The United Nations peacekeeping chief said today that the Security Council reacted with "considerable interest" to proposed responses to the recent violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) - including one that would see a new peacekeeping force deployed there in addition to UN peacekeepers.
"We have to reflect on the concept for the international neutral force," said the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Hervé Ladsous, as he addressed journalists after emerging from the closed-door meeting of the 15-nation Council at UN Headquarters in New York. He used a shorthand term for the force, which the regional intergovernmental group known as the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) proposed recently.
According to media reports, ICGLR hopes such a force would help return normalcy to eastern DRC after years of hostilities. The reports also say that, while the African Union has pledged to contribute troops to the force, a contingent of the 23 March Movement (M23) armed group would be included in a deployment at the airport in Goma, capital of DRC's North Kivu province.
The armed group - made up of former national army troops who mutinied in April and named after a 23 March 2009 peace agreement that they reportedly say has not been implemented - occupied Goma on 19 November, after an advance that included clashes with the DRC armed forces, known by the French acronym FARDC.
Amidst widespread condemnation and calls for their withdrawal, they pulled out from the city of one million after 11 days in accordance with requirements laid out in an ICGLR communiqué, and monitored by some of the 1,500 peacekeepers from the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) who are deployed in Goma.
The Security Council will ponder the ICGLR proposal in terms of how it can help advance the MONUSCO peacekeeper mandate, Mr. Ladsous told reporters.
It will do the same for two other proposals Mr. Ladsous presented. He said there could be "additional force enablers," which referred to adding equipment that MONUSCO could use to boost its efficiency.
He also said the Council could choose to support an "expanded version" of the ICGLR's Joint Verification Mechanism, which monitors the border between DRC and Rwanda. According to media reports, Rwanda has allegedly played a role in the multi-faceted conflict in the eastern DRC over the years.
Mr. Ladsous described the proposals as "very preliminary thoughts" on the part of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), which he heads.
"Security (Council) members reacted with considerable interest to those ideas," Mr. Ladsous said. "Of course, they will want to consider options, and this is what we are working upon," he added, saying that an "important dimension" would be to consult countries contributing troops to MONUSCO.
The peacekeeping chief noted that the UN had responded to a Ugandan request to provide some technical help for peace talks the East African country is to host in its capital, Kampala, between the DRC Government and the M23.
He said the UN was developing "contingency plans" in the event the M23 seeks to return to Goma, adding that despite the armed group's withdrawal, some elements of it remained north of the city.
For now, MONUSCO "continues to patrol actively in the city," said Mr. Ladsous, adding it was doing so alongside 2,400 DRC police, who had returned in the wake of the M23's withdrawal.
Mr. Ladsous said the UN was also investigating a number of reports of human rights abuses allegedly committed by M23 members and other armed groups - and also by "some elements" of FARDC troops in the town of Minova, close to Goma.
Health centres recorded some 70 rapes in the area of Minova, according to an inter-UN agency assessment mission this week, while media reports said FARDC troops reportedly withdrew from Minova after losing Goma to the M23.
"We have taken measures to patrol regularly around the various displaced persons camps to prevent further attacks," Mr. Ladsous said.
Separately today, a UN spokesperson, Eduardo del Buey, told a news briefing at UN Headquarters that preliminary investigations by MONUSCO indicate that some FARDC troops committed violations "including rape and looting."
"MONUSCO cannot confirm the reported figure of 72 rapes, but it is on the ground conducting further investigations," he said at a briefing for journalists, citing an updated statistic for the number of rape victims.
Mr. del Buey also said MONUSCO was investigating allegations of violations including killings, wounding of civilians, rape, looting, as well as the forced recruitment of children by M23 elements in Goma and neighbouring areas.
Reacting to the reports, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, expressed her alarm at the increasing incidents of attacks in eastern DRC.
"I strongly condemn these acts of sexual violence and other human rights abuses," she said in a statement.