U-Turn: Time for U.S., U.K. to Change Rwanda Policy

 

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo and WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Evidence is mounting that Rwanda is supporting the new rebellion in eastern Congo, the M23, with recruits, weapons, and ammunition. Following interviews with 23 recent alleged Rwandan recruits and several other eyewitnesses, Human Rights Watch reported on Monday in intricate, horrifying detail how Rwanda has been allegedly recruiting, abducting, and helping train between 200-300 of its own nationals to fight with the M23 since February. Children had been pulled out of movie theaters, and defectors had their heads bashed in with hammers, according to the report.

The previous week, U.N. officials stated that their interviews with 11 other Rwandan recruits revealed that 500 Rwandans had been recruited to join the Rwandan army and then taken by Rwanda military officers overnight to eastern Congo to train with the M23 rebels, following a BBC story on the internal report. This follows an extensive U.N. report in December 2011, which alleges that significant amounts of conflict minerals from eastern Congo were likely being smuggled to Rwanda, and ICC-wanted war criminal and possible M23 leader Bosco Ntaganda traveled repeatedly to Rwanda in 2011.

The United States and United Kingdom have been Rwanda’s most prominent allies over the past 18 years yet have not commented on the scandal since it broke last week. Together, the two countries are by far the largest donors to Rwanda, providing an estimated $344 million in annual aid, in addition to ongoing military training and assistance, as well as allying with Rwanda on security and other international issues.

The U.N., U.S., and U.K. should immediately make public their understanding of the role of Rwanda in the conflict in eastern Congo and the extent of their bilateral and multilateral relations with that country.

Given the wealth of evidence provided for grave human rights abuses linked to the Rwandan military in eastern Congo, the U.S. and U.K. governments should ensure that a transparent international investigation is launched into the allegations of Rwandan involvement in the conflict in eastern Congo. While this is ongoing, the U.S. and U.K. should immediately suspend bilateral and multilateral budget support payments to the Rwandan government, and look closely at other aid categories that might be suspended as well depending upon the outcome of the investigation.

If these continued allegations are proven true, it means that beyond the brazen breach of Congolese national sovereignty, Rwanda is also in violation of several international laws and agreements, including a U.N. arms embargo on Congo, the crime of aggression through fomenting conflict in a neighboring country, and the forced recruitment of child soldiers. The U.S. and U.K. must send a clear signal to Rwanda that manipulation of security and political structures in eastern Congo will not be accepted nor ignored. The U.S. and U.K. will have to immediately reassess the nature of their policies and relationships with Rwanda to ensure that, by extension, they are not being willingly complicit in supporting these violations of international law. 

A recent U.N. investigation found that Rwandan recruits were crossing into Congolese soil with arms and ammunition as early as February of this year. The internal U.N. report has been kept strictly confidential, but a U.N. source told Enough that the allegations were accurate, and that 24 Rwandan nationals are currently at the U.N. transit camp for demobilized combatants in Goma. The U.N. has strictly forbidden access to these individuals, apparently because of Rwandan government pressure. According to sources within the U.N. and the Congolese army, the fighters were trained in Rwanda, as the BBC reported. Human Rights Watch published similar evidence on June 4, reinforcing allegations that Rwanda is arming and staffing the mutiny. New recruits have brought Kalashnikov assault rifles, machine guns, and anti-aircraft artillery to Runyoni, in Rutshuru territory, the main base of the rebellion. Intelligence and military officials, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed to the Enough Project the recruitment start date of early February.

Some of the Rwandan nationals were forcefully recruited, according to both the U.N. source Enough spoke to and HRW. HRW also found that some recruits are children under the age of 18.

The U.N. bases its allegations on statements from 11 Rwandan recruits who turned themselves in for demobilization. “They were recruited with the pretext to join the Rwandan army, and not to fight in a rebellion on foreign territory,” the U.N. source said. As of last week, at least 14 Rwandan nationals had turned themselves over to the U.N. and are in the U.N. transit camp in Goma. No outside investigators are allowed to speak to the surrenders out of fear that the incident could become a diplomatic nightmare. "They said they were recruited in a village called Mundede, that they received training in handling weapons and that they were sent to the DRC to join M23," said Hiroute Guebre-Selassie, head of the U.N. mission in Congo, MONUSCO.

The Rwandan government has vehemently denied any involvement with the rebel group. Its foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, called the allegations “categorically false and dangerous.” U.N. Special Representative to Congo Roger Meece has reportedly been invited by Rwandan President Paul Kagame to account for the allegations. A joint commission by both countries has been established to investigate the allegations, but U.N. sources told the Enough Project that Rwanda is pushing its Congolese counterparts on the commission to misrepresent the surrendered fighters as people of “Congolese Kinyarwanda speaking backgrounds” rather than Rwandan nationals.

As more evidence of the close collaboration between the mutineers and the Rwandan government surfaces, the CNDP political wing—whose former members largely make up the new M23 group—has now declared its opposition to the Congolese president who they helped to reelect in last year’s elections through voter fraud and violence. The CNDP disavowed the presidential majority on June 2, making the same complaints as the M23 when it publicly established its agenda a few weeks ago. The CNDP political leadership has distanced itself from the M23, in an attempt to ensure it will not be blamed for violating the Congolese constitution’s provision that prohibits political parties from having military forces. However, the similar grievances articulated by both point to a close association between the CNDP-affiliated politicians and rebels that is difficult to ignore.

Photo: A soldier in eastern Congo (AP)