The Congo Advocacy Coalition, a group of 100 aid and human rights organizations, sent a letter last week to John Holmes, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, in advance of his visit to eastern Congo. Holmes is visiting internally displaced persons, or IDP, camps in North Kivu province as well as villages wracked by the recent spate of Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, attacks in northeastern Congo. Today, Holmes called the LRA attacks “diabolical,” and vowed to “do everything he could to protect people in eastern Congo” from future attacks.
The letter urges Holmes to ensure that the U.N. mission in Congo, or MONUC, works closely with the Rwandan and Congolese armies to make civilian protection a top priority in their joint military operation against the FDLR, the Rwandan Hutu militia led by former genocidaires from the 1994 genocide:
It is crucial that the Rwandan and Congolese armies, together with MONUC, take steps immediately to ensure that civilians are protected throughout the military operations, by rigorously applying international humanitarian law, limiting further displacement, promoting humanitarian access and systematically mitigating against known threats to civilians and non-combatants. We hope that you will use your trip to eastern Congo this week, and follow-up meetings in New York, to ensure that MONUC and other relevant actors have the resources needed to protect civilians effectively.
In a statement over the weekend from Goma, Holmes noted that there are still more than 800,000 IDPs in North Kivu. Holmes viewed the recent return of Congolese civilians displaced by last fall’s violence and of Rwandan civilians and former FDLR militia attempting to repatriate amid the current military offensive as “a sign for cautious optimism after the horrific violence of recent months, and indeed years.” However, Holmes acknowledged that:
The risks to civilians still remain high, including from the current operations against the FDLR. Many more displaced people in North Kivu desperately want to return to their homes, but are understandably worried that their security cannot yet be assured.
Holmes and the Congo Advocacy Coalition appear to be on the same page regarding the necessity of civilian protection in eastern Congo. Whether this objective will be realized remains to be seen and will depend largely on the pressure MONUC exerts on the Rwandan and Congolese militaries to prioritize civilian protection.
As the Coalition’s letter notes, the “unimaginable brutality suffered by Congolese civilians in northeastern Congo” in the wake of the botched joint military operation against the LRA is a very recent reminder of the disastrous consequences of operations that forsake civilian protection.