Despite the Congo’s recent elections, the country’s East has plunged into some of the worst violence of recent years. In January, the Congolese government struck a deal with the dissident commander Laurent Nkunda to bring an end to fighting that had plagued the region since 2004, mixing his troops with the national army.
After a brief respite, however, these troops launched operations against the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), the Rwandan militia with elements that committed atrocities in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, unleashing a new spate of violence. Over a 100,000 people have been displaced and dozens killed as the population is stuck in the crossfire between the two abusive forces.
The root of most of the violence in the Congo, however, is not outlying militia but the weak state institutions that tax and abuse the local population but provide no security or social services in return. Despite numerous entreaties to the new government in Kinshasa, for example, nothing has been done to try human rights offenders or to come up with a comprehensive solution to the problems of the East. The population there, tired of fighting, took to the streets of the eastern towns of Goma and Bukavu, demanding effective action by the government.
Why does the international community allow these conditions persist? The fact is that Congo is a political backwater; few western countries have vested strategic interests there, and the constituency of people that care about the Congo is much smaller than the groups pushing for peace in Darfur. In the absence of a domestic lobby or overriding national security concerns, no strong engagement with the country exists, with 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. In order to achieve these objectives, the "3Ps" of crisis response – peacemaking, protection, and punishment – are needed:
The U.S. 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 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 promote the deployment of a multinational mission to reform the Congolese army. The U.S. and other donors should also provide the equipment and training required to enforce the existing UN arms embargo.
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.
ENOUGH Field Update for Eastern Congo
Alphonsine Masaba, 42, has been in the internally displaced person’s (IDP) camp in Kiwanja for one month. She and her four children are some of the 113,000 people who have fled the fighting in North Kivu province since January 2007. She told ENOUGH that she eats once a day if she is lucky, and sometimes not at all when she is unable to find work in the nearby local farms. "My sister was raped and the Congolese army stole everything I have -– a goat, our clothes, even my children’s school books. I’m afraid if I go back, they will kill me." In the camp where she lives with several thousand others who have fled the violence she receives no food or health care. "There are too many people," a local humanitarian official said, "we cannot take care of everybody."
The population of North Kivu is caught in a vice between the Congolese army and the forces they are attacking, the Rwandan FDLR rebels. In February, Congolese army brigades launched operations against the FDLR, who themselves have been guilty of grave abuses against the local population. But the operations themselves brought about new suffering for the locals. “The Congolese army is just as bad as the rebels. Whenever there is fighting, we suffer,” Alphonsine says. The provincial parliament, conducted their own investigation into the fighting in April and concluded that over 200 civilians had been killed, often summarily executed, by the Congolese army since the offensive began.
The army brigades that are carrying out the operations are themselves the product of a peace deal between dissident commander Laurent Nkunda and the national army that called for the integration of the two forces. Nkunda’s troops are mostly commanded by officers from the Tutsi community, while the FDLR and the local population are mostly Hutu. This has caused serious ethnic tensions in the region, and community leaders feel Hutu civilians are targeted simply because of their ethnicity. “The Tutsi officers accuse us of collaborating with the FDLR. All we want is peace,” one community leader told ENOUGH.
Students and civil society groups have led demonstrations in various towns in eastern Congo, calling for an end to these operations and the military integration process known as “mixage.” Nkunda is widely known for the abuses of his soldiers, including the massacre of 160 civilians in Kisangani in 2002, and he has become the focus of intense resentment among much of the local population. However, as General Ngizo, the regional military commander, explained to ENOUGH, “We do not have the military force to capture him, so we had to make a compromise. This ‘mixage’ process was a necessary compromise.”
No one, however, has been able to explain why it was necessary for these recently integrated units to launch attacks against the FDLR that are displacing tens of thousands. In the meantime, other militia, who had previously agreed to integrate into the national army, have threatened to withdraw from the peace process in order to protect their community from what they view as another Rwandan-backed invasion. As often before, rumors have mixed with ethnic prejudice to fuel tensions that could lead to new violence.
For as much criticism as Nkunda receives, the army and police have not behaved much better, and their crimes against Congolese civilians have continued unchecked. In Butumbo, North Kivu, a soldier abducted and raped two 13-year-old girls on their way back from a funeral. They were threatened and intimidated by the alleged perpetrator who made them walk for approximately one km before raping them. The perpetrator evaded arrest. In Nyamukubi, North Kivu, an 11-year-old girl was allegedly raped by two soldiers. "The little girl was raped because her parents had resisted the illegal occupation of their family residence by soldiers newly deployed to the locality," the United Nations Peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUC) said in their monthly human rights report.
The army's indiscipline stems from both a lack of sanctions for abuses, as well as from the inhumane conditions in which soldiers live. The integrated brigades, formed out of former warring factions as a result of the 2002 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, stay in squalid quarters with scarce food and little support from their government.
FDLR rebels continue to prey on the local population and are engaging regularly with the mixed brigades in North Kivu, but these operations usually have a more detrimental affect on the local people than on the rebels. Meanwhile, the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels remain safely ensconced in Congo's Garamba National Park as peace talks between the LRA and the government of Uganda inch forward.
Policy Challenges And Opportunities
The Congo has recently emerged from a decade of war with a newly elected, democratic government. This provides an opportunity to finally address the roots of the violence in the East – the weak state institutions, disputes over land and ethnic tensions that continue to fuel death and displacement.
However, despite being one of the deadliest and most barbaric conflicts in the world, there is little interest in either the national government or the international community to bring the requisite pressure and resources to bear on the Congo’s problems. The Congo is a political backwater – it is not a priority for any of the major world powers and its former Belgian colonizers do not have the clout or money necessary to address the country’s ills.
Furthermore, resource-rich Congo is seen as a bonanza for many multinational companies, who are beginning to invest in mining, telecommunications and hydroelectric dams. An American company, Phelps Dodge, recently obtained the largest undeveloped copper concession in the world, Tenke Fungurume, in Katanga province. South Africa’s national electricity company is trying to raise funds to create one of the largest hydroelectric projects in the world by damming the Congo River, a potential $50 billion investment. This scramble for resources, while bringing welcome funds into the country, has divided donors and weakened their leverage on the government.
The international community is passively engaged in finding solutions, but few organizations and activists are putting pressure on policymakers to end Congo’s silent crisis. The U.S., for example, helped establish a commission trying to build trust between Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Uganda, and Senators (and candidates for the 2008 U.S. presidential election) Barack Obama (D-IL), Sam Brownback (R-KA), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike DeWine (R-OH) co-sponsored legislation last year to increase U.S. support to the Congo. However, these efforts are just drops in the bucket. The U.S. will help lead international efforts to apply and aggressively implement the 3Ps in Congo if concerned citizens learn more about the crisis and agitate for greater U.S. engagement.
ENOUGH Policy Recommendations
Peacemaking:The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 (MONUC) must play the role of mediator in these conflicts with the weight of the international community behind it.
How to deal with Laurent Nkunda -– A 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 military operations conducted by these newly-integrated units against the FDLR have killed hundreds of civilians and displaced tens of thousands more. In addition, the deal between the Congolese government and Nkunda to integrate his forces into the Congolese army is likely to collapse since both sides have contradictory views of where the process will lead. What should be done 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 allowing him to recruit in the refugee camps in Rwanda.
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 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, including electronic surveillance, aerial reconnaissance, and water-borne units to patrol Congo's rivers.
The U.S. 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. Because Congolese soldiers themselves present such a serious security threat, the international community must do the following:
- 1. 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.
- 2. 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 would 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 International Criminal Court (ICC) to further its efforts to prosecute war criminals in the Congo. As in Darfur, intelligence should be declassified and shared with the ICC in order to accelerate the preparation of cases against the worst abusers of human rights.
ENOUGH Activist Agenda
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
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LEAD YOUR LEADERS
Call your Senators and member of Congress at 1-202-224-3121 (9:00am – 6:00pm EST, Monday through Friday) and tell them to:
- 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.
Call the White House at 1-202-456-1414 or e-mail at [email protected], 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 Rwandan FDLR.