By Sarah Milburn and Ken Harrow
The last time armed militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo unleashed a campaign of violence, five million people were killed and 2.5 million people were driven from their homes. Governments in the region and the United Nations failed to hold anyone accountable. And now, the United Nations Security Council is asleep in the face of yet another catastrophe. Another 250,000 people have become refugees this year, despite the presence of 17,000 peacekeepers.
But, where is the evidence of the United Nations' mandate to protect people? When Amnesty International visited refugee camps in DRC and Uganda, women told researchers that they actually feel more vulnerable in the camps, as most of them are alone without their husbands, who have fled fearing forced recruitments by armed groups. Several women said they were raped while leaving the camp to look for food or to collect wood. Some said they had been harassed by local security forces.
It is not only civilians who are targets of violence by armed groups, but advocates who seek to protect them. On October 25, Dr. Denis Mukwege, a pioneer in treating victims of sexual violence at the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu who has addressed the United Nations as a trauma expert, was violently assaulted while with his children, and nearly died.
Rwanda, a U.S. regional ally, is deeply implicated in its neighbor's war. New York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman reported on Nov. 21 that Rwanda is widely suspected of arming the M23 and sending Rwandan soldiers to fight covertly alongside the rebels. Twice before, in 1996 and 1998, Rwanda clandestinely supported rebellions in eastern Congo. At the time, the Rwandan government lied about its involvement, denying that it had thousands of troops inside its neighbor's borders.
Rwanda continues to lie.
Rwanda supports the armed group M23, which recently took the city of Goma, and says it will go further into Congo to overthrow the government. Rwanda vehemently denies its involvement in the face of the U.N. Group of Experts Report on the Democratic Republic of Congo which says, "Rwandan officials have provided military support to M23 through permanent troop reinforcements and clandestine support through special forces units."
U.N. investigators found that M23 rebels had been recruited in Rwandan villages, former members of other militias joined the rebellion by traveling through Rwandan territory, and funds for the rebels were collected by members of Rwanda's ruling party, saying, "officers of the Rwandan armed forces have also furnished the rebels with weapons, facilitated the evacuation of casualties to Rwanda and shared communication equipment with M23."
Rwanda's provision of recruits and weapons to M23 is in violation of the U.N. arms embargo. The Security Council should impose sanctions on Rwandan Defense officials, banning travel and freezing assets. The U.N. report referred to specific high-ranking officials within the Rwandan Ministry of Defense providing support to M23. The U.S. government and the Security Council should add these officials to the list of designated individuals targeted by the Sanctions Committee.
More than 140,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are living in a catastrophic situation around Goma. They are in dire need of food, water, shelter and medicine, and may be caught in the crossfire of further fighting. There is risk of human rights abuses by M23, which has a long record of killings, forced recruitment of young adults and child soldiers, forced labor and rape. There are also new reports of human rights violations committed by the Congolese army in Minova near the front line. If the Congolese army continues to ally with other armed groups known for human rights abuse, it will be responsible for violations of international law.
The U.N. peacekeepers of the DRC mission are headquartered in Goma to protect the vulnerable and monitor reports of human rights abuse, which have included abductions, sexual violence, and summary executions of people refusing to collaborate with M23. The U.S. government and U.N. Security Council must support the peacekeepers with adequate resources to carry out its mandate.
Most importantly, the U.S. government should immediately support a resolution requiring Rwanda to withdraw its support from the M23.
If the war in Congo accelerates again, resulting in still more deaths added to the five million dead so far, the responsibility will fall on those who fail to act now, just as they had failed to act in 1994 to stop the genocide in Rwanda.
Kenneth Harrow and Sarah S. Milburn are country specialists for Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo for Amnesty International USA