Last week’s arrest of Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and the deployment of an estimated 4,000 Rwandan soldiers into eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC, as part of joint Rwandan-Congolese military operations against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, represent a major, and dangerous, crossroads. One on hand, this unusual collaboration between Congo and Rwanda could be a catalyst for fundamentally changing the dynamic of the war and ending the deadliest conflict since World War II. On the other hand, it is obvious to all involved that Congolese citizens face grave new dangers ahead. The details of the operation already underway in eastern Congo’s densely forested terrain are murky, but if previous attempts to dislodge the 6,500 strong FDLR are any indication, Congolese civilians are likely to bear the overwhelming brunt of the violence. The international community must take the following urgent actions:
- protect civilians in FDLR areas by immediately enhancing the capacity of the U.N. peacekeeping force, known as MONUC, and by pressuring Congo and Rwanda to minimize collateral damage;
- increase the desertion rate of rank-and-file FDLR through more effective and transparent disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, resettlement, and repatriation, or DDRRR, programs;
- demand international military observation of the operations and a more clearly defined role for MONUC; and,
halt the impunity that fuels rampant atrocities by securing the arrest of Bosco Ntaganda and supporting the swift expansion of the ICC’s investigations into the North and South Kivu Provinces.
If, and only if, those conditions are met, the international community should consider assisting the operations in targeting FDLR commanders by providing intelligence and tactical support.
In September and October 2008, Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defense of People, or CNDP, engaged in weeks of intense fighting with the Congolese army and its allied militias, including the FDLR. The fighting had a devastating effect on eastern Congo’s civilian population, exacerbating an already catastrophic humanitarian situation. Nkunda’s forces advanced to the doorstep of the strategic city of Goma in late October, but rather than attack, Nkunda declared a ceasefire and demanded political talks with the Congolese government. Efforts by the United Nations and others to negotiate a political solution stalemated by mid-December.
The Enough Project has consistently argued that an effective international strategy to apprehend FDLR leadership and dismantle its various militias is a necessary step to break the political deadlock and nearly 13 years of conflict in eastern Congo. Removing the FDLR would force the Congolese and Rwandan governments—along with scores of armed groups in the region—to seek political solutions to the conflict’s other main drivers—a war economy driven by illegal extraction of minerals, tensions over land-use and citizenship, and the political and economic security of ethnic minorities—and create conditions for local conflict resolution and, eventually, post-conflict reconstruction. However, as Enough has also argued, a poorly planned and executed military operation against the FDLR carries severe consequences for civilians and could propel this crisis in unpredictable and dangerous new directions.
The deal struck between Kinshasa and Kigali to arrest Nkunda and collaborate militarily against the FDLR is a seismic shift in regional relations. The broad strokes of what was agreed upon are clear: Congolese officials sought Rwandan help to get rid of Nkunda and end the CNDP rebellion, and in exchange the Rwandan military would be allowed to re-enter eastern Congo to hunt down the FDLR, whose leadership bears responsibility for the 1994 Rwandan genocide. On December 5, following bilateral talks in Goma, North Kivu Province, Congolese Foreign Affairs Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba and Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Rosemary Museminali agreed on a plan for joint military operations. However, several aspects of the operation emerging on the ground should alarm policymakers. These include:
Collaboration with an indicted war criminal: In a fantastically cynical move, the Congolese and Rwandan governments agreed to replace Nkunda with his Chief of Staff, Bosco Ntaganda. Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court, or ICC, for war crimes committed in 2002-2003 during the conflict that raged in Ituri province. Human Rights Watch recently documented his direct involvement in CNDP’s massacre of at least 150 civilians in the town of Kiwanja, in North Kivu. His participation in the operation is a clear threat to civilians. As a signatory to the Rome Statue that establishes the ICC, the Congolese government is obligated to arrest Ntaganda, and are thus currently in full violation of international law. His central role in the operation makes it very difficult for the international community to be supportive of much needed action against the FDLR. Using war criminals to pursue war criminals makes little sense – no matter how expedient it may appear to the operation’s planners in Kigali.
Increased vulnerability of civilians: Many FDLR have lived in eastern Congo for nearly 15 years, simultaneously integrating into and terrorizing Congolese communities. Past military operations against the FDLR have proven disastrous for these communities as FDLR fighters have chosen not to stand and fight, but have melted into the forest, and returned later to conduct “reprisal” attacks on civilians. Early reports from the ground confirm that this scenario is playing out again, and political actors in North Kivu have appealed to MONUC to protect civilians during the operation. If the bloody aftermath of recent failed operations against the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, in northeastern Congo is any indication, the international community should be bracing itself for heavy civilian casualties and displacement.
Limited international involvement: Although most external actors agree that removing the FDLR is critical to lasting stability in the Great Lakes region and that they could provide intelligence, planning assistance, and technical/logistical support, Congo and Rwanda devised, planned, and began to execute this operation on their own. Though MONUC recently agreed to provide logistical and medical support, it has been kept deliberately in the dark about details and plans for the joint operation. As one MONUC official told Enough, “We aren’t part of anything here. We are just simply in a position of playing ‘catch up’.” The United States, European Union, African Union, and other external actors are in a position to offer support if Rwanda and Congo take practical steps to protect civilians and observe international alw, but none of these actors are playing a visible role or are close enough to the action to help prevent a worst-case scenario from unfolding.
Fissures within the Congolese government: Kabila’s decision to allow Rwandan troops to re-enter Congo was made behind closed doors and without the consent of key players in his government. Influential Kabila advisers National Police Inspector John Numbi and Minister of Interior Celestin Mbuyu appear to be the main supporters of the deal. Speaker of the National Assembly Vital Kamerehe, who comes from South Kivu, publicly voiced concern over the presence of Rwandan troops, saying he was not informed about this plan and that there appeared to be no diplomatic or political oversight for the current operations. After having lived through Rwanda’s bloody hunt for genocidaires in eastern Congo in 1996 and its de facto occupation of the Kivus from 1998-2002, Congolese resentment toward Rwandan intervention remains a palpable threat to Kabila’s popular support, especially in the East.
Unspoken motivations and simmering tensions: Rwanda’s stated objective for sending troops into Congo is to wipe out the FDLR. However, considering Rwanda’s strong economic interests in eastern Congo and their history of intervention and occupation, the international community should be asking questions about other unspoken reasons for this sudden military incursion. Many analysts are speculating that Rwanda’s swift intervention may also be about securing direct access to mines held by the FDLR and protecting the political and economic interests of the Tutsi community in North and South Kivu. Reportedly, Rwanda became increasingly irritated with Nkunda throughout recent months, particularly with his vocal shift from a political agenda of local empowerment to one of national liberation. With Nkunda now out of the picture and with plans for CNDP fighters to integrate into the Congolese army, the Rwandan government will seek other avenues to protect its interests. The demise of CNDP does not alleviate dangerous communal tensions. Disconcerting rumors have resurfaced regarding a plan to divide North Kivu into two provinces—the districts of Masisi and Rutshuru then becoming a predominantly Kinyarwanda (the language spoken by Congolese and Rwandan Tutsi and Hutu) speaking province. Tutsi are not currently represented in the provincial assembly in North Kivu, and as the date for local elections approach, many local politicians have expressed concern over unfair Rwandan influence—compounded by the numbers of displaced people in the province—and are calling for elections to be postponed.
In its present form, the joint military operation is far more likely to lead to atrocities against civilians than to successfully dismantle the FDLR. Immediate action is required to increase the transparency and efficacy of the operation, ensure accountability, and more effectively focus the international community on a shared core objective: the elimination of the FDLR as a security threat to the region. Non-military measures, particularly robust support for defections and voluntary disarmament and repatriation to Rwanda of the FDLR’s rank-and-file forces, are vital.
The Obama administration should immediately appoint a special envoy to lead U.S. engagement in a sustained multilateral effort to achieve stability in the Great Lakes region, paying immediate attention to the threat posed by the FDLR and the LRA. (For Enough’s policy recommendations on the LRA, please see our January 16 statement.) The U.S. envoy should be based in the region, have appropriate staff and logistical support, and work to accomplish the following goals in North Kivu and South Kivu Provinces:
Protect civilians from atrocities
- While MONUC will now provide logistical and medical support to the joint operations, for the sake of civilian safety the Congolese and Rwandan governments must involve MONUC more directly in military planning to enable U.N. peacekeepers to protect civilians. Despite MONUC’s poor track record on civilian protection, it is the only force on the ground explicitly charged with protecting civilians, and it must be able to fulfill this responsibility.
- The United States and European Union must demand that military observers from U.S. Africa Command, NATO, and/or the EU deploy with Rwandan and Congolese forces on the ground to help temper combatants’ worst tendencies and be allowed to deploy to areas where civilians are most vulnerable.
- If the above conditions are met, and Bosco Ntaganda is handed over to The Hague, U.S. Africa Command, NATO, and/or the EU should offer technical assistance and intelligence/logistical support in apprehending key FDLR leaders.
Incentivize defection from armed groups
- MONUC is reporting an increase in the number of FDLR rank-and-file seeking to come out of the bush, but the numbers remain relatively low. The Rwandan and Congolese governments must work with and through MONUC to offer assurances to non-genocidaire FDLR that they can safely return to Rwanda or re-settle in Congo without fear of prosecution for war crimes.
- The Congolese and Rwandan governments must also enhance livelihoods packages for defectors, and donors should urgently contribute funds to demobilization, reintegration, and repatriation programs.
End impunity for crimes against humanity
- Bosco Ntaganda poses a serious threat to civilians and the Congolese government or Rwandan forces should apprehend him immediately. The international community cannot condone his participation under any circumstances and must deny any suspension of the ICC arrest warrant, such as that which was recently requested by the Congolese Minister of Justice.
- The international community must aggressively enforce U.N. authorized sanctions targeted at FDLR leadership. These include asset freezes and travel bans on FDLR leadership living abroad. A small group of Rwandan exiles living in countries such as France, Germany, and the U.S., still exert enormous influence over militias in eastern Congo. Expanded sanctions against individuals with ties to the violence in eastern Congo will isolate military leadership from their political masters and will encourage more FDLR deserters.
- If Laurent Nkunda is extradited from Rwanda to Congo, the international community must demand the Congolese government hold Nkunda accountable for crimes his troops have committed in the Kivus in a trial that meets international judicial standards. However, given the government’s understandable hostility toward Nkunda and Congo’s highly politicized judiciary, a fair trial would most likely only be possible at the International Criminal Court.
Address other root causes of conflict
- Dismantling the FDLR is only a first step in securing peace and stability for eastern Congo and the Great Lakes region. The international community should work with U.N. special envoy Olesegun Obasanjo and Great Lakes mediator Benjamin Mkapa to mount an inclusive political process to find lasting solutions to other major drivers of the conflict in eastern Congo: land tenure issues, minority representation and security concerns, the culture of impunity in the region, and the fight for control over Congo’s mineral wealth.
- The United States should lead international efforts to develop a comprehensive approach to the exploitation of Congo’s mineral wealth by armed groups. This must include efforts to reduce international demand for minerals that benefit armed groups, as well as accompanying efforts to strengthen security and governance, and to create legitimate channels for economic activity in eastern Congo.