“Our country is imploding here, Goma is now filled with insanity, the government won’t negotiate since they want to do it directly with Rwanda who denies any complicity in the affair even though it’s a lie. This wonderful country with good people hasn’t had any respite since 1885.” Thus read an email I received from friends living in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It narrated the horrific events of the past week as Goma, the capital of North Kivu province in eastern DRC, fell to M23 rebel fighters who captured the city – reportedly with little resistance from the Congolese army or UN peacekeepers.
The sequence of events taking place in Goma today is not unfamiliar to those on the ground. The history of armed conflict in the eastern DRC is filled with examples of rebel groups gaining notoriety for their violations of human rights.
These actions gain such groups international recognition and open up channels for increased financial and commercial operations. Rebels are awarded a bargaining tool and use it, forcing the government to negotiate. In the past, the Congolese government has provided combatants political concessions and integration into the national army in exchange for withdrawal and defection from rebel groups. Because reintegration is usually superficial and incomplete, conflict often breaks out again when these newly “integrated” officers break away from the army and start a new rebel movement (as was the case with the CNDP in 2004 and the M23 rebels last spring).
Since April, there have been many “warnings” that the situation in North Kivu was unstable. By September, when I visited Goma with a team of researchers, shootings and curfews were routine. People commented that the incidents of shooting were becoming too common in a city of one million inhabitants, despite an evident UN presence (through the UN Stabilization Mission, known as Monusco) as well as that of thousands of aid and humanitarian workers. In Goma, a Congolese told me that “It is as if they” – the M23 – “are testing the waters.” Testing the waters seems to have worked out well for the M23 rebels, as they took over the city and advanced toward the border with Rwanda. But if everyone knew it would happen, why did we let it happen?
In general, the Congolese government has proven itself incompetent in protecting the eastern DRC. The population has consistently relied on UN peacekeepers for support. The government hoped that the international community would intervene in the conflict once a recent UN expert report discovered that Uganda and Rwanda were involved, but armed support failed to materialize.
On Dec. 3, the Program on Human Rights at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law and the Student Anti-Genocide Coalition will be honored to host Steve Hege for a special seminar, in which he will present the most recent findings included in the UN expert report. According to the report, General James Kabarebe, the defense minister of Rwanda, is directing M23 rebels in the eastern part of the DRC, and Rwanda and Uganda have contributed troops to support the rebels against government forces. The report further asserts that Rwandan mineral traders are helping to fund the insurgency.
The Congolese government miscalculated, and the overall approach of non-intervention fell miserably short once again. UN peacekeepers based in Goma failed to intervene and stop the advance of rebels. Peacekeepers allege they did not have a mandate to intervene in the conflict. The official mandate at stake is determined by the UN Security Council – the same Council that just elected Rwanda to one of its two-year term seats. Rwanda and Uganda vehemently deny the accusations of supporting the M23 rebels. And in Kigali, Rwandan media (more specifically, the New Times and the Kigali Sun) have accused the Congolese government of “brainwashing” its citizens into thinking that Rwandans are to be blamed for the ills of the eastern DRC.
The acts of violence perpetrated by the M23 are unacceptable. Consequences range from killings to the abduction of women and children to forced military recruitment, causing thousands of people to flee – many of whom are now living in subhuman conditions. It is also alarming, and equally unacceptable, that the international community once again failed to identify warning signs, proving itself incapable of responding effectively to a situation we have all have seen before.
The conflict in the eastern DRC will never be solved until a DRC government can defend its citizens and perpetrators of human rights abuses are held accountable for their actions. Achieving that end is beyond the current capacity of the UN or any other foreign actors – particularly if they are fighting on the other side.
Nadejda Marques is the program manager for the Program on Human Rights at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) at Stanford University. She coordinates the program’s research and activities related to the eastern DRC.
For more information on the event with UN expert Steve Hege, please visit: http://humanrights.stanford.edu/events/.