Johannesburg — To the layman the emergence of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) armed group M23 might be seen as of little significance - just another band of gunmen controlling a few square kilometres of turf in a country the size of western Europe.
"This [M23] is a new configuration and a serious development. More than 200,000 people have been displaced since April [because of M23]," Rupert Colville, a Geneva-based spokesperson for the UN High Commission for Human Rights, told IRIN.
In late March 2012 Gen Bosco Ntaganda, a senior officer in the DRC national army (FARDC), led a mutiny of 300-600 soldiers following discontent over unpaid wages and poor living conditions.
Ntaganda (known locally as the "terminator") was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2006 for war crimes. On 3 May 2012 Col Sultani Makenga began an apparently separate revolt. Both men were formerly part of Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a former DRC militia backed by neighbouring Rwanda, before it was integrated into the FARDC as part of the 23 March 2009 peace agreement.
Makenga has reportedly denied that the two revolts were coordinated or connected. However, analysts suggest the mutinies may have been sparked by indications that DRC President Joseph Kabila was about to honour his obligations to the ICC and arrest Ntaganda. The UN Security Council has condemned the mutinies.
Colville said M23, which takes its name from the date of the 2009 peace agreement, has a senior command with "substantial allegations" of atrocities against it. He said that was why UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay took "the unusual step of naming names... She is flagging the dangers of M23."
In a UN radio podcast entitled UN human rights chief fears more rapes, killings in Congo by M23, Colville said M23 "is really a reassembling - at least at the leadership level - of very well-known human rights abusers in the Congo over the past decade... quite a collection of notorious killers."
The track record of M23 commanders included the use of child soldiers (recently 20 child soldiers had been rescued by FARDC troops from M23 senior commander Col Innocent Zimurinda's unit), and Colville feared the worst human rights abuses by M23 were just "around the corner".
A January 2012 report by the UN Secretary-General on the UN Stabilization Mission in DRC (MONUSCO) said: "The majority of acts of sexual violence in eastern DRC are committed by armed groups, notably FDLR [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda - established by perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide], as well as by elements integrated into FARDC, including from CNDP and other former Congolese armed groups."
Thierry Vircoulon, International Crisis Group project director for Central Africa, told IRIN: "Everyone is worried about M23 because of its leaders and their involvement in killings in the past - and that there is no access to these areas [controlled by M23] at the moment."
Among those named by Pillay are: Makenga, a former CNDP commander and linked to the 2008 Kiwandja massacre of 67 civilians; Col Baudouin Ngaruye, believed to be involved in the 2009 Shalio massacre of 139 civilians while a (FARDC) commander and previously of the CNDP; Col Innocent Zimurinda - alleged to have "command responsibility for the Kiwandja and Shalio massacres"; and Col Innocent Kaina alleged to have been involved in a string of human rights abuses in Ituri and Orientale provinces in 2004 when a member - along with Ntaganda - of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo's Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC) / Forces Patriotique pour la Libération du Congo (FPLC).
Lubanga was the first person convicted of a war crime by the ICC for "conscripting and enlisting" child soldiers.
The 23 March 2009 peace accord ushered in a few years of relative stability for North and South Kivu provinces and saw thousands of CNDP combatants integrated into the FARDC. Most of M23's commanders were members of CNDP, which was sponsored by neighbouring Rwanda to fight a proxy war in the DRC against the FDLR.
However, Nkunda refused to allow his soldiers to participate in MONUC's (predecessor of MONUSCO) Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration programme and as a compromise permitted the integration of his troops into the FARDC, with the proviso that there would be no retraining or relocation outside the Kivu provinces. Nkunda is now in Rwanda.
Parallel chain of command
An analyst who declined to be named said the integration of the CNDP militia into FARDC resulted in a parallel chain of command and their demand to remain in the Kivu provinces can be seen as fulfilling their perceived role as "protectors of the Banyamulenge" - Rwandan Tutsi migrants who arrived in the DRC around the 1880s and are recognized as Congolese citizens.
"What happened with the CNDP's integration in 2009 is the way to read the crisis now," Vircoulon said. "The [CNDP] military hierarchy was never broken down - and we're going back to the situation of a few years ago and the story is repeating itself."
The M23 pedigree of CNDP has seen Human Rights Watch claim in a 4 June 2012 report entitled Rwanda Should Stop Aiding War Crimes Suspect, that the new armed group is cut from the same cloth as the CNDP and that Rwanda was actively assisting M23 as it did CNDP. This has been consistently denied by the Rwandan government of President Paul Kagame.
A report by the UN Group of Experts for the DRC is scheduled for imminent release, although a section dealing with allegations of Rwandan involvement with M23 is likely to be delayed after a veto by a Security Council member on its publication.
Failed security sector reform
A 2012 report compiled by a host of international and Congolese NGOs entitled Taking a Stand on Security Sector Reform, sees eastern DRC's cycles of violence as a consequence of "a lack of political will" by the DRC government for security sector reform (SSR) and "poor coordination" of SSR by the country's international partners.
The report said that between 2006 and 2010 official DRC development aid for conflict, peace and security was US$530 million, or about 6 percent of total aid, excluding debt relief. "Spending directly on security system management and reform is even lower - $84.79 million over the same period, just over 1 percent."
The human, political and financial cost of the DRC again collapsing back into war is difficult to fathom
The DRC grapples with a host of armed groups - from Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army and community self-defence militias known as Mai-Mai to the Allied Democratic Forces led by Ugandan Muslim rebel leader Jamil Mukulu - and some analysts have referred to FARDC "as another armed group" owing to their ill-discipline and documented human rights abuses.
A 2011 report by the Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (GRIP) entitled Small Arms in Eastern Congo,A Survey on the Perception of Insecurity found FARDC was the second greatest threat to insecurity, after armed groups.
The report by local and international NGOs (Taking a Stand on SSR) said the "dominant" view that effective SSR was too dangerous to contemplate had to be weighed up against maintaining the status quo, and that "the most significant risk of renewed conflict comes from within the Congolese security services itself, particularly the FARDC."
"SSR would no doubt bring short-term pain, but the long-term risk of inaction is far greater. The human, political and financial cost of the DRC again collapsing back into war is difficult to fathom," the report said.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]