UN helpless as slaughter of civilians continues in the Congo

As the United Nations conducts a greater number of peacekeeping operations and employ more armed troops than ever before, some conflicts seem to keep raging regardless of their efforts. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the centre of one of the worst armed conflict in the world today, where an on-going savagery beyond belief is taking place against the Congolese population.

In the fall of 2009 I wrote an article on the DRC conflict for the Daily Star Newspaper in Lebanon, and it contained descriptions of crimes against humanity so grave that it had to be censored before publication. Two and a half years later the armed conflict in the Congo is still depressingly relevant.

The UN currently employs 17 000 armed peacekeeping troops in the DRC, most of them in the northeast of the country, where different rebel groups and national armies continue to fight for land and resources in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which sparkled the 1998-2003 war, dubbed ‘the first African world war’.

Despite the presence of the UN peacekeeping mission to the DRC (MONUSCO) that was deployed in 2000, widespread reports from the humanitarian community conclude that there is still virtually no protection of the civilian population in the Ituri, North Kivu, South Kivu and Orientale provinces of eastern Congo, which is helplessly caught in the crossfire and retaliatory attacks by all parties of the conflict.

The UN sits by helplessly as the most unimaginable savagery takes place including slavery, systematic rape, torture, mutilation and indiscriminate killings of thousands of people, including children, and these acts continue to take place on a horrific scale today.

New Times article from April 30 reports that people are currently fleeing attacks from the Hutu rebel group FDLR, which is composed mainly of Rwandan perpetrators of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. These have lived in the Congolese jungle since they fled Rwanda following the end of the Genocide. From the beginning of this year, these rebel activities have displaced some 200,000 people in north eastern Congo.

In January and February of 2009, the Rwandan and DRC armies jointly conducted an operation in the provinceof North Kivuto uproot the 6,000-plus strong FDLR. François Grignon, Africa Programme Director for International Crisis Group (ICG), was however critical of these military operations, suggesting they only exacerbate the problem. “Three clear lessons can be learnt from these operations: military force alone will not dismantle the FDLR; poorly planned actions trigger massive retaliation by foreign combatants against the Congolese population; and an untrained Congolese army often becomes a major human rights violator when left to its own devices”, Grignon said.

Today, more than three years later and despite the mentioned efforts, rebel groups have managed to continue their brutal attacks on civilians, brutally killing Congolese civilians. In these attacks, the victims are usually being shot, hacked with machetes or burned to death in their homes, according to reports from Human Rights Watch. The mentioned military operations of DRC andRwandahave contributed to afurther increase in violations against civilians. Furthermore, thousands of women and girls have been raped by armed rebel groups and government forces. According to UN estimates since 2009 and to this day, the violence has forced around than one million people to flee their homes.

In mid 2009, the head of Oxfam in the DRC, Marcel Stoessel, urged more engagement by the UN in its peace keeping efforts. “The UN-backed offensive that was supposed to make life better for the people of easternCongois instead becoming a human tragedy. Secretary Clinton needs to make it very clear thatUSsupport for the UN’s efforts in Congo is not a blank check and that civilians should be protected.”, said Stoessel.

According to Ruben de Koning, researcher and Congo expert at Swedish International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) inStockholm, “the international community has achieved too little in terms of Security Sector Reform of the Congolese national army, which is necessary to stabilize the situation in the short run. As an example, military campaigns against the FDLR and army integration of the CNDP in the beginning of 2009 have not improved civilian security.”

De Koning believed that a well trained, centrally commanded and sufficiently funded national army was a precondition for putting an end to abuses against civilians. However, said De Koning, “it does not take away the root causes of conflict in the eastern DRC that the international community so far has failed to address, i.e. long standing local disputes over land and power, which are aggravated by opportunities for the exploitation of mineral resources and often play out along ethnic lines.”

ICG recommends that “FDLR’s 6,000 or more combatants, including a number of génocidaires, still present a major political challenge for consolidation of peace in the Great Lakes region. They must be disarmed and demobilized if eastern Congois to be stabilized.”

The FDLR can be largely dismantled if Rwandaand the DRC, along with MONUC, focus less on forced disarmament and instead implement a long-term integrated strategy. “This strategy should aim at breaking the link between the leadership of the FDLR and its rank-and-file by isolating the most radical leaders, while offering peaceful disarmament options to the combatants.”, said Grignon of the ICG.

According to Grignon, the elements of such a strategy should include legal actions against FDLR radicals, including those residing in Europe, North America, and other African countries, and political initiatives to encourage the return to Rwanda or the resettlement in a third country of FDLR commanders who did not participate in the Rwandan genocide. They should also include military action targeting the FDLR’s leadership and command/control structure, new incentives for the voluntary disarmament of combatants, and, cross-border development projects to benefit the local populations.

De Koning believed that Peace conferences and agreements tend to focus on negotiating the terms under which rebel and militia groups, notably their leaders, are integrated in new military and government structures. “In this they fail to address grievances over local political power, land expropriation and mining resources, let alone arrive at agreements on these issues. These are issues that are postponed until after principal peace agreements are signed”, he said in the 2009 interview.

“The international community should step in and expand funding for programmes that help the Congolese government to, amongst other things, expand service delivery, demilitarize mining areas and mediate land disputes in the east of the country”, continued de Koning. 

“I wish there was an easy answer”, said Stina Högbladh, researcher at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research of Uppsala University, Sweden, in the fall of 2009. ”But one important step is to re-build the judicial system and take criminals to court, educate the military, pay salaries to its troops and prosecute them when they break the law. No easy tasks.”

The above mentioned expert suggestions for a solution of the Congo crisis and for an ending to the slaughter of the Congolese population, are yet to be implemented. And as much as these proposals may be a utopia: without the proper help from the Congolese authorities, the neighboring countries or the armed rebels that operate on Congolese territory, even such achievements might not be enough.

If there is to be any chance of peace, security or justice in the DRC it is time for the international community to show unprecedented levels of political will and to act with unprecedented levels of strength. Regrettably, experience says that the chances for that are close to none.

Filip Ericsson

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