitation and inefficiency led to a distrust of its mechanism as a ‘peacekeeping’ mission (Rogier 2003, 35; Reynaert 2011, 38). While MONUC played a crucial role in overseeing the repatriation of troops and verifying (forceful) compliance with the agreements, the withdrawal of foreign forces did not immediately lead to peace in the eastern DRC. Instead, it contributed to a complex and fragmented security landscape, with various armed groups vying for control over territory.

The period of ‘relative calm’ from 2003 to 2006 was marred by sporadic violence and internal rebellions, notably the Bakuvu offensive in 2004 and continued clashes with armed groups – all of which mainly was dismissed as mere “crises” rather than an acknowledgment that the root issues of the conflict had not been solved (Autesserre 2010, 62). MONUC’s efforts to restore stability were further complicated by attacks on peacekeepers and rising political tensions with the planned 2006 presidential elections in sight. This was when MONUC’s strategy changed to become more forceful. While the goal of ‘disrupting military violence by armed groups’ was mainly achieved, and the elections took place successfully, there were revenge killings on the civilian population (Reynaert 2011, 16-17). After the first presidential elections and sovereign appointment, the MONUC limited its activity in the field. As MONUC’s role evolved and the DRC formed a new government in 2007, challenges and ongoing efforts to address rebel groups persisted.

One new initiative was the Goma ‘Peace, Security, and Development Conference’ in the Kivus in 2008. The Goma Conference led to the Amani process, a bureaucratic and idealistic attempt to achieve peace in eastern DRC. Trying to outrun the mistakes from the past, all conference participants would receive USD 135 per diem, and soon attendance swelled from 600 participants to 1,500, including some sub-groups of rebel coalitions and grassroots organizations that were never heard of before (Lemarchand 2009, 120-121). Between the complex network of committees and subcommittees, the vast amount of attendees, and the unclear agenda, the Amani process ultimately failed to consider “the gap between its blueprint for peace and the reality of the ongoing war” (Lemarchand 2009, 121). While a ceasefire was agreed upon, it was quickly broken, with no clear evidence of who violated it first. Lemarchand accurately attributes that it was “difficult to imagine that anything constructive could have emerged from its bureaucratic machinery” (Lemarchand 2009, 121). Thus, while another attempt at peace, the Goma and Amani process was perhaps not as genuine as the others and more symbolic of what ‘the outsiders’ wanted to do for ‘the insiders,’ merely fighting a fire and not bothering to find the source of the flames.

From 2008 to 2010, efforts to achieve peace in the DRC faced numerous setbacks, highlighting the persistent challenges in resolving the conflict. The Goma Conference in January 2008 resulted in agreements establishing a ceasefire and undergoing brassage, but these commitments were quickly violated, leading to renewed fighting, particularly in the Kivu region. The failure of the Congolese army to defeat rebel groups, notably the tyrannical Lauren Nkunda’s forces, underscored the fragility of the peace process. Despite the joint military operation “Umoja Wetu” in 2009, which temporarily displaced rebel forces, violence against civilians persisted, culminating in the Kiwanja massacres in October/November 2008 (Reunaert 2011, 39). The MONUC’s mission was nowhere more shameful than in Kiwanja: “With a 120-strong peace-keeping force only half a mile away, it did nothing to prevent the killing of 150 people between 4 and 5 November 2008” (Lemarchand 2009, 128). Subsequent agreements, such as the March 23 Agreements signed in 2009, aimed at integrating rebel groups into the national army but later resulted in the splintering March 23 (M23) rebel movement, targeting ethnic minorities (McKnight 2014, 2-4). On April 4, 2012, the rebel group subsumed into the army and revolted, complaining of poor treatment. Later, in 2012, they launched an offensive, seizing Goma and several other towns (Lawal 2024). Tensions and conflict have since escalated, with rampant distrust and frustration. While the Human Rights Watch does not categorize this period of time as ‘war,’ or even ‘failed peace efforts,’ it can be understood as a “festering wound” (Human Rights Watch 2009; Swart 2012, 60). A wound that will not heal by itself but perhaps that has also been poked and prodded by people who should have left it alone.

From 2010 to 2024, the DCR continued to suffer from political instability, violence and further failed peace attempts. Despite Joseph Kabila’s re-election in 2011, the legitimacy of the electoral process was widely criticized, leading to disputes and unrest. Efforts to end the conflict included the signing of accords and the deployment of UN intervention forces in 2013, aimed at disarming rebels in the east (Wolfs 2013, 18-21). However, protests erupted in 2015 over proposed electoral law changes seen as perpetuating Kabila’s hold on power. A political deal in 2016 aimed to delay the presidential election until 2018, but the country continued to face humanitarian crises due to conflict-induced displacement (BBC 2019). The 2018 presidential election was marred by controversy, with accusations of government interference and protests from opposition candidates. Despite opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi being declared the winner, allegations of a deal with the government fueled further unrest. The resurgence of the M23 rebel group in 2022, seizing territory and advancing towards Goma, underscored the ongoing security challenges (Human Rights Watch 2022). Despite the deployment of regional and UN troops, the M23 rebels continued their advance in 2023 and 2024, highlighting the failure of peacekeeping efforts to address the root causes of conflict and instability in the DRC. These events demonstrate the deep-seated political tensions, governance issues, and regional complexities that have hindered the pursuit of peace in the DRC, perpetuating a cycle of violence and instability.

The persistent failure of peace efforts in the DRC since 1999 underscores a critical need to reevaluate the means and methods employed in mediation and negotiation attempts. Despite numerous initiatives and agreements to resolve conflict, sustainable peace has remained elusive, including the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement, the Inter-Congolese Dialogue, and various peace accords. Research has increasingly highlighted deficiencies in the effectiveness and inclusivity of these processes – from bureaucratic machinations to surface-level or symbolic attempts at getting to the root of cycles of violence – raising fundamental questions about why shortcomings persist and what can be done to address them. Yet, despite growing awareness of these issues, there appears to be a lack of concerted action to overhaul existing approaches to peacebuilding in the DRC. This raises broader questions about the political will, resources, and international commitment necessary to implement meaningful change and foster lasting peace in the region.


The mediation and negotiation attempts in the DRC have been marked by many strategies and frameworks, reflecting the complexities of the conflict and the challenges inherent in resolving it. Examining the history of peace attempts in the DRC, various practices can be identified – most less successful than others – and it is through analysis that we might learn from past practices in establishing new ways to approach peace.

i) From ‘Autonomy-Lending’ to More Authoritative Intervenors

One of the prominent mediation strategies evident in the DRC’s peace initiative is third-party interventions. However, there is a helpful scale to identify how these interventions allow for autonomy in the peace process or assume more authoritative roles: roles range from an ally, attorney, ambassador, auxiliary (facilitator), arbitrator, adviser, adjudicator, and authority (Lempereur et al. 2021, 37). These eight approaches are listed on a continuum from more party autonomy towards control by the third party. Throughout the years, different actors and organizations have assumed these roles in attempts to mediate between conflicting parties in the DRC. An example of an intervenor who might take a more ally or attorney role could be the African Union (AU), the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) and Uganda, due to their regional proximity, cultural understanding, and vested interests in fostering indigenous solutions. In 2005, the AU and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development formulated and adopted a plan for conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction (Ahere 2012, 2). Unfortunately, despite the numerous peace talks and with backing from multiple actors, including the UN, the DRC continued to experience high levels of violence and insecurity. This was around the same time MONUC was expressing ‘force by any means,’ and shortly before, in 2004, the sexual exploitation and abuse came to light – relevant because such actions would have undermined any autonomy-lending peace practices if larger, more authoritative actors were counteracting those initiatives. The resurgence of M23 in 2012-2013 sparked further autonomy-lending intervention from the AU, SADC, ICGLR, and Uganda, where the SADC took up the role of military protectorate – initially wanting to come under the AU, the SADC force ultimately became part of MONUSCO for financial reasons (Wolters 2020, 23). Spurred by the M23, peace talks were pursued, and a cooperation framework was signed (Wolters 2020, 24). However, two things become apparent: the regional peace initiative depended on international (financial) support, and in contexts where autonomy-lending intervenors rely heavily on international backing for logistical, financial, or military support, their autonomy and effectiveness may be constrained by the interests and priorities of external stakeholders.

The MONUC/MONUSCO exemplify a more authoritative role as intervenors due to their status under UN authority: as externally appointed entities, they operate within a defined mandate and authority to enforce peace agreements – as seen by the clause “all necessary means to fulfill its mandate” (Reynaert 2011, 38). However, the concurrently running Inter-Congolese Dialogue (ICD) and the MONUC/MONUSCO missions exemplify an attempt to find a balance between an ‘autonomy-lending’ intervention and a more authoritative one. The failure of this balance lay in the synchronization of these efforts, as the pace and priorities of peacekeeping operations did not align with the negotiation processes (Swart and Solomon 2004, 26-27). Perhaps there is more to say for official mediation talks (autonomy-lending) alongside ‘peacekeeping’ operations (authoritative intervention). Arguably, the real failure lies in the authoritative intervention represented by an international actor with a historically controversial background instead of a regional actor.

By delineating between autonomy-lending and more authoritative intervention in third-party mediation efforts, it is possible to recognize the approaches to intervention as on a spectrum. The significance of this distinction becomes evident in understanding how different actors and organizations, such as the AU, SADC, ICGLR, MONUC/MONUSCO, and Uganda, navigate their roles and influence the peace process. Regional intervenors often bring cultural understanding and vested interests in fostering local solutions. At the same time, international actors like MONUC/MONUSCO operate under defined mandates but may face challenges in building trust and legitimacy. Moreover, the analysis highlights the need to explore how to better and more effectively synchronize mediation talks with peacekeeping operations to achieve a more cohesive approach to conflict resolution – and how to choose and fund the force. The SADC lacked the means, and MONUSCO lacked efficiency (and, arguably, empathy), so there exists a vacuum in a legitimate, respected, and trustworthy peacekeeping force. Ultimately, this analysis encourages further reflection and dialogue on considering autonomy-lending and more authoritative intervention in third-party mediation efforts, emphasizing the need for strategic coordination and resource allocation to address the complexities of conflict effectively.

ii) Underlying Motivations and the BATNA – The Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, Even in Worst-Case-Scenarios

Remarkably, scholars and researchers can ascertain why peace has failed and how to mediate ‘better’ with more solutions and different approaches. Yet, it is unclear what the forces and civilians on the ground want. Perhaps this is why the ‘historical narrative’ section in this paper struggled to grasp the underlying perceptions driving narratives of conflict; it is unclear what the underlying motivations are. In their 1981 book ‘Getting to Yes: Negotiating Without Giving In,’ Roger Fisher and William Ury coin a relevant term and implicitly offer another layer of analysis: The BATNA – the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (FIsher and Ury 2011, 73). While self-explanatory, in the context of the DRC, it refers to the perception of when violence is worth more than any negotiated agreement. Understanding the BATNA of different rebel groups and factions can shed light on their motivations, goals, and potential for reaching a peaceful solution.

In the DRC, various rebel groups have emerged, each with grievances, agendas, and BATNAs. These groups often arise from ethnic tensions, economic disparities, and political marginalization, seeking to challenge the central government’s authority or advance specific interests. For instance, the M23 rebel movement, which resurged in 2012-2013, aimed to challenge the government’s legitimacy and gain control over resource-rich territories in the eastern region. Their BATNA, on the surface, appears to include continued military engagement, territorial expansion, and leveraging external support to advance their cause. However, it is impossible to honestly know without asking and instead assuming or projecting what they might want. Other rebel groups, such as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), have pursued their agendas through violence, seeking to destabilize the region and exploit its resources. Their BATNAs may revolve around maintaining control over lucrative mining areas, engaging in illicit activities such as smuggling and extortion, resisting government efforts to dismantle their operations, or wanting to feel listened to. The bottom line is that knowing about someone else’s BATNA holds power – the point at which an actor is willing to walk away from a peace process is a crucial point to be aware of (Fisher and Ury 2011, 73-78). What one group perceives as a viable alternative to negotiation may differ significantly from another’s perspective. Hence, recognizing the fluidity and variability of BATNAs highlights the need for nuanced and context-specific approaches to mediation and conflict resolution. Furthermore, BATNAs can inform strategies for engagement and negotiation, helping mediators and policymakers identify potential areas of compromise and leverage. By recognizing the factors that drive rebel groups’ decision-making processes and their thresholds for accepting or rejecting peace agreements, stakeholders can develop more effective interventions that address underlying grievances and promote sustainable peace.

It is essential to acknowledge the difference between a BATNA and an agenda: while several ceasefires and agreements have been contingent on ‘complete withdrawals’ or veiled ultimatums, the UN and MONUC/MONUSCO, by extension, are shaped by geopolitical interests, humanitarian concerns, and peacebuilding objectives. While these intervenors aim to facilitate dialogue, protect civilians, and support governance reforms, their effectiveness depends on political will, resource allocation, and coordination with local stakeholders. These agendas can influence how they define and pursue their BATNA in negotiations and peacekeeping efforts – for example, what underlying motivations validated the use of potentially excessive force in ensuring peace? However, these agendas may also face tensions or contradictions, as pursuing one objective may conflict with another or the interests of local stakeholders and rebel groups. Therefore, it is beneficial to consider the interplay between agenda and BATNA for designing effective intervention strategies that address and identify what different agendas and BATNAs may exist.

Another layer worth examining presents itself: many proxy actors and conflicts exist in the DRC – where one belligerent is a non-state actor supported by an external third power (Eltringham 2006, 434; Lemarchand 2009, 121). Thus, there are the local actors (rebel groups and factions, and the Congolese army and government), neighboring countries and regional actors (the AU and SADC as peace advocates, and combative forces from and conflicts with Rwanda and Burundi), international actors (the UN and the MONUC/MONUSCO missions), and proxy actors (Rwanda’s proxy in North Kivu through Conseil National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) and constructed ‘Tutsi’ identities as “proxy colonists”) (Eltringham 2006, 434; Lemarchand 2009, 121). All of whom have their own BATNAs and agendas. This complexity highlights the importance of recognizing and understanding the diverse motivations and interests in the DRC conflict and the potential for external interventions to exacerbate rather than resolve tensions. Effective conflict resolution strategies must navigate these intricate dynamics while addressing the root causes of conflict and promoting sustainable peace.

In the context of all the different actors in the DRC. Recognizing their BATNAs reveals insights into their motivations, goals, and willingness to engage in peaceful resolution. However, discerning these BATNAs poses challenges, as complex agendas and power dynamics often obscure them. It is essential that a ‘Best’ Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement could easily mean a ‘worst’ case scenario. The warning (and danger) lies in identifying the BATNA/worst-case scenario before it is too late. By recognizing the diverse motivations and objectives of actors involved in conflict, stakeholders can develop interventions that address underlying grievances and promote sustainable peace. However, navigating these dynamics requires vigilance and flexibility to adapt strategies to evolving circumstances.

iii) Overcoming Impasses in the DRC: Lessons from Mediation

A persistent challenge in mediation attempts in the DRC has been addressing impasses, stalemates, and deadlocks. The differences between the three are subtle: A stalemate refers to a situation where progress in negotiations halts due to an inability to reach an agreement, an impasse denotes a temporary suspension of the talks due to a disagreement or obstacle, and a deadlock indicates a complete cessation of the negotiations resulting from an irreconcilable disagreement or inability to move forward (Dawson 2021, 53-58). The ICD serves as a poignant example of the difficulties faced in mediation efforts: the peace dialogues were perceived by many analysts and observers as negotiations driven more by a military stalemate than a genuine desire to make significant progress or engage in constructive dialogue (Swart and Solomon 2004, 26). Initially intended to pave the way for a new political dispensation to free the Congolese people from foreign occupation and interference, the dialogue faced numerous deadlocks. These deadlocks led to a situation where low-intensity conflict remained the preferred option (the BATNA) for many external actors involved in the mediation process. Despite efforts to employ various mediation strategies, including the “Set-Aside Gambit” to resolve minor issues first to build momentum, the persistence of deadlocks highlights the entrenched nature of the conflict and the challenges of finding mutually acceptable solutions (Dawson 2021, 53). Different negotiation strategies relevant to the context can be pursued in differentiating between impasses, stalemates, and deadlocks. In a complex context like the DRC, regenerating momentum in mediation requires a multi-faceted approach. First, it should consider the interests and not the positions; this includes differentiating between the surface-level demands and the genuine motivations of the actors involved (and their BATNAs) (Ury 1993, 9). Then, focusing on more minor demands or interests is more manageable than immediately going for the most significant points of contention (Dawson 2021, 53). However, genuine political will to resolve differences is also necessary. The point is that while mediation strategies such as the “Set-Aside Gambit” and others can effectively address impasses and stalemates, they may not be sufficient to overcome deep-seated deadlocks rooted in fundamental disagreements or power imbalances. Therefore, a nuanced understanding of the underlying dynamics of the conflict, coupled with a comprehensive approach that combines creative negotiation techniques with genuine political commitment from all parties involved, is essential for making meaningful progress toward lasting peace in the DRC.

iv) Ethical Dilemmas and Fundamental Differences: Negotiating in a Polarized Context – The DRC Past, Present, and Future

Negotiating in a polarized context presents many ethical dilemmas and challenges rooted in deep-seated fundamental differences among conflicting parties. The complexity of negotiations in the DRC goes beyond simple, one-issue scenarios, requiring consideration of multiple variables, tactics, and strategies. Effective negotiators must navigate multi-issue negotiations with complexity, uncertainty, and diverse perspectives. However, negotiating ethically becomes increasingly challenging in such contexts, as many people, including negotiators and third-party mediators, engage in unethical behaviors stemming from unconscious psychological processes, a phenomenon known as bounded ethicality (Malhotra and Bazerman 2007, 130-131). Negotiating in a polarized environment exacerbates these challenges as attitudes and opinions become more entrenched, leading to heightened emotions and ego involvement (Grim 2013, 107). Rationality in such contexts necessitates strategies that enable negotiators to transcend their personal biases and emotional attachments to positions. The work of negotiation experts like Ury and Fisher provides valuable insights into mitigating polarization and fostering constructive dialogue. They advocate for techniques such as “going to the balcony” to gain a detached perspective on the issues and ego-distancing to reduce personal identification with positions (Ury 1993, 22). Furthermore, shifting from positional negotiation, where parties adhere rigidly to specific positions, to a mutual exploration of underlying interests and principles can facilitate resolution (Grim 2013, 108). In the DRC, where conflicts often stem from deep-seated grievances and power struggles, these negotiation frameworks can help negotiators navigate ethical dilemmas and bridge fundamental differences. However, the practical application of these strategies requires increased awareness of psychological pitfalls and a commitment to upholding ethical standards (Malhotra and Bazerman 2007, 33-37). Negotiators must recognize their vulnerability to bounded ethicality and actively work to mitigate unconscious unethical behaviors. However, as ‘an outsider looking in,’ these strategies and recommendations sound like idealistic theories where the on-the-ground reality makes it much more difficult to ‘go to the balcony’ or be aware of bounded ethicality (Mathys 2017, 487). The complexities and dynamics of the conflict in the DRC often defy theoretical frameworks and prescribed solutions. Negotiators must grapple with the harsh realities of entrenched polarization, deep-seated grievances, and power struggles that permeate every aspect of the negotiation process. Any theory or analysis projected onto this reality is insufficient and thus necessitates a nuanced, context-specific approach. Therefore, these written ramblings hope to elicit further awareness and contribute to relevant discourses. Negotiating in a polarized context like the DRC demands a delicate balance of theory and practice, empathy, and pragmatism. While negotiation frameworks offer valuable insights, they must be tempered with a deep understanding of the socio-political dynamics and cultural nuances inherent in the conflict. The challenges of ethical dilemmas and fundamental differences underscore the need for negotiators to transcend their personal biases and actively work toward genuine dialogue and reconciliation. The journey towards sustainable peace and stability in the DRC is fraught with complexities and uncertainties. Still, meaningful progress can be achieved through a nuanced, context-specific approach. These reflections serve as a call to action and a testament to our collective responsibility to contribute to positive change in the region.


(1) Customizing Peace: Tailoring Mediation Efforts for Congo’s Context

Mediation efforts in the DRC must be tailored to the region’s unique socio-political dynamics and historical grievances. Flexibility in mediation strategies is crucial to addressing local communities’ specific needs and aspirations, considering their cultural sensitivities and aspirations for sustainable peace.

(2) Empowering Voices: Inclusive Dialogue for Congo’s Peace

In advocating for inclusive dialogue aimed at fostering peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it is imperative to engage a diverse array of stakeholders, including civil society organizations, community leaders, women, youth, and marginalized groups. This inclusive approach allows for a comprehensive understanding of the complex dynamics at play within the conflict. A 2010 report from the Initiative for Peacebuilding (IFP) on mediation lessons from Eastern DRC advocates for international actors to prioritize the development of robust local networks to facilitate the integration of locally derived analysis into broader discussions and policy formulations at both national and regional levels (Nsengimana, Kemenade, and Tobie 2010, 19-20). However, in doing so, it is crucial to recognize the potential risks associated with inadvertently undermining local mediation efforts. Indeed, specific conflicts may necessitate resolution at the grassroots level, where those directly impacted possess a vested interest in achieving lasting peace. Thus, international support should be channeled towards bolstering local mediation initiatives and building the capacity of grassroots organizations to effectively engage in conflict resolution activities aligned with broader peacebuilding strategies.

(3) Building Peacebuilders: Strengthening Capacity For Conflict Resolution

Investing in DRC capacity-building programs for local mediators and peacebuilders is essential for fostering sustainable peace processes and promoting community ownership of peacebuilding endeavors (Lemarchand 2013, 433). These initiatives aim to equip local actors with enhanced skills in conflict resolution, negotiation techniques, and dialogue facilitation. By strengthening their capacity in these areas, local peacebuilders can be more active and influential in mediating conflicts and facilitating peace initiatives within their communities. Moreover, empowering local actors in conflict resolution fosters a sense of ownership and agency over peacebuilding efforts, ensuring that initiatives are tailored to affected communities’ specific needs and contexts. This approach promotes greater inclusivity and representation in peace processes and enhances the sustainability and resilience of peacebuilding initiatives in the long term. Therefore, investing in capacity-building programs for local peacebuilders represents a critical step towards building a more peaceful and resilient society in the DRC.

(4) Ethical Mediation: Upholding Standards for Peace Negotiators

It is imperative to establish transparent, ethical standards and guidelines for negotiators and third-party mediators engaged in peace processes within the (DRC. Training initiatives should be implemented to raise awareness of ethical dilemmas and bounded ethicality among mediators, thereby mitigating the risk of unconscious unethical behavior and preserving the integrity of the mediation process (Malhotra and Bazerman 2007, 130-131). These programs should offer comprehensive guidance on ethical conduct, emphasizing the importance of impartiality, transparency, and respect for human rights principles. By understanding and compromise. Moreover, collaborative mediation strategies promote inclusivity and empower stakeholders to participate actively in the negotiation process, ensuring their interests and concerns are adequately addressed. Through effective mediation frameworks, stakeholders can work together to identify shared goals and develop mutually beneficial solutions, ultimately contributing to the sustainable resolution of conflicts in the DRC.

(5) Collaborative Solutions: Applying Effective Mediation Frameworks
Encouraging collaborative approaches that prioritize mutual exploration, objective criteria, and joint problem-solving over positional negotiation is essential in promoting sustainable peace processes in the DRC. As advocated by negotiation experts such as Ury and Fisher, these frameworks emphasize building trust and fostering constructive dialogue among conflicting parties, thereby facilitating the resolution of complex issues arising from the conflict. By promoting a shift away from adversarial tactics towards cooperative problem-solving, stakeholders can create an environment conducive to mutual understanding and compromise. Moreover, collaborative mediation strategies promote inclusivity and empower stakeholders to participate actively in the negotiation process, ensuring their interests and concerns are adequately addressed. Through effective mediation frameworks, stakeholders can work together to identify shared goals and develop mutually beneficial solutions, ultimately contributing to the sustainable resolution of conflicts in the DRC.

(6) Development for Peace: Integrating Conflict-Sensitive Approaches

Incorporating conflict-sensitive approaches into development programs in the DRC is crucial for addressing the underlying causes of conflict, fostering socio-economic inclusion, and enhancing community resilience. These approaches aim to identify and mitigate factors contributing to conflict, such as structural inequalities and grievances, while promoting sustainable development. By integrating conflict-sensitive strategies into development initiatives, stakeholders can work towards long-term peacebuilding and stability in the country. This involves not only addressing immediate needs but also tackling systemic issues that perpetuate violence and instability. Furthermore, fostering socio-economic inclusion through development programs can empower marginalized groups and reduce the likelihood of conflict by addressing underlying grievances and disparities. Integrating conflict-sensitive approaches into development efforts is essential for promoting lasting peace and resilience in the DRC.

(7) Sustained Commitment: Prioritizing Long-Term Peacebuilding Efforts

To prioritize long-term peacebuilding efforts in the DRC, stakeholders must commit to sustained investment and dedication. Long-term strategies to foster trust, reconciliation, and social cohesion are crucial for laying the groundwork for durable peace and stability in the country. This requires continuous support and engagement from national and international actors to ensure peacebuilding initiatives are effectively implemented and sustained over time. By prioritizing sustained commitment to peacebuilding, stakeholders can create a more peaceful and stable environment in the DRC, benefiting current and future generations.


Mediation is a pivotal mechanism for peacebuilding and navigating the complexities of conflict and identity within the DCR. The interplay between conflict and identity underscores the intricate nature of peace negotiations, which require a nuanced understanding of the historical context and the underlying catalysts driving violence. While mediation and negotiation frameworks are indispensable tools in this pursuit, bridging the chasm between theory and reality remains a formidable hurdle. Amidst staggering death tolls and widespread displacement, a sense of fatalism pervades discussions about Congo’s plight. Despite numerous peace agreements, the cycle of suffering persists, fueled by entrenched tensions and inequalities. Yet, sustained commitment to long-term peacebuilding offers hope for a brighter future. Prioritizing strategies that nurture trust, foster reconciliation, and promote social cohesion holds the promise of addressing the root causes of conflict, paving the arduous path toward enduring peace in the DRC. However, failure to heed this call risks perpetuating the cycle of violence and suffering, casting a shadow over the prospects for a brighter future in the heart of Africa.


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Emma Holtslag

Belgian-Mexican national, growing up in Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, and the United Arab Emirates. From this multicultural tapestry, I am fluent in Dutch and English, with a working proficiency in Spanish and currently learning Arabic. I am in the final stages of my master’s and am currently applying for internships and PhD positions.

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