The euphoria of the elections last year in the Congo has been followed by disappointments. Since January, the eastern Kivu provinces have seen some of the worst violence of the past 10 years as militias clash among themselves and with the national army. The national government has not shown the leadership necessary to deal with the violence. Meanwhile, the army remains the worst human rights abuser in the country, and has contributed to rather than helped to mitigate insecurity in eastern Congo.
The focus of the international community has drifted since the successful elections. Severe violence in western Congo in January and March was met by silence by embassies and donors in Kinshasa. President Kabila has firmly rejected political meddling in Congolese affairs, and donors hesitate to offend a newly-elected, sovereign government. At the same time, external donors finance more than half of the Congolese budget as well as a $1 billion per year peacekeeping operation. Without these financial assets, Kabila could have lost major towns in the East.
Why does the international community allow these conditions to persist? The fact is that Congo is a political backwater. Few western countries have vested strategic interests there, and the constituency of people who care about the Congo is much smaller than the growing movement pushing for peace in Darfur. No strong engagement with the Congo exists because of the absence of a domestic lobby or overriding national security concerns. This disconnect is a result of most donors giving money for humanitarian and development projects without taking the strong diplomatic and political actions necessary to deal with the root causes of violence.
Concerned citizens and activists, however, can increase policymakers' awareness of the plight of civilians in eastern Congo and can press them to make the right policy decisions to end the suffering in the region.
The main challenges that must be overcome in the Congo are neutralizing the militias and creating an army that respects human rights.
ENOUGH Field Update for eastern Congo
On the night of May 26, a small group of about a dozen soldiers attacked the villages of Nyabuluze and Muhungu in the South Kivu province of eastern Congo. Using machetes, bludgeons, and sticks to avoid being detected, they surprised villagers in their sleep, beating 18 people to death. They wounded a further 27 people and kidnapped 18 others. They were approaching a third target, the village of Chihamba, at approximately 3a.m. when a patrol of UN peacekeepers surprised the soldiers and chased them into the forest.
The attackers belong to the Rasta militia, a splinter group of the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, or FDLR, Rwandan rebels whose leaders include commanders who participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.? They left notes pinned to their victims’ bodies, stating that their attack had been in retaliation for Congolese army operations against them. The massacre comes on the heels of three similar incidents over the past two years, during which the Rastas killed 73 people. Last year, two local health centers also registered close to 600 cases of rape, mostly attributed to this group.
The Rastas are a small group of not more than 100 combatants. They are but one, albeit the most vicious, of the militias remaining in the eastern Congo. An estimated 14,000 to 18,000 militiamen remain in the region, fighting regularly with the Congolese army and preying on the local population. The late-May attack described above reveals the dilemma the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, or MONUC, and the Congolese army face. If they do not act, groups such as the Rasta will continue to abuse villagers. When the UN forces do conduct operations to counter attacks, the militias turn on the local population, using extreme violence as leverage.
While the Rasta militias are largely a law and order problem that can be handled through military operations, fighting further north in North Kivu province threatened to derail the region’s political stability. Since 2004, forces loyal to General Laurent Nkunda, a dissident commander of the former Rwandan-backed Rally for Congolese Democracy, or RCD, rebel group, have been fighting the Congolese army. After clashes in late 2006, the two sides agreed on a local integration process that would allow Nkunda’s troops to stay in their home area provided they mixed with national army troops.
This integration of the Congolese army and Nkunda’s troops began in January, creating five brigades of about 3,000 troops each. However, this process was never carried out as promised – only the brigade commands were combined, leaving the units on the ground intact. Most importantly, Nkunda’s units immediately launched an offensive against the FDLR, which displaced over 200,000 people and resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians. These operations have pitted Nkunda’s Tutsi commanders against a Hutu rebel group in areas populated in great part by Hutus, creating serious ethnic tensions. Nkunda’s commanders have carried out numerous attacks against the local Hutu population, accusing them of collaborating with the FDLR. The humanitarian effect of these operations has been devastating: 260,000 people have been displaced and dozens of innocent civilians have been murdered. Nkunda’s resurgence has also prompted other opposing militia, who had disarmed during the peace process, to take up weapons again, threatening to provoke large-scale violence throughout the East again.
These developments shine light on the importance of the UN peacekeeping mission. The 17,000 peacekeepers have often acted as a deterrent, both against the Rasta and against Nkunda. However, in order to secure the East, the mission must go beyond mere deterrence and try to root out the militia through a combination of robust operations with the Congolese army and negotiations. MONUC’s mandate was renewed in May to do just this. Similar mandates in the past have run afoul of the peacekeepers’ fear of incurring casualties and the difficulties of counterinsurgency operations in the East’s difficult terrain. In addition, UN officials indicate that they want to define an exit strategy by the end of 2007 to begin withdrawing troops from the Congo.
Policy Challenges and Opportunities
The two main challenges that must be overcome to secure eastern Congo are the creation of an army that respects human rights and the neutralization of the many militias in the region.
The reform of the army and the police has been neglected by both donors and the fractious Congolese government. International efforts have been largely limited to sending trainers to army camps, but have done little to rebuild military justice, administration, and the largely non-existent military infrastructure.
The violence in North Kivu is currently the most serious threat to the population. Despite the level of suffering, little has been done to find a sustainable solution. The Congolese government supports the operations against the FDLR despite the obvious suffering they have caused. The UN peacekeeping mission has remained an observer, a symptom of their marginalization by the government since elections last year.
Unfortunately, the scale of the problems in the Congo dwarfs the international community’s response. The United States could certainly be doing much more to help. In its budget request to Congress for 2008, the Bush administration asked for $80.2 million in foreign assistance to the Congo, $10 million less than what the U.S. spent in 2006. Nearly half of this funding—$39.9 million—is for humanitarian assistance programs, while only $6.6 million is for a small military training program, with nothing provided to support the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of ex-combatants. Humanitarian aid is critical to dealing with the immediate needs of the Congolese, but humanitarian band-aids do not and will not address the root causes of their suffering.
ENOUGH's Policy Recommendations
Peacemaking: The United States should work with its allies and the UN to press the Congolese government and other governments in the region to develop plans and devote the necessary resources to neutralize the Congolese, Rwandan, and Ugandan militias that terrorize eastern Congo. Concurrently, the United States and other donors should provide funding and technical assistance to local reconciliation efforts.
The priority must be targeting armed groups that commit atrocities through a mixture of sticks and carrots. Where there is no easy military solution, such as with Nkunda's troops, the government should negotiate clear terms for military integration that are acceptable to both sides and that will promote the creation of a unified army. The UN mission in the Congo must play the role of mediator in these conflicts with the weight of the international community behind it.
How to deal with the FDLR — A Peacemaking Example
The Rwandan FDLR rebels are a serious threat to civilians. Their mere presence in eastern Congo serves as a pretext for the Congolese army and other armed groups to commit mass atrocities—as the razing of the village of Buramba illustrates. Thus a strategy needs to be constructed to drive them back to Rwanda so that they no longer torment Congolese civilians. In order to deal with the FDLR as part of a larger strategy to end the conflict in the East, three diplomatic and military initiatives need to be re-launched:
- Top-ranking FDLR commanders not yet charged by Rwandan courts — reportedly 80 percent of all officers — must be clearly identified and provided incentives to return to positions in the Rwandan army.
- The Rwandan and Congolese governments should screen FDLR soldiers to determine who was involved in the 1994 genocide and who was not.
With the screening results in hand, a joint Congolese-Rwandan delegation, including high-ranking demobilized FDLR returnees, should visit the FDLR and offer the following terms:
- Those not involved in the 1994 genocide, in particular those born in the Congo or married into the community, should be allowed to surrender their weapons and apply for citizenship or residency in the Congo. If not, they should have their return to Rwanda facilitated with support for reintegration.
- Those who committed crimes against Congolese civilians should be captured and tried by Congolese courts.
- Those who refuse to return or demobilize should be confronted by joint MONUC and Congolese military operations.
How to deal with Laurent Nkunda — Another Peacemaking Example
While it was necessary to strike a deal with Nkunda to stop the violence in the region and integrate his troops into the army, the operations conducted by these newly integrated units against the FDLR have caused unnecessary deaths and displacement. In addition, the deal with Nkunda is likely to fall apart, as both sides have contradictory views of where the process will lead. In order to stabilize the situation:
- The offensive against the FDLR must be stopped and the mixed brigades should be replaced by integrated units and MONUC troops to prevent ethnic conflict.
- New talks between Nkunda and the Congolese government should be launched, with MONUC as the official mediator.
- The underlying causes of the violence must be addressed, including ethnic conflict, disputes over land tenure, and the return of 45,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees.
- The Rwandan government should stop providing support to Nkunda, in particular by allowing him to recruit in the refugee camps in Rwanda.
Protection: The U.S. should maintain its support for a robust UN military presence and increase its funding and technical assistance to reform Congo's military forces. The United States and other donors should also provide the equipment and training necessary to enforce the existing UN arms embargo.
Although a great step forward for the country, the 2006 elections did not significantly reduce the threat of atrocities in the eastern provinces. The problems of predatory militias and Congolese security forces were not voted out of existence. The UN Security Council must maintain MONUC's troop level at 17,000 and UN peacekeepers must conduct more robust operations against rogue militias in the East. Furthermore, the international community must strengthen the UN arms embargo by increasing MONUC's civilian and military staff tasked with monitoring compliance and providing the necessary equipment for this task force. This includes electronic surveillance, aerial reconnaissance, and water-borne units to patrol Congo's rivers.
The United States must also help to reform the Congolese police and army by providing funding and technical support to create functional institutions and competent units. The Congolese army, in particular, needs specialized training and equipment for mountain and forest guerilla warfare and electronic intelligence to precisely locate and isolate militia hideouts.
Punishment: The international community should develop a plan with the Congolese government to strengthen military court prosecutions of human rights violations. At the same time, a joint UN-Congolese vetting program should be launched to exclude officers who have committed serious abuses from the security forces. In addition, further support should be given to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to support its gathering of evidence and preparation of indictments to prosecute war criminals in the Congo.
Appropriate accountability mechanisms will help to deliver some degree of justice for the victims of violence and can act as a deterrent against future crimes. Since Congolese soldiers themselves present such a serious security threat, the international community must do the following:
- Pressure the newly elected Congolese government to conduct regular audits of the Congolese army and push for the prosecution of officials guilty of embezzlement and corruption. In addition, military police and prosecutors should conduct investigations into abuses committed by their soldiers.
- Support an effort by the Congolese army to launch a comprehensive vetting program to establish a list of 50 to 100 of the most serious human rights abusers in the police and army. These officers should then be excluded from civil service. The United States should also push the UN Security Council to impose travel bans and asset freezes on these individuals.
Beyond efforts to create more accountability within the military, it is crucial for the international community to build the capacity of the ICC to supplement its efforts to prosecute war criminals in the Congo. Intelligence should be declassified and shared with the ICC in order to accelerate the preparation of cases against the worst abusers of human rights.
In the Spotlight
Join Congo Global Action:
Congo Global Action is an international alliance of humanitarian, human rights, environmental, and faith-based organizations, students, members of the Congolese Diaspora, and other grassroots movements.
The alliance was formed to advocate with one voice for increased local and international support for security, stability, and reconstruction in the Congo. Together, the Congo Global Action coalition forms a movement to promote action, policy change and increased funding to help the people of Congo.
Congo Global Action is holding three grassroots conferences within the next year. Each conference will feature keynote speakers to teach people about the Congo, help participants become advocacy leaders, and will include a Lobby Day and a major media-attracting event to raise awareness about the Congo. Two conferences remain:
- Washington, DC—October 2007; and
- Nairobi, Kenya—January 2008.
Read the notes from our Aug.
30, 2007 activist call.
Visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's online exhibition, Ripples of Genocide: Journey Through Eastern Congo, featuring Angelina Jolie and John Prendergast.
Get the latest information about the UN peacekeeping mission.
Read about the appalling mortality rates and the study done by the International Rescue Committee.
Lead Your Leaders
Your voice can help bring an end to the suffering in Congo. Schedule meetings, make phone calls, and write letters to your elected officials to express concern over the continued violence in Congo, and demand that the United States devote additional resources and attention to:
- Spearheading a multilateral regional approach to dismantling the remaining local and foreign militia, in particular the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, or FDLR, rebels—led by commanders involved in Rwanda's 1994 genocide. The United States must provide political and financial backing commensurate to the gravity of the conflict and human suffering.
- Supporting the creation of a functional and disciplined national army that protects rather than abuses the local population.
Call your Senators and member of Congress and tell them to:
Call 1-202-224-3121 from 9:00am–6:00pm EST, Monday through Friday.
- urge President Bush to increase U.S. financial and technical support to help the Congolese government create a functional and disciplined national army. The Congolese army is often a threat to the civilians it should be protecting, and Congolese will not be safe absent a comprehensive, multilateral effort to reform Congo’s security forces;
- hold hearings on providing diplomatic and financial back¬ing to a multilateral regional approach to dismantling the remaining local and foreign militia in eastern Congo—in particular, the FDLR, a Rwandan rebel group led by com¬manders involved in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Working closely with the Congolese and Rwandan governments and UN peacekeepers, the U.S. can help isolate those FDLR responsible for the Rwanda genocide and offer incentives to bring the remainder out of the bush;
- support the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), provide more funding and technical assistance in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) and security sector reform (SSR) and press for high level diplomacy, in coordination with our allies, to resolve the crisis in eastern Congo.
Call or email the White House and tell President Bush to:
Call the White House at 1-202-456-1414 or e-mail at [email protected].
- increase U.S. financial and technical support to help the Congolese government create a functional and disciplined national army; and to provide diplomatic and financial backing to a multilateral regional approach to dismantling the remaining local and foreign militia in eastern Congo, in particular the Rwandan FDLR.