The United Nations Mission in the Congo, known by its French acronym MONUC, is once again facing public criticism. An article in today’s Washington Post shows how MONUC’s support for the Congolese army’s operations against rebel groups in eastern Congo continues to support some of the army’s most abusive commanders.
The U.N. faced withering criticism last year for its support role in operation Kimia II, which led to more than 1,000 civilians killed and 900,000 displaced. Pressure from human rights groups and activists was instrumental in forcing the U.N. to include greater safeguards to prevent support for abusive units.
As of this past November, senior MONUC officials, including its head Alan Doss, have been adamant that they are doing their due diligence in hand-picking which Congolese army commanders to support and blacklisting those responsible for attacks on civilians. But as the stark testimonies in today’s article by the Post’s Stephanie McCrummen reveal, things are not exactly going according to plan.
McCrummen follows the story of a Congolese army lieutenant colonel named Innocent Zimurinda. In October, Zimurinda’s name appeared on a list of problematic army commanders (beginning on page 276) compiled by the U.N. group of experts, tying him to massacres, executions, gang rapes, and recruitment of child soldiers. Yet, according to Zimurinda and his officers, U.N. support continued through December and January. “Anytime we ask [MONUC] to supply us, they supply,” one of Zimurinda’s officers told McCrummen.
A MONUC spokesman acknowledged that while the U.N.’s support to Zimurinda officially ended in November, provisions “in the pipeline” may have continued to flow to his units while the U.N. sorted out legal issues related to the case. In a rare interview with the Washington Post, Zimurinda commented on his ties to MONUC: "We cannot say we are happy with the level of support,” he said. “But anyway, we want to say ‘thank you’ to the U.N."
The support to Zimurinda is occurring within the context of operation Amani Leo, the new name for joint Congolese/United Nations military operations against the rebel group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR. According to MONUC, Amani Leo (Swahili for “peace today”) puts much greater emphasis on civilian protection than the maligned Kimia II. Yet despite the rebranding, little change has been seen on the ground. Military operations supported by the U.N. continue to endanger civilian lives and FARDC commanders, like Zimurinda, with known abuses in the past continue to operate.
Last week, 50 Congolese human rights and civil society organizations and Human Rights Watch logged a complaint about Colonel Zimurinda with General Amuli Bahigwa, the top ranking Congolese army commander for operations in the eastern region. The four-page complaint detailed abuses committed by troops under Zimurinda’s command since 2007 and called for an immediate investigation into the allegations. Responding to a question in a press conference last week, likely spurred on by the organizations’ complaint, Under-Secretary for Peacekeeping Operations Alain Le Roy said:
“We have made clear to the Congolese Government officials…that MONUC does not support units with which Mr. Zimulinda is involved; in the same manner, Mr. Bosco Ntanganda [sic] is not in the chain of command of operations we support.”
Amid the many questions raised in McCrummen’s piece today – in particular, Zimurinda’s evasion of a question about backing from Rwanda raises red flags – what’s clear is that a thorough investigation into Zimurinda’s ties is overdue. The U.N. Group of Experts already laid the foundation; it shouldn’t require being called out by the Washington Post to motivate Congolese authorities to follow up.
Photo: Mugunga camp in North Kivu province (Enough/Laura Heaton)