Highlighting the active role of United Nations 'blue helmets' in protecting civilians across the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the world body's peacekeeping chief today emphasized the need for a political solution to the activities involving the 23 March Movement (M23) rebel group in the area.
"Clearly, beyond the military activities there is a need to prioritize political solutions," the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Hervé Ladsous, told reporters following closed-door consultations of the Security Council on events in the eastern DRC.
The peacekeeping chief's comments, as well as the Council's consultations and an earlier open meeting, came in the wake of the occupation yesterday of the M23 - composed of soldiers who mutinied from the DRC national army in April - into the eastern DRC city of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, following a steady advance over recent days.
On Tuesday night, the Council unanimously adopted a resolution in which it strongly condemned the latest wave of attacks by the M23 and demanded its immediate withdrawal from Goma.
The march of the M23 has uprooted some 60,0000 civilians and had prompted the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) to deploy attack helicopters in aid of the national army, known by the French acronym FARDC.
MONUSCO has some 1,500 'blue helmets' in Goma, and another 6,700 and 4,000 in the provinces of North and South Kivu, respectively, including, in some places, behind the M23 lines.
In his comments, Mr. Ladsous pointed to a meeting of the regional body known as the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) in the Ugandan city of Kampala on Tuesday, as well as a meeting between DRC President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, under the auspices of Uganda President Joseph Museveni and with the presence of UN officials, as examples of efforts to move towards a political solution.
At previous meetings, the ICGLR has put forward two solutions to deal with the situation in the eastern DRC, which has long been the focus of violence involving armed groups.
One of these is the so-called Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism (EJVM), which was launched in September in Goma. First discussed in July, the mechanism is a technical body, comprising military experts from both DRC and Rwanda, as well as other ICGLR countries and supported by the African Union and the UN, to address DRC-Rwanda border security issues, amongst other tasks.
The other solution put forward previously by the ICGLR is the establishment of an international force to work alongside MONUSCO to pacify the provinces of North and South Kivu. North Kivu alone is four times the size of Belgium.
Mr. Ladsous said that at the ICGLR meeting in Kampala yesterday, there was a move to "look more closely at the proposed international neutral force, which remains at this stage pretty much a concept," adding that the UN would support the regional body to "see how we can flesh out this concept."
On the role of UN peacekeepers in Goma and elsewhere, Mr. Ladsous said that "MONUSCO stays the course," with its 'blue helmets' controlling the city's airport and conducting regular patrols.
"They have to be in support of the armed forces of Congo, but of course, they have to protect civilians, and I think the very fact that they are patrolling does have a deterrent effect on possible attacks which simply do not appear in this context," he said.
"Let us not forget," he added, "there is also the presence of various bases or camps of MONUSCO further north, well behind M23 lines, and they are trying their best to do that part of their mandate which is implementable - the protection of civilians."
The UN official flagged the difficulties in UN peacekeepers providing support to the FARDC's efforts against M23 fighters - there have been reports of national army troops fleeing or handing over their weapons.
"That is hardly achievable in a situation where there are no FARDC to support, and clearly it is not the role - not the mandate of MONUSCO - to directly hit the armed groups, whichever they may be," Mr. Ladsous said.
The peacekeeping chief also highlighted the humanitarian situation on the ground, which, in addition to the uprooting of some 60,000 civilians, has included reports of targeted summary executions, the widespread recruitment and use of children, unconfirmed cases of sexual violence, and other serious human rights abuses.
"It is clear that those who are responsible for this suffering will be held directly accountable," Mr. Ladsous said.
MONUSCO, with 17,500 uniformed military personnel, has been aiding Government efforts to bring stability and civilian elections to the vast nation after it was torn apart by civil wars and rebel movements.
Earlier on Wednesday, at the Security Council's open meeting on the situation in the DRC, it was briefed, via video-link from the DRC capital of Kinshasa, by the Secretary-General's Special Representative and head of MONUSCO, Roger Meece.
The envoy said that currently the M23 effectively occupies a significant portion of North Kivu, and it has been setting up a formal administrative or governing structure.
"We have received numerous reports of targeted summary executions of those who stand in their way, including government and traditional leaders who resist or fail to cooperate with an M23 administrative structure," he stated. "We also continue to receive ongoing reports of widespread recruitment and use of children, unconfirmed cases of sexual violence, and other serious human rights abuses."
Mr. Meece added that the rebels have not achieved full support by any ethnic group or community. "Indeed, the M23 does not enjoy broad support in North Kivu, or elsewhere in eastern DRC," he said.
There have been various allegations of external support to the M23. On this matter, the envoy noted that the rebels are "well provisioned, and well supplied with uniforms, and a variety of arms and munitions, many of which clearly have not come from existing FARDC stocks.
"They exhibit many characteristics of a strong, disciplined, established military force with sophisticated tactics and operations, including night operations, which are not characteristic of traditional performance," he said.
MONUSCO, he added, does not have the mandate or means to investigate or verify the sources or means by which these "impressive" capabilities have been achieved.