Congo-Kinshasa: New Urgency to Talks With M23 Rebels

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Photo: Sylvain Liechti/UN
M23 rebels in Goma.

There is a new urgency to the latest round of talks in Kampala between the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and its foes in the M23 rebel group.

For several months the parties have been going around in circles on issues ranging from from a comprehensive political transition to the building of supermarkets in eastern Congo. However, the current talks come just before a United Nations force with a broader mandate begins operations.

The Kampala talks encompass several elements of previously failed peace processes in the region. Notably, local civil society is not participating, and the underlying causes of the conflict are not being addressed.

Moreover, the M23 is attempting to use the talks as the last available vehicle to circumvent accountability for rebellion and war crimes, and Rwanda likely wants to ensure that M23 officers stay in the Kivus. M23 may try to cut a deal to protect its top leaders, maintaining an impunity that will lead to continuing insecurity for communities in eastern Congo.

To achieve progress, the talks should include a benchmark that is already laid out in the peace framework that was signed by 11 regional states and the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon in February. UN envoy Mary Robinson should urge nations in the region to agree on a partnership with the UN Intervention Brigade to address the fact that armed groups, such as M23 and the Rwandan rebels organized in the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) , pose risks to regional security. Talks with the armed groups should be part of a strategy to address these concerns.

If the Kampala talks go forward before that mechanism is set up, they must at least meet certain accountability benchmarks if they are to have a durable impact on peace and security in eastern Congo.

In particular, two main changes must be made in the approach to the talks, and it should be up to the Ugandan and other regional governments, Robinson and key policymakers in the U.S. to make them.

First, the only way an agreement will be legitimate and sustainable is if senior M23 leaders accused of war crimes are held accountable for their actions. Previous peace accords for the eastern Congo have created loopholes for war criminals and corrupt public officials. For example, a 2009 deal made rebel leader Bosco "The Terminator" Ntaganda, whom the International Criminal Court had already indicted, a general in Congo's army.

Twelve M23 leaders are currently under indictment for war crimes by the Congolese government, and they should not be given amnesty. An M23-DR Congo accord should specify that indicted war criminals be brought to justice, not reintegrated into the army. Robinson's recent statement on guiding principles for the talks was helpful, pointing the way toward accountability.

The indicted M23 leaders would likely not receive a fair trial in Congo, given the corruption in the justice system, so a better outcome would be to have them handed over for trial to a third country where universal jurisdiction applies.

Meanwhile, rank-and-file M23 troops should be allowed back into the Congolese army but deployed outside the Kivus, since their presence there would cause further conflict. Any redeployment should go hand-in-hand with enhanced monitoring of troop movements in border areas.

Second, the talks must be coupled with fundamental reforms and wider negotiations that address the real drivers of why the war has gone on for so long.

Kinshasa and the regional governments agreed to democratization, economic and security reforms when they signed the framework agreement in February. It is now up to Robinson and the new United States envoy to the region, Russ Feingold, to help broker talks on regional economic integration and security issues - mainly between the DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda - as well as to ensure that Kinshasa makes good on serious army and democracy reforms, such as the holding of long overdue local elections.

Robinson and her team have a difficult task ahead of them in Kampala, but it is critical that they stay on track. While she should encourage the parties to work constructively, the opportunity presented through the new UN framework calls for tactics that break the mold of past efforts. It is essential that pressure be applied through existing channels of communication with the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region and the Congolese government to ensure that the issues are addressed with transparency, accountability and inclusivity.

If the lessons of failed past peace processes are not learned now, the new diplomatic investments will have been a waste of time, and eastern Congo will sink back into turmoil and large-scale violence.

Aaron Hall is a Nairobi-based field consultant for the Enough Project in Washington, DC, where Sasha Lezhnev is senior policy analyst.

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