Congo-Kinshasa: Intervention in Eastern Congo a Rising Priority for Activists

Washington — As the situation in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to deteriorate in the wake of an armed rebellion that began in April, some activists have strengthened calls for foreign military intervention.

"The idea of an international force has divided us, but we have decided that there is indeed a need for a military force in the region," Baudoin Hamuli Kabarhuza, national coordinator with the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, told a panel discussion here on Wednesday, speaking from Kinshasa.

Kabarhuza stipulated that such a force would need to be international and under the auspices of both the African Union and the United Nations.

The issue is also currently being debated within the U.S. government.

"Is there a military solution to this problem? Can we effect a military change on the ground militarily to change a political outcome?" Steven Koutsis, acting director of the Office of Central African Affairs in the U.S. State Department, said on Wednesday. "If you boil everything down, that is the question we are discussing within the U.S. government and with our partners."

Since April, eastern Congo has been increasingly torn apart by rebels that have specifically targeted civilian populations. Taking advantage of desertions among the Congolese armed forces in the spring, multiple armed groups have launched a series of bloody sectarian attacks.

At least one of these groups, known as the M23, accuses the Kinshasa government of violating a 2009 peace agreement with Rwanda. According to a U.N. report released in June as well as multiple other sources, the M23 is receiving support directly from the Rwandan government.

While there is currently an unofficial cessation in fighting between the M23 and the DRC government, there is no ceasefire agreement and no monitoring is taking place.

Meanwhile, according to Koutsis, "Both sides are reinforcing their positions, and if for some reason the ceasefire fails, the return to military action would be much more violent than we've seen so far."

According to the U.N.'s refugee agency, more than 470,000 Congolese have fled their homes since April.

On Wednesday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay noted the "sheer viciousness" of the violence, stating, "In some cases, the attacks against civilians may constitute crimes against humanity."

Most capable force?

The United Nations itself already has a military contingent operating in Congo, an 18,000-strong peacekeeping force known as MONUSCO. But this "stabilisation mission" has come under increased criticism for a perceived failure to protect civilians.

"We are facing, again, a fundamental humanitarian crisis in eastern Congo, and thus far the international community, and in particular MONUSCO, have not taken the action essential to bring it to a rapid end," Mark Schneider, a senior vice president with the International Crisis Group, a watchdog organisation, said in Washington on Wednesday.

"We believe that unless there's more demonstrated willingness by MONUSCO to use its forces in a more robust manner within its mandate, it's very unlikely that you're going to be able to get the political backing that's necessary."

While there are differences in perception over exactly what MONUSCO's mandate allows for, and thus to what extent it would be able to unilaterally confront the armed groups in eastern Congo, Schneider suggested the issue is fairly clear.

"There is substantial authorisation for MONUSCO to give the protection of civilians top priority - this is not an offensive action, but rather is designed to protect civilians," he said.

"MONUSCO is a capable military force if it is directed to carry out the mission. Yet in the DRC, the people cannot understand why the most capable military force in the country is unwilling to use its firepower to implement its mandate."

At the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday, U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the DRC, Roger Meece, underlined the priority that MONUSCO places on civilian protection. Yet he also characterised the "deterioration of the overall security situation" in parts of eastern Congo as "extremely alarming".

Time for durable peace

The Security Council meeting was convened to discuss the Rwandan government's continuing support for certain armed groups operating in eastern Congo.

On Wednesday, citing the unique relationship between the United States and the Rwandan government, Kabarhuza repeatedly called on the United States to step up its engagement in Congo.

For the past two decades, Washington has been a major financial backer of the Rwandan government. The United States also provides more than a quarter of the budget for MONUSCO.

The international community must call on the DRC's neighbours, Kabarhuza said. At the same time, "America has an important role to play in the region, as it has a good relationship with the DRC government as well as with Rwanda and Uganda."

"We are fed up with war; we are fed up with suffering. It's time for the international community to support durable peace here."

While Washington has made clear its determination to assist the Congolese government in fighting the Lord's Resistance Army, which operates in four central African countries, Kabarhuza said that U.S. officials as yet have "said nothing" about the armed groups' fuelling violence in eastern Congo, particularly the DRC-based Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a group associated with the 1994 anti-Tutsi genocide.

Following speculation that the U.S. government sought to hold up the June publication of the U.N. report for including critical reference to Rwanda's continued support of rebels in the eastern DRC, Washington did in fact withhold a token amount of funding, around 200,000 dollars, from the Rwandan government.

But on Wednesday, the State Department's Koutsis expressed frustration with the U.S. government's failure so far to significantly sway the Rwandan government's actions.

"What do you do when you have a partner and it does something that's so against what we see as our interests and the interests of other partners and the interests of its neighbours? How do you convince that country to change its policies?" Koutsis asked.

"Sure, we've made some strong statements and done some actions against Rwanda, but ultimately we need to try to convince Rwanda that it's not in its own interests to continue" to support the M23, he concluded.

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