In the aftermath of largely successful elections in the Congo, a core level of violence and insecurity in the east of the country has left the region as one of the deadliest in the world. A recent study by the International Rescue Committee reveals that on average more than 1,000 people die every day due to the conflict. They are caught in a deadly vise between predatory militias, Rwandan and Ugandan rebel groups, and the ill-disciplined and abusive Congolese army. Sporadic violence continues to kill dozens, displace tens of thousands, prevent already displaced families from going back home, and leads to the deaths of tens of thousands more from malnutrition and disease.
Despite the Congo's strategic importance to overall stability and security in Central Africa and its extensive mineral wealth, the country remains low on the U.S. list of national security priorities. In Africa, counter-terrorism is paramount for most U.S. policymakers, relegating the crisis in the Congo to the backburner in relation to terrorist activity targets in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel regions. The U.S. provides funding for humanitarian assistance and programs to help train the Congolese army, offers diplomatic support for regional peace-building, and gives funds for the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world. That said, the U.S. could and should be doing far more to root out the systemic causes of violence in the Congo, including comprehensive army reform and a multi-pronged solution to dealing with militia in the east.
First of all, the U.S. must focus its policy priorities on the humanitarian and national security implications of the continuing chaos in eastern Congo. Washington must lead international efforts to end the violence, through negotiations with those militias amenable to dialogue and UN military action against those continuing to attack civilians. In tandem with these international efforts, the U.S. must step up its own support and training of the Congolese army to ensure it becomes a professional force for peace and stability in the country and region.
Secondly, the U.S. must lead international efforts to rebuild eastern Congo's collapsing infrastructure – its roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals – in order to bring hope and order to the region. At the same time, the U.S. and its allies must help the newly elected Congo government effectively govern the nation with targeted institution-building support for its national and provincial legislative and judicial branches.
Here's what must be done to accomplish these goals:
The U.S. should work with its allies and the UN to press the Congolese and Rwandan governments to develop a joint plan to deal with Rwandan rebel forces that terrorize eastern Congo. Concurrently, the U.S. and other donors should provide funding and technical assistance to local reconciliation efforts.
The U.S. must maintain its support for a robust UN military presence and increase its funding and technical assistance to reform Congo's military forces. The U.S. and other donors should also provide the equipment and training required to enforce the existing arms embargo.
The international community should support a Congolese program to punish security forces who commit human rights violations.
Crisis Group Analysts In The Field For ENOUGH
On August 11, 2006, a battalion of Congolese army soldiers entered the town of Gety in the eastern Congolese district of Ituri. This unit, part of the recently integrated national army, had been deployed to the area to protect the population against a roaming local militia. Instead, they allegedly proceeded to round up around 30 civilians, including women and children, and forced them to transport military equipment and belongings they had stolen from the villagers. They beat their hostages, accusing them of collaborating with enemy militia. Shortly afterwards, they executed all 30 people and buried them in a mass grave in their army camp. UN human rights investigators found the grave in November 2006. "There are women, men, children, their bodies haven't even decomposed. It's terrible," said John Penza, the local military prosecutor.
Human Rights Watch says they have documented over 70 such executions over the past year by members of the national army. To the south, in the province of North Kivu, there are more reports of disproportionate use of force by the national army. On December 2, 2006, during an operation against a local militia, an army unit allegedly killed 14 civilians along with two militia fighters, again accusing them of siding with the enemy. Their bodies were buried hastily in two mass graves next to the houses they had lived in.
Meanwhile, army units themselves suffer from inhumane conditions. The integrated brigades, formed out of former warring factions as a result of the 2002 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, live in squalid quarters with scarce food and receive little support from their government. The result has been outbreaks of disease – in August 2005 a cholera epidemic infected 300 soldiers in Ituri, killing ten. In February 2006, 20 soldiers in an integration camp starved to death because their commander had embezzled their food money. "We are expected to feed our families on $20 a month that we often don't even see – it's no surprise that some of us lose it," a military officer told ENOUGH staff. As a result, many army units turn on the local population to feed themselves, looting and abusing at will.
Despite major steps toward peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo, notably the success of the country's first democratic elections in over 40 years, the security situation in the eastern part of the country remains precarious. President Joseph Kabila's new government faces an uphill battle to establish security in the Congolese regions of North Kivu, South Kivu, Maniema, and Ituri. Roughly 8,000-9,000 Rwandan and Ugandan rebels and 5,000-8,000 local militiamen operate there, while the Congolese security forces deployed to counter the militias have been guilty of mass executions of civilians, rape, and systematic pillaging. Militias thrive due to the government's weakness, recruiting new troops, controlling lucrative customs posts, and taxing mines. Furthermore, the program established by the government to demobilize soldiers and integrate them into Congolese society has been plagued by allegations of corruption and inefficiency. In many cases it is simply a revolving door, as soldiers give up their arms only to be re-recruited shortly afterwards.
Given the weakness of their troops, the Congolese army has tried to co-opt militia leaders, offering them positions in the national army. On November 29, 2006, leaders of the three renegade armed groups in Ituri signed a deal with the Congolese army to stop fighting and integrate their troops. On January 16, 2006, North Kivu dissident Laurent Nkunda also struck a deal which, if successful, would allow him to go into exile, while his troops would be merged progressively into regular army units.
The success of this co-option strategy, however, has been limited. The deals allow for "local integration," which means that former rebels are placed in army ranks, but are allowed to remain in fairly homogenous units from their hometowns. The co-option approach began in January 2005, when President Kabila elevated six militia leaders in Ituri to the rank of general in the national army. While some of them were later arrested following intense international pressure, their troops on the ground continued to abuse the population with impunity.
Setbacks always loom amid uneven progress. Case in point: A January 16 peace deal brokered between the Congolese Army and North Kivu-based militia leader Laurent Nkunda was preceded by heavy fighting for the town of Sake on the shores of Lake Kivu, and Rutshuru, close to the Rwandan and Ugandan borders. The clashes killed over 150 of Nkunda's fighters and around 15 government troops before the dissident Nkunda also struck a deal which, if successful, would allow him to go into exile, while his troops would be merged progressively into regular army units. The problem is that 80,000 civilians were driven from their homes during the fighting and many do not have food, clean water, or access to health services.
And then there are the foreign militias operating in Congo. Foreign groups, in particular the Rwandan Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, or FDLR, rebels – led by commanders involved in Rwanda's 1994 genocide – and more recently, the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, will not be co-opted. The FLDR, left largely undisturbed in its jungle hideout, is said to have recently collaborated with the Congolese army in operations against Nkunda's militia, aggravating ethnic tensions between ethnic Hutu and Tutsi communities in the east.
While FDLR rebel units are no longer seen as a major threat by Rwanda – an attitude change that is part of a considerable improvement in relations between Kigali and Kinshasa – they regularly abuse Congolese civilians. Dr. Mukwege, a gynecologist at the Panzi hospital in South Kivu, remarks that: "Over half of all of our rape cases come from FDLR territory. This rate is even higher for the most violent rapes that involve mutilation and soldiers using sticks, rifle barrels and knives to victimize the women." Such misery for local citizens could easily be compounded if the peace talks between Uganda and the LRA fail; Congo could become the new frontline in that brutal 20-year war.
One ray of hope – which requires sustained international backing – is that UN peacekeepers have become more aggressive in the interpretation of their mandate since early 2005, pursuing tough joint operations with the Congolese army in Ituri and to a more limited degree in the Kivus. Effective military pressure has been crucial in forcing thousands of fighters to enter demobilization programs. In Ituri, for instance, joint Congolese army operations with the UN Mission in the Congo, or MONUC, led to the demobilization of around 17,000 militiamen.
Yet time and again MONUC's actions are undermined by the unequal training of the Congolese army. When they do not desert on the battlefield or abandon captured towns to militia, they prey on the locals. The cycle of attacks and reprisals thus continues.
Policy Challenges And Opportunities
The international community must focus on two immediate priorities for securing the east: rebuilding the security forces and dismantling remaining militia. Moreover, rebuilding the state will require the upgrading of roads, bridges, schools and dispensaries through establishment of accountable local governments with adequate resources to provide security and basic services, as proposed in the new constitution.
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. Meanwhile, the Congolese government has rewarded abusive commanders with high-ranking positions in the army.
Comprehensive reform is needed – to hold soldiers accountable for their crimes and to provide decent living conditions for army and police members and their families. A first step would be to exclude the most heinous perpetrators from these forces through an intensive vetting process.
The second priority must be targeting the remaining militias through a mixture of sticks and carrots. The Congolese police and army must work with MONUC to punish dissidents who refuse to put down their arms and join the national army. At the same time, diplomatic working groups also should be created, with neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, to tailor solutions for the FDLR and the LRA. These efforts must be innovative, given the fact that a purely military solution will be very costly for the civilian population. Possible aspects of a solution for the FDLR could be resettlement in the Congo for young soldiers who were not involved in the Rwandan genocide, as well as using Congolese contacts to approach eligible FDLR commanders for integration into the Rwandan army. With regards to the LRA, much more attractive return and integration packages must be offered to the rank and file.
Rebuilding local and national government institutions to manage Congo's wealth of resources is another immediate priority. Conflict first erupted over land disputes as political elites abused tenure regulations and rallied ethnic hatred. A sustainable solution must include local reconciliation efforts, coupled with intensive local development efforts to boost employment and public works.
Land tenure must also be secured by adopting a land policy that will provide security for all communities. In addition, the natural resources of the Congo, which in the past have fuelled militia activity as well as foreign intervention by Rwanda and Uganda, must be brought under Congolese government control and used accountably to the direct benefit of the local population.
ENOUGH Policy Recommendations
Peacemaking: The U.S. should work with its allies and the UN to press the Congolese and Rwandan governments to develop a joint plan to deal with Rwandan rebel forces that terrorize eastern Congo. Concurrently, the U.S. and other donors should provide funding and technical assistance to local reconciliation efforts.
The threat to civilians will not abate until the international community pursues an aggressive strategy to dismantle Congolese and foreign militias. The first step must be to re-launch diplomatic and military initiatives to deal with the FDLR. Top-ranking FDLR commanders not yet charged by Rwandan courts – reportedly 80 percent of all officers – must be identified and provided incentives to return to positions in the Rwandan army.
In addition, a joint Rwandan-Congolese commission should screen FDLR soldiers to determine who was not involved in the 1994 genocide. 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.
- Those who committed crimes against Congolese civilians should be captured and tried by Congolese courts.
- Those who refuse to return or demobilize will face joint MONUC and Congolese military operations.
Beyond dismantling the FDLR and other militias, to achieve genuine peace in the Congo, local authorities must launch reconciliation commissions with the newly elected provincial assemblies, supported by donors and MONUC. These commissions must expose the truth about past human rights abuses, address the thorny issue of land tenure, and set up a framework for safe return of refugees who have been driven out due to the violence, including the 40,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees in Rwanda as well as other refugee populations in Uganda.
Protection: The U.S. must maintain its support for a robust UN military presence and increase its funding and technical assistance to reform Congo's military forces. The U.S. and other donors should also provide the equipment and training required to enforce the existing arms embargo.
Civilians will remain victims of atrocities until the Congolese security services can effectively protect civilians. The international community must continue to support a strong UN peacekeeping force to protect Congolese civilians while working multilaterally to reform Congo's army and police. As a main source of funding for UN peacekeeping, the United States has a critical role to play.
First, the U.S. must support a strong MONUC and resist the temptation to call for reduced troop strength following successful elections. Although a great step forward for the country, these 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. Thus MONUC must maintain its troop level at 17,000 and must conduct more robust operations against rogue militias independent of the Congolese army.
Second, the U.S. must 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 foreign militia hideouts. The U.S. should also condition the disbursement of bilateral and multilateral aid in such a way that increases transparency and accountability in the management of funds. The payment of soldiers, for instance, needs to be administered independent from the chain of command to avoid the theft of salaries by senior commanders.
Third, newly trained Congolese army and police units must be deployed to all border posts and major mining sites to cut militia off from their sources of revenue. Customs at posts and illicit mining provide key sources of funding for these dissident militias. Conflict over these resources precipitates the atrocities and displacement that contribute to excessive mortality rates in Congo. MONUC should work with the Congolese to re-establish state control over these revenue-generating sites.
Finally, the international community must strengthen the UN arms embargo by increasing MONUC's civilian and military staff tasked with monitoring compliance. At the moment, MONUC has the mandate but not the resources to implement the weapons ban. All staff should speak French or Swahili and must include more Congolese employees. Donor governments must also provide the necessary equipment for this task force, including electronic surveillance, aerial reconnaissance, and water-borne units to patrol Congo's rivers. The United States also should push the UN Security Council to impose travel bans and asset freezes on violators of the embargo.
Punishment: The international community should support a Congolese program to punish security forces who commit human rights violations.
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. Because Congolese soldiers themselves represent such a serious security threat, the international community must press 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. This task force should come under central command from Kinshasa, international donors should provide funding for its investigation, and it should work closely with MONUC human rights officers.
With international support, the Congolese army should also 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 would then be excluded from civil service. The United States should push the UN Security Council to impose travel bans and asset freezes on these individuals.
ENOUGH Activist Agenda
"Strive for Security"
The fanfare surrounding the recent national elections in the Congo makes it easy to forget that on average more than 1,000 people die every day because of the ongoing conflict. Activism should focus on pressing Congress and the Bush administration to increase and sustain U.S. involvement in the Congo. The passing of a bill co-sponsored by Senators Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sam Brownback (R-KA) late last year was achieved in large part because constituencies that care about Congo made phone calls, wrote letters, and directly lobbied their representatives on Capitol Hill.
Since the passing of this bill, however, the challenges in Congo have changed, and we need a new and reinvigorated effort to tackle today's threats to peace and security. The U.S., for example, contributes almost nothing to security sector reform, probably the biggest concern facing the country today. Worse still, the Tripartite Initiative, a regional diplomatic effort that the U.S. created to provide temporary intelligence and joint border surveillance assistance, appears to have fizzled out over the past year.
Congressional hearings and high-level delegations to the Congo would be first steps toward increasing concern about the plight of Congolese and building consensus for sustained, capacity-building action. U.S. leadership and engagement can help end the violence in this war-wrought region, but the political will to make these commitments isn't there.
At this critical juncture in Congolese history, your actions can make a difference. ENOUGH urges you to take three key activist actions to end the suffering in this war-zone: learn more about the conflict, lead your leaders in resolving the crisis through a comprehensive and regional strategy, and link up with other activists and campaigns fighting for tangible policy change.
Read Crisis Group's in-depth reports about the crisis in Congo
Visit the National Holocaust Memorial Museum's online diary of Angelina Jolie and John Prendergast traveling together in Congo
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. Make phone calls and write letters to your elected officials to express concern over the continued violence in Congo, and demand that the U.S. 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 U.S. must provide the political and financial backing commensurate to the gravity of the conflict and human suffering.
- Creating a functional and disciplined national army that protects rather than abuses the local population.
Call your member of Congress and tell him or her:
- to urge the President 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; and
- to support efforts 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 Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, or FDLR. The FDLR is led by commanders 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. At the same time, the U.S. and other donors should provide funding and technical assistance to local reconciliation efforts.
Call the White House at 1-202-456-1414, and tell President Bush:
- to 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 Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, or FDLR.