By Enough Project
Facing a deadline from the UN Security Council and regional African governments to fully demobilize or face military operations by January 2, 2015, the rebel group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo known as the FDLR is currently regrouping, mobilizing political support, and continuing to pose a regional security threat. The FDLR is one of the most significant and abusive armed groups in Congo and Rwanda, several of its leaders were involved in helping to perpetrate the Rwandan genocide, and it has committed repeated massacres against civilians in Congo. Combatting the FDLR has become the stated raison d’être for several active Congolese armed groups. An important reason to focus on the FDLR is that Rwanda has repeatedly cited the FDLR threat as a justification to intervene in eastern Congo. Ending the FDLR would counter that justification and eliminate one of the major drivers of instability in eastern Congo and the region.
Evidence from U.N. experts and findings from six months of Enough Project field research in Congo suggest that the FDLR’s current strategy is focused on reorganizing itself in three main areas: generating more income to trade for ammunition and weapons, mobilizing political support in an attempt to gain greater legitimacy, and preparing to avoid military defeat through alliance-building and recruitment. Despite the group’s rhetoric that its fighters are in the process of disarming, the FDLR has failed to meet several deadlines to demobilize set by regional governments and the international community. Fewer than 200 rank-and-file soldiers have laid down their weapons to date, and the group has refused to relocate to designated demobilization camps.
The FDLR continues to generate revenue mainly by trading gold through North Kivu and Uganda and by illegally producing and trading charcoal from Virunga National Park, a trade worth an estimated $32 million per year. The group is using part of that revenue to purchase ammunition and arms from Congolese army officers, with whom it continues to collaborate and share intelligence. The U.N. Group of Experts and interviewees around Virunga Park also note that the FDLR continues to recruit foot soldiers. The FDLR has also struck military alliances with Congolese armed groups, including Maï-Maï Lafontaine and others. Finally, the FDLR is gathering political momentum by having created new alliances with four Rwandan political parties that are frustrated with the increasing lack of political space in Rwanda. Anecdotal evidence from Enough Project field interviews shows that these alliances are boosting morale within the FDLR, though some of the enthusiasm has dissipated recently in the wake of strong disarmament messages from regional governments and the international community.
The FDLR’s current strategy is consistent with its longtime pattern of responding to military pressure. In this pattern, the group promises to disarm and reiterates its political aspirations for recognition as a Rwandan opposition group. The FDLR then uses any reprieve to regroup by building military alliances and increasing economic activity and recruitment.
Since the defeat of the M23 rebel group in November 2013, the FDLR has received significant attention in both the region and the broader international community as the next main armed group to address. This attention, however, has translated into very little policy action to date, and the rebels’ promises to disarm have gone largely unfulfilled. Efforts to end the FDLR have suffered from a lack of consensus to undertake military operations or other non-military steps in part because of the group’s position at the center of regional tensions. The Congolese government, which would have to play a critical role in efforts to counter the FDLR, hesitates in part because its ties to the FDLR are economically and politically beneficial. Several Congolese army officers, for example, continue to benefit from the FDLR’s illegal gold and charcoal trade. South Africa and Tanzania, the chief troop-contributing countries to the U.N. Intervention Brigade in the Congo, have supported Kinshasa to date in large part due to business interests related to the Inga III mega-dam and because of strained relations with Rwanda. South African and Tanzanian leaders have also bristled at Rwanda’s alleged attempted assassinations of political opponents in South Africa. The current chair of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, Angola, has attempted to push the region to act more forcefully on the FDLR, preferring military force but stopping short of contributing troops to the U.N. brigade.
A significant issue with the military option is that the FDLR embeds itself in local communities and refugee populations, creating a legitimate risk that counter-FDLR operations will cause civilian casualties on a scale that is similar to past operations that used conventional military strategies. The risk of civilian casualties can be mitigated if operations using special forces target the FDLR leadership and also incorporate strong civilian protection measures. Lessons from the African Union’s mission to counter the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) should be applied.
Defeating the FDLR will require a comprehensive strategy that incorporates both targeted military approaches and more concerted diplomatic action on non-military areas, including high-level diplomacy, economic measures, incentives to increase defections, humanitarian steps, and criminal accountability. In particular, the FDLR’s collaboration with the Congolese army and its economic lifelines must be significantly curtailed. This report sets out key non-military approaches to ending the FDLR’s ability to continue to threaten peace and security in the region. A follow-up report will review military steps necessary to address the FDLR.
- Regional diplomacy. U.N. Special Envoy Said Djinnit should continue to proactively repair relations between Rwanda and South Africa as well as relations between Rwanda and Tanzania. The aim should be to forge regional consensus for both targeted military operations and urgently-needed non-military measures to neutralize the FDLR. In addition to shuttle diplomacy and bringing key officials together for talks, initiatives could include confidence-building measures, such as facilitating increased economic ties among the countries, issuing common statements on the FDLR, and/or possible diplomatic retreats, such as a new round of the Oyo Process in Congo-Brazzaville.
- Cutting off the FDLR’s economic lifelines: charcoal. U.N. Special Envoy Said Djinnit, U.S. Special Envoy Russ Feingold, and U.N. Special Representative Martin Kobler should press the U.N. peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) and the Congolese police to support the Virunga park rangers of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) in interdicting the FDLR’s supply routes for charcoal from Virunga National Park to Goma. The envoys should also press MONUSCO to provide peacekeepers to patrol the park with the Virunga park rangers to help curtail charcoal production in the park.
- Accountability for Congolese army officers. Djinnit, Feingold, Kobler, and Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos should escalate pressure on the Congolese government to investigate, suspend, and indict Congolese military officers who are suspected of collaborating with the FDLR. The issue should be placed on the agendas of the ICGLR high-level talks and the U.N. Security Council. Such collaboration is a major issue, because it enables the rebels to avoid attacks and resupply. Despite several years of such collaboration documented by U.N. experts, no Congolese army officer has ever been suspended for collaboration with the FDLR.
- Work to apprehend FDLR leader Sylvestre Mudacumura and encourage public indictments. Djinnit, Feingold, and dos Santos should urge MONUSCO and the Congolese government to cooperate with the International Criminal Court, apprehend Mudacumura, and strengthen the case against him. Work on this area can help both break down the structures of impunity that allow FDLR’s leadership to thrive and also restore dignity and security to victims. The envoys should also encourage regional governments to develop investigations and public indictments against FDLR, M23, and other high-level persons accused of committing grave atrocity crimes. Public indictments will help encourage non-indicted FDLR and other armed combatants to defect without fear of apprehension.
- Third-country resettlement. Djinnit, European Union Representative Koen Vervaeke, and Feingold should finalize negotiations with countries outside the Great Lakes region and develop concrete options for resettlement for FDLR combatants who are not indicted for atrocity crimes and who have a fear of return to Rwanda. Such offers should include the protective measures necessary to encourage increased defection.
- Djinnit, Feingold, and Kobler should work with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to set up protected camps for refugees in eastern Congo. The envoys should also ensure that MONUSCO provides security for the camps. The current internal displacement camps where Rwandan refugees stay serve as recruitment pools for the FDLR. The creation of U.N. refugee camps with much stronger security and protection provided by MONUSCO would help counter FDLR recruitment from these camps.
- Security guarantees. Djinnit, Feingold, and dos Santos should work with Rwanda to provide an improved security plan that is co-signed by international actors and to issue a new statement that would outline more concrete plans for security and non-prosecution guarantees for FDLR combatants not indicted for grave crimes. Rwanda has had a policy to date, but security deals that have been reportedly broken have made FDLR fighters not trust the current arrangements. A new revised program, co-signed by the United Nations and/or the Southern African Development Community (SADC), could help spur more defections from the FDLR.