UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Friday to cut 500 troops from the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo and improve its operations to focus on protecting civilians and enabling presidential elections this year — key steps urged by the Trump administration.
The French-drafted resolution is the first adopted since the U.S. began a review of the 16 U.N. peacekeeping missions as part of its plan to cut foreign aid and reform U.N. operations.
Its support by all 15 council members, after difficult negotiations, reflects widespread backing for the U.S. goal of streamlining the U.N.'s far-flung operations that deploy over 107,000 troops and civilians at an annual cost of over $7.8 billion.
The Congo mission, known as MONUSCO, is the biggest and costliest with a budget of $1.2 billion and about 22,400 people, including nearly 17,000 soldiers and over 1,350 police. The resolution will cut the number of troops by 500 but won't affect the number of police.
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told the council she was "very proud" that all members had voted to cut the troop ceiling and make the mission stronger and more effective. The U.N. force is going "to make sure the elections are safe, to make sure that we're keeping people safe, and that we're actually looking at the political problems on the ground," she said.
Later, Haley issued a statement saying: "It's not every day that the United Nations saves millions of dollars and improves accountability, while at the same time doing its essential work of protecting civilians. With the support of the Security Council, we are changing lives and the culture of the U.N. for the better."
France's U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre said the unanimous adoption sends a message to Congo of Security Council unity and support for "stability and democracy" in the country which faces "political and security challenges."
The vast Central African nation has seen widespread anger and unrest over President Joseph Kabila's stay in power after his mandate ended in December. Kabila is barred from running under a Dec. 31 election agreement that calls for elections by the end of 2017, but his government has delayed voting, saying preparations are not complete.
Congo also faces clashes in its mineral-rich east where scores of armed groups vying for control of gold and other resources are blamed for killing hundreds of civilians since October 2014. And violence has spread to other regions including Kasai.
The resolution authorizes the replacement of some troops with better-trained specialized units and gives the force a green light to intervene anywhere in the country if needed and not just in the volatile east. It calls for a strategic review in September, a move Haley called "one of the best things" because it will enable the council to make sure its actions are working "and meeting the goals that we had."
She said the resolution will also measure what troops are accomplishing, "where the troop failures are ... and to hold those troops accountable to do the best job that they can do."
The resolution, which extends MONUSCO's mandate until March 31, 2018, also calls for a dialogue between the U.N. and the Congolese government on an "exit strategy. It stresses that MONUSCO's exit should be "phased and progressive" and tied to specific targets.
At the start of Friday's council meeting, members stood in silent tribute to two U.N. experts killed while investigating alleged human rights violations by the Congolese army and local militia groups — American Michael Sharp and Swedish national Zaida Catalan — and all other victims of violence in the country. The bodies of Sharp, Catalan and their interpreter, Betu Tshintela, were found earlier this week but three other Congolese members of their team remain missing.
Haley told the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday that the United Nations is partnering with a "corrupt" government in Congo "that is inflicting predatory behavior against its own people."
In an interview Thursday with four news agencies, Haley said the U.N. is "trying to get aid to the people on the ground and the government's not letting us."
"We can't work in spite of the government," Haley said. "We need to actually hold the government accountable, and whether that's us moving forward on an arms embargo, whether its sanctions, we've got to do something to let them know this is not OK."
Congo's U.N. ambassador, Ignace Gata Mavita, welcomed "with satisfaction" the new mandate and arrangements for improving MONUSCO's effectiveness. But he said the government "does feel certain fears" at the council's failure to include the disarmament of armed groups and reform of the security and justice sectors as "strategic priorities."
In Congo, there are mixed feelings about the mission's future.
Rebels and militias are still attacking Congolese communities, and some question the strength of the U.N. force. Others point to peacekeepers accused of sexual exploitation and other abuses within the areas where they are posted.
In the northeastern town of Beni, some 1,500 peacekeepers from Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa have been on the front line with the Congolese military in an attempt to protect civilians from brutal rebel groups. Some, though, accuse the U.N. forces to doing too little.
Solange Mastaki fled to Beni back in 2015 after his hometown of Eringeti was attacked by Ugandan rebels from the group known as ADF.
"I lost my younger sister in this attack on Eringeti," he recalled Friday. "We had seen the rebels around 3 p.m. and had informed MONUSCO but they didn't intervene. We want them to go back where they came from because they do nothing here."
Still, Romain Paluku says he doesn't believe the solution is to reduce the U.N. headcount.
"We're still waiting for more soldiers to come track down and neutralize these armed groups," he said.
Associated Press writer Al-hadji Kudra Maliro in Beni, Congo, contributed to this report.