14 August 2012

Congo-Kinshasa: M23 Rebels Have Not Committed War Crimes, Says U.S. Envoy

Photo: Martine Perret/UN
UN peacekeepers in DR Congo (file photo): The Rwandan government has contested the report's finding that several graves belonged to rebel forces and asserts that they were UN peacekeepers.

There is no evidence the M23 rebels, who are fighting the Congo government, have committed war crimes, a top US war crimes official has said.

"I made it clear that in my observation, to date, in terms of mass killings, rapes and atrocities, I do not see evidence of M23 having engaged in that level," Amb. Stephen Rapp, the head of the US office of Global Criminal Justice, told journalists in Kigali yesterday, in reference to a recent Guardian story which quoted him as saying senior Rwandan officials were open to international prosecution for their alleged support to the Congolese rebels.

"Three to four weeks ago, I was interviewed about the case regarding Charles Taylor and the meaning of that case internationally and what it means for all countries in the world.... There is no comparison between them and RUF (Revolutionary United Front)", he added.

RUF is a rebel group that fought the government of Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002 which committed atrocities for which former Liberian leader Charles Taylor was indicted and later sentenced by an international tribunal to 50 years in jail.

Rapp said that while Washington believes Rwanda was backing M23 rebels "I didn't believe that there is criminal responsibility in any kind of cross-border support".

"What I said is that one can be held responsible for crimes even when you don't cross the border if you provide aid to a group that is committing atrocities and you know they are using it in that way and you continue to provide it, that's how we successfully prosecuted Charles Taylor".

He added, "I did note, however, that obviously if they (M23) were to engage in those kinds of crimes, and the aid that would be provided to them, we would have that kind of situation".

"(The Guardian) headline had names we didn't mention; they drew conclusions from my statements, and added a headline that was incorrect".

Amb. Rapp, who was in the country en route from DRC, is a former prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which has tried key masterminds of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi which claimed more than a million lives.

A UN Group of Experts (GoE) has also accused Kigali of supporting the M23 rebels, but the latter denied the allegations in a rebuttal to an addendum to an interim report by the experts.

Remnants of the perpetrators of the Genocide are still holed up in eastern DRC, operating under what is known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The Rwandan government has accused the GoE of bias, especially after wide circulation of past publications by Steve Hege, the group's coordinator, in support of the FDLR cause. Ibuka, a Genocide survivors umbrella, last week petitioned the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to remove Hege from the GoE, citing his questionable credibility and soft spot for the Genocide perpetrators.

FDLR field commander Sylvestre Mudacumura was recently indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for atrocities committed by the militia, which was blacklisted by the US and a regional inter-state platform, Tripartite Plus, as a terrorist organization.

Speaking to journalists yesterday, Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga, said that while Rwanda has welcomed the ICC warrant against Mudacumura, it needed to see efforts on the ground to try and arrest him. "There is one thing to say there is an indictment by ICC but that becomes meaningless if there is no equivalent effort to arrest him".

Amb. Rapp also said he had raised concerns of possible xenophobic attacks in the Congo in the wake of the latest conflict, which has seen the rebels take strategic towns and villages in areas close to Uganda.

"The US is always concerned about the safety of the civilians.....we know the dangers of xenophobia and we have to guard against that and that is the strong message I delivered in the Kivus that under no circumstances should anyone target the civilians because of what is happening between the armed groups," he said.

Last month reports indicated that pro-government militias were attacking Rwandans and Kinyarwanda speaking Congolese, with Kigali protesting the death of a Rwandan who died after alleged torture in a Congolese army facility.

Earlier, 11 Rwandans who were "dumped" at the border by Congolese officials also claimed to have been tortured by the Congolese army (FARDC).

Last week, an extra-ordinary Summit of Heads of State from the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), hosted by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, mandated Defence ministers from seven member states to come up with a viable solution to the crisis within two weeks.

The M23 fighters, largely composed of the former CNDP and PARECO rebels, mutinied in April accusing Kinshasa of reneging on a 2009 Rwanda-brokered peace deal under which they had been integrated into the national army.

Allegations of Rwanda links with the rebels have since resulted in some donor countries delaying or cutting aid to Kigali.

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