For more than a year and a half, UN peacekeepers have continuously supported military operations conducted by the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) against the Rwandan rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in North and South Kivu.
Over this period, the FDLR might have lost 40 per cent of their combatants but have demonstrated resilience in the face of FARDC offensives using dispersion tactics and forging new alliances with Congolese armed groups. Today, the FDLR pose the same strategic threat to regional security as ever.
There is nothing to suggest these military operations have improved the security of the population. On the contrary, UN specialists, NGOs and local civil society movements have reported a rise in human rights violations since the beginning of 2009. With more than one third of the Congolese army on operation in the Kivu, many critical reforms have not been implemented.
The UN has already lost much credibility for actively supporting this controversial military-led approach to solve the long-standing Kivu conflict, Now that a UN stabilisation mission (MONUSCO) is replacing the peacekeeping force (MONUC) and Roger Meece is taking over from MONUC head, Alan Doss, it’s a good time to ask should the UN still support FARDC military campaigns in the Kivu?
Grounds for committing MONUC support to FARDC military campaigns
In January 2009, Alan Doss made the critical decision to closely associate MONUC with the anti-FDLR military offensives launched by presidents Kabila and Kagame. There are three main motives behind this strategic choice:
First, the UN Security Council had previously mandated MONUC to support the implementation of the November 2007 Nairobi communiqué, a Rwanda-DRC agreement that allows for the use of force to disarm the FDLR. Powerful members of the Security Council had for a long time demanded that MONUC participate in decisive military action against rebel groups. Yet those members were not ready to commit their own troops for the job.
Second, the former SRSG, Alan Doss, did not want MONUC to be accused of undermining the historic November 2008 rapprochement between the DRC and Rwanda, in which he believed anti-FDLR military campaigns played an important role. Presidents Kabila and Kagame had indeed celebrated this joint initiative against the FDLR as a keystone of their new cooperation.
Third, he argued that since military offensives were inevitable, MONUC’s participation in FARDC operations would at least reduce their negative impact on the population. He expected that in exchange for UN logistical support the Congolese authorities would make significant efforts to improve the behaviour of their soldiers. Also, MONUC involvement would in theory provide peacekeepers with access to the planning stage of operations, therefore allowing them to anticipate associated risks for the population.
Assessment of more than a year and a half of UN-backed military offensives in the Kivu
Since the first of three consecutive anti-FDLR campaigns – Umoja Wetu, Kimia II, and Amani Leo – MONUC civilian and military staff have worked hard to achieve incremental improvements in FARDC operational effectiveness against the FDLR and in civilian protection. In both cases, due to a lack of resolute leadership from the DRC Government, MONUC has failed to secure lasting progress.
1. No decisive military success
Launched in January 2009 in North Kivu, Operation Umoja Wetu was spearheaded by Rwandan troops and lasted for only 35 days. It was quickly followed by Kimia II, a ten month campaign in North and South Kivu conducted by the FARDC with MONUC logistical support. The third military operation, Amani Leo (“Peace Now” in Kiswahili), began in January 2010 and is still ongoing. It puts stronger emphasis on civilian protection and joint planning, and conditions UN support on the respect of international law by the eighteen FARDC battalions involved.
The military-first approach has not delivered any decisive success. Despite an initial ratio of ten FARDC soldiers deployed for every FDLR combatant, the Congolese army supported by MONUC has been unable to eradicate the Rwandan militia, provide security in areas freed from rebel control or prevent FDLR reprisals against civilians. The rebel group’s strength has decreased from 6,000/6,500 to 3,000/4,000 combatants but its command and control structure remains almost intact, as does its capacity to abuse civilians.
The army pushed the FDLR away from some mining sites, but other armed men replaced them. FDLR combatants have found refuge in remote areas of the Kivu, and in parts of Maniema and North Katanga. The FDLR remain a threat to the Congolese population. And since they are forging alliances with other militias hostile to Kigali, such as the FPLC of Gabi Ngabo and the FRF of Michel Rukunda, the FDLR also remain a potential justification for another Rwandan military intervention on Congolese soil.
Ironically, MONUC leadership has refused to call for these military operations to stop because all the tactical gains achieved so far are only temporary. MONUC has argued that calling off the offensive now would likely trigger the collapse of the January 2009 integration process in which former Congolese rebel groups, such as the Tutsi-led CNDP, joined the regular army and allow the Rwandan rebels to regroup and reorganise. Instead, MONUC has encouraged the FARDC to pursue military offensives, with no end in sight.
2. No security improvement in the Kivu but a culture of impunity
The poor training, lack of discipline and weak operational capacity of the Congolese soldiers make it very difficult for them to enforce the disarmament of militias and ensure the protection of civilians.
With more than 60,000 regular troops spread out in the Kivu in 2010, the over-militarisation of the countryside is causing insecurity for the villagers. UN specialists now suspect that the majority of human rights violations are carried out by the FARDC and demobilised combatants in part because the Congolese government is not paying all its soldiers nor carrying out a proper disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) program. Civil society organisations, like the one from the city of Butembo in North Kivu as recently as 11 July 2010, are calling for the demilitarisation of urban areas and the deployment of recently integrated troops outside the Kivu.
The new emphasis on civilian protection under Amani Leo was supposed to contribute to improved security. However, in March and June 2010, the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA) raised the alarm that violence targeting civilians was on the rise again. Sexual violence in particular is getting out of control in Eastern Congo. OCHA records 80 attacks against humanitarian workers mainly in Eastern Congo in the first half of 2010 alone, which in many instances involve FARDC soldiers.
President Kabila´s "Zero Tolerance policy" announced on 30 June 2008 has not significantly eroded the culture of impunity or curbed crime by Congolese security forces in Eastern Congo. In fact, only a handful of senior FARDC officers have so far been brought to justice. Several senior rebel officers such as General Bosco Ntaganda, Colonel Sultani Makenga and Colonel Innocent Zimurinda were integrated into the FARDC in January 2009 despite past accusations of war crimes and they are still active in the FARDC in the Kivu.
Ntaganda is subject of an ICC arrest warrant for crimes committed in Ituri province between 2000 and 2006. He is also accused of the murder of humanitarian and MONUC personnel and of involvement in the massacre of 150 villagers in Kiwanja in November 2008. UN experts suspect Makenga of involvement in several massacres carried out since 2003, including the Buramba massacre of March 2007 for which his responsibility was demonstrated in a judicial report by Congolese magistrates. UN experts also reported in November 2009 that Zimurinda was responsible for a massacre in Shalio in April 2009, which left more than 120 Hutu Rwandan refugees dead.
The Congolese authorities have spared Ntaganda, Makenga and Zimurinda on the grounds that their arrest would prompt the CNDP to withdraw from the FARDC. President Kabila told the New York Times in May 2009 it was necessary to be realistic and pragmatic about the issue of Ntaganda and that peace was his first priority. He delivered the same message to the ICC prosecutor, Mr Ocampo, when they met in 2009.
3. UN embarrassment and contradictions
Despite providing food rations, fuel, transport and occasionally medical evacuations for Congolese soldiers, the level of planning and coordination between the peacekeeping mission and the FARDC was never satisfactory under Kimia II. Today, despite Amani Leo’s provisions, joint planning between Congolese commanders, MONUC and UN civilian specialists is irregular. Among MONUC’s senior staff, some dissenting voices have raised the alarm that UN support to the FARDC has not increased MONUC’s influence over the conduct of operations and that it has played a marginal role in limiting FARDC abuses against civilians.
During 2009, MONUC came under heavy criticisms from international and local NGOs for failing to protect civilians. As a result, in late 2009, the UN office of legal affairs in New York drafted a memo that stated MONUC could be held responsible for the violations of international law committed by FARDC troops receiving its assistance. The UN legal experts asked for a review of the parameters of MONUC support and for a conditionality policy to be associated with Amani Leo in 2010.
MONUC leadership was concerned that if too many strings were attached to UN support then the Congolese military would sideline the UN mission and execute operations on their own. MONUC and Kinshasa finally agreed on a policy of conditional support after drawn out negotiations. The DRC government refused initial UN proposals to link support to a substantial security sector reform at the scale of the Kivu. And now the Congolese authorities either ignore or circumvent most of the other provisions put forward by MONUC aimed at instilling discipline and integrity into the FARDC. The imperfect policy finally agreed on, far from significantly reducing the occurrence of FARDC crimes, serves the more limited purpose of shielding the UN mission from accusations of complicity in war crimes.
MONUC’s support to the FARDC causes yet another dilemma. Since resolution 1856 of December 2008, the UN Security Council has given MONUC the mandate to ensure the protection of civilians under imminent threat of physical violence “emanating from any of the parties engaged in the conflict”. With this instruction, UN peacekeepers are required to defend civilians even from abuses committed by FARDC elements. However, despite Congolese soldiers’ actions that could qualify as war crimes in areas monitored by MONUC, UN troops have never used force to prevent FARDC rogue elements from committing crimes.
What went wrong?
1. High levels of corruption and lack of discipline in the Congolese army
Since the Sun City agreement that ended the second Congolese war (1998-2003), the national army, which had already been pulled together from former warring factions, has continued to integrate former militia members into its ranks. In January 2009, in only two weeks more than 17,500 rebel combatants from Mayi-Mayi groups and CNDP ranks were chaotically turned into FARDC soldiers. .
The new soldiers get paid as irregularly as the rest of the army. Following old patterns, they continue to prey on civilians to survive while their commanders engage in illegal activities, especially the exploitation of natural resources. In November 2009, a UN group of experts revealed that MONUC-backed Kimia II had shifted the control of almost all mining sites in the Kivu from FDLR and Mayi-Mayi groups to FARDC units. As a result, the anti-FDLR campaigns have turned into business opportunities for FARDC officers. Many new houses and petrol stations in Goma, the capital of North Kivu, belong to army commanders or front men. Among other signs, this demonstrates that military operations have benefitted corrupt officers who take advantage of poor governance in the Congolese armed forces.
Amani Leo’s policy requires MONUC to give support only if the operations are jointly planned with and executed by FARDC battalions that have not committed abuses against civilians. In January 2009, when the CNDP integrated its 6,000 combatants into the FARDC, the chain of command that linked its officers was not effectively dismantled and the ex-CNDP commanders are now the driving force behind anti-FDLR offensives. To avoid putting at risk the integration of the CNDP, Kinshasa has resisted any calls for a comprehensive vetting process that would could lead to taking action against ex-CNDP figures.
2. Getting around the conditionality policy is easy
The FARDC have interpreted Amani Leo’s conditionality policy in a way that does not oblige them to vet officers involved in operations if their rank is higher than battalion commander. With this approach, senior FARDC officers suspected of war crimes can still participate in Amani Leo without forcing MONUC to withdraw its support. An official FARDC document sent to MONUC presented Amani Leo’s order of battle in North Kivu as of 5 April 2010. In it Zimurinda is still mentioned as 23rd Sector Commander and Colonel Albert “Foca Mike” Kahasha is also mentioned as 12th Sector Commander despite having been in charge of the area of Lukweti in the summer 2009, where the FARDC killed at least 62 civilians.
As suspicions of human rights violations involving Amani Leo-associated FARDC commanders continue to emerge, MONUC’s decision-making process regarding conditions has become even more opaque. During Kimia II, MONUC was forced to withdraw its support for the FARDC’s 213th Brigade that carried out the Lukweti massacre. Seven months into Amani Leo, the UN has not withdrawn support from any other Congolese unit. In a damning report presented to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2010, the UN Special Envoy on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston, recommended that MONUC’s conditionality policy should be made public and that the peacekeeping mission should strictly adhere to it.
Another way for the FARDC to circumvent the conditions imposed by the UN is to give up on MONUC support altogether. President Kabila’s insistent demand for the UN mission to withdraw blue helmets from the Congo before the end of 2011 demonstrates that he has not valued MONUC support to military operations as much as MONUC hoped. The FARDC has conducted most recent military offensives against the FDLR in a unilateral manner parallel to Amani Leo. On 25 June, Kinshasa decided to open a new front in launching operation “Rwenzori” against the ADF-Nalu, a Ugandan rebel group located in the Northern part of North Kivu. For this new campaign, Kinshasa did not bother to insist on MONUC support. The leverage that MONUC leadership expected to derive from its support to anti-FDLR operations has evidently proved slim.
More than a year and a half into a controversial policy of UN support for FARDC’s military offensives, MONUSCO should heed four lessons before deciding whether or not to continue MONUC’s approach:
1. Even if the number of FDLR combatants continues to decrease, the rebel group will remain a major strategic obstacle to peace and security in the Kivu: the FDLR’s retaliations against civilians that followed the military offensives demonstrate the group does not hesitate to target civilians when cornered. The FDLR today have ten times more combatants than the Lord Resistance Army, another dreadful foreign armed group successfully challenging the FARDC in Eastern Congo. As the current approach of military attrition is not solving the problem, MONUSCO and the governments of the DRC and Rwanda should implement a comprehensive strategy, including negotiations with some non-genocidaire rebels, as detailed in Congo: A Comprehensive Strategy to Disarm the FDLR, Crisis Group Africa Report N°151, 9 July 2009.
2. UN support for the DRC’s military approach has diverted attention away from much needed reforms: since the 2006 general elections, the government in Kinshasa has overly relied on the FARDC to suppress local rebellions and provide security for the regime instead of undertaking concerted political efforts and governance reforms to more sustainably address the problems in the East. The international approach to SSR remains sketchy. International partners have not opposed Kinshasa’s practice of promoting bilateral cooperation to train and equip specific battalions. Congolese political authorities have circumvented any attempt to significantly improve multilateral coordination of SSR and are carefully avoiding international engagement on this sensitive issue. As the FARDC’s infamous record in the Kivu demonstrates, no real reform of army governance is under way.
3. The UN mission and other international actors take legal risks and put their reputation on the line when they get involved in training or supporting Congolese security forces: Congolese authorities have successfully deflected international calls to stop impunity and adopt a strict vetting policy for those who integrate into the FARDC. Under such circumstances, a candid collaboration between foreign military personnel and Congolese soldiers is inconceivable. As the Congolese police are suspected of involvement in the murder of the human rights activist Floribert Chebeya on 2 June 2010, any kind of security cooperation with the government is questionable. International actors should be wary of collaborating with a government that shows increasing signs of political repression, in a time when the country is approaching landmark elections in 2011.
4. The UN mission runs the risk of partiality: Rebel armed groups are commonly organised along ethnic lines. The influence of the Tutsi-based CNDP on the FARDC is increasingly resented by other local communities, particularly those which oppose the CNDP’s preparations for the return of their fellow Tutsi refugees from Rwanda and Uganda. Consequently, Congolese armed groups and the FDLR are allegedly forging new alliances to defend the interests of particular communities. As a result of international support for the FARDC, and thus for the CNDP, the UN mission and other international actors risk being accused of partiality and losing credibility among the Kivu’s different rebel groups and civilians.