Editor's Note: This op-ed, written by Retired Army Col. Rick Orth originally appeared on Stars and Stripes. Col. Rick Orth is a senior fellow with the Enough Project. He served as the U.S. defense attache to Rwanda (1996-1998), Uganda (2001-2005), and Ethiopia and Djibouti (2005-2006), as well as the military adviser to the assistant secretary of state for African affairs (2006-2008).
The Congolese military has again been accused of significant human-rights abuses, including mass rape. Recently, the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office released a report concerning abuses by the Congolese Army (FARDC) as it retreated from advancing M23 rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo between Nov. 15 and Dec. 2.
The report focused on mass rapes in and around the town of Minova. Among the Congolese soldiers who perpetrated these gross human-rights abuses were members of the U.S.-trained 391st Commando Battalion. The Congolese military has suspended the commander and deputy commander of this battalion along with 12 other officers as it continues its investigation.
Officers and soldiers must be brought to justice for their crimes. In addition, because they are in the military, they must also be punished for dereliction of duty and failure to maintain discipline.
Military forces must be held to higher standards than their civilian counterparts, given that the profession of arms uses controlled violence and deadly force to protect the country and its citizens. Unfortunately, in the Congolese case, the military tends to use violence and force to abuse rather than protect the population.
These events again illuminate the historically dysfunctional Congolese military institution. Will justice be served in this case? A focus on building a functioning military justice system would be a logical answer, as it would hold officers and soldiers accountable for their actions as well as serve as a deterrent for misconduct and abuses. However, realistically speaking, Congo’s army lacks most of the elements that would comprise a professional military, such as logistics, a transparent payroll system and military justice, to name just a few.
The U.S. departments of State and Defense understood the risks associated with training the 391st Commando Battalion, especially given the institutional dysfunction of the Congolese army. However, they needed a battalion capable of engaging some of the so-called “Negative Forces” — the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, and various Congolese rebel groups that now include the M23 — operating in and terrorizing eastern Congo. U.S. military training for foreign militaries includes human-rights and law-of-land warfare modules. Given the heightened awareness to gender-based violence in eastern Congo, U.S. military training stressed the importance of human rights and expanded these modules.
However, units are only as good as their commanders. Additionally, if a highly trained unit operates in a dysfunctional system with low wages, no logistics and non-existent military justice, it likely will revert to its old ways.
Congolese security forces dating back to the Belgian Force Publique have a history of brutality toward the civilian population that only became worse under former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The current military — an amalgamation of the former Zairian forces and various rebel factions that have been integrated into the army by the government and trained by myriad foreign countries including the U.S. — requires a major institutional overhaul, and it will take years to instill a professional military ethos that has broken with its brutal, corrupt and predatory past.
What to do and how to tackle this seemingly daunting task? First, the international community, including the U.S. government, must hold President Joseph Kabila and the senior Congolese leadership accountable and stop making excuses for their failure to uphold agreements, which has been a major cause for flare-ups in the conflict.
Second, the U.S. and European Union should deploy senior-level envoys to support former Irish President Mary Robinson as the new U.N. special envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa. Her role will be critical in better coordinating and synchronizing international efforts to ensure real implementation of Congolese reforms, including improving the Congolese army as a professional institution with emphasis on logistics, a military finance system and military justice.
Third, given that the U.S. currently provides a series of officer training courses in an effort to professionalize the Congolese army, the U.S. should lead efforts to build a credible and effective Congolese military justice system. This effort should include helping review and revise as needed the current Congolese Code of Military Justice, training the military lawyers in the code and how to implement it, ensuring the current officer training curriculum covers the code and its implementation, and a FARDC-wide education campaign on the importance of military justice to include the consequences for failure to uphold the code.
The horrific spree of sexual violence in Minova is a stain on our consciences. But if there is a silver lining to that incident, let it be an opening window to enact the real justice reforms needed to ensure that such a case never happens again.
Photo: Congolese government soldiers (FARDC) patrol the streets of Minova. (AP)