To say violence is endemic in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) would be a cliché. It is a graveyard not only of hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of people, mostly civilians, killed in the violence which has plagued the region since the Rwanda genocide of 1994 overflowed that neighbouring country’s border. It also appears to be a graveyard of hope.
A year ago hope seemed to be reviving. The Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) component of the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO provided the Congolese government army (FARDC) with enough firepower to defeat the Rwanda-backed M23 rebels and drive them out of the territory. The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) battalion in the FIB, with its Rooivalk attack helicopters, played a vital role in that rare military success for the UN in the DRC.
After the M23 captured the North Kivu provincial capital of Goma in November 2012 – while MONUSCO troops stood by – the UN Security Council in March 2013 passed Resolution 2098, establishing the FIB as the first UN-led overtly offensive force. Though administratively part of MONUSCO, it was given its own unique mandate to take the initiative and ‘neutralise’ the M23 and two other foreign armed groups terrorising this area: the FDLR and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
With the FARDC, the FIB began operations against the M23 in August 2013 and defeated it by November. The next target was supposed to have been the FDLR – the French acronym for the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, originally established by ethnic Hutus who fled Rwanda after participating in the genocide of the Tutsi population.
The FDLR have been present in eastern DRC for the last 20 years, and provided the Rwandan government with a reason – or pretext – for invading eastern DRC several times, and so has been one of the most destabilising factors in the area.
Earlier this year, faced with the threat of concerted military action against it, the FDLR announced plans to voluntarily disarm. But by May, the deadline for that process came and went, with only a handful of surrenders. In July the member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) gave the FDLR another six months to implement its agreement to surrender, or face military action. This has placed MONUSCO in a difficult position.
The FDLR has been largely dragging its feet. Some of its less-able bodied fighters have participated in the UN-led disarmament, demobilisation, repatriation and rehabilitation for foreign fighters and returned to Rwanda. This week about 90 of those fighters moved, as agreed, from a transit camp in the east to a more substantial camp in Kisangani much further to the west in the province Orientale. This appeared to be a largely ceremonial gesture to demonstrate the extraction of the FDLR fighters from the war zone.
The cynical but widespread interpretation of the FDLR’s motives is that they are only trying to forestall military attack by the FIB and FARDC. Most of their fighters and weapons remain at large but this small gesture may be taken by the UN and DRC as a sign of sufficient progress.
Meanwhile other killers have been busy. Over the last two months about 200 civilians, including women and children, have been killed in Beni territory, north of Goma in North Kivu province. The ADF, an armed group originating in Uganda, has been blamed, though it is not quite clear if all the attacks, including reported beheadings, mutilations and rape, can be attributed to them. Like the M23 and the FDLR, the ADF are on the list of foreign armed groups targeted by the FIB. Joint operations were planned for early 2014. Surprisingly the FARDC then launched a unilateral operation – Operation Sukola – against the ADF in January this year, claiming victory just a few months ago.
In recent weeks an angry local population has attacked MONUSCO bases in the area for failing to come to its defence. This week MONUSCO military spokesperson Colonel Felix-Prosper Basse strongly denied that MONUSCO had failed the people of Beni, insisting that, ‘We are putting all our efforts together in order to neutralise these people.’ He recalled that when the ADF attacked the FARDC position at Kamango on 25 December 2013, MONUSCO intervened with an attack helicopter to drive the ADF out of Kamango.
The overriding impression one gains from talking to non-government people in the region is that the FIB has not done very much for nearly a year.
This is unfortunately reinforcing the suspicion that the FIB was largely created at the instigation of SADC to help its fellow-SADC member state, DRC, defeat the M23, which was backed by its enemy Rwanda. There is a sense that the FIB thinks that its mission is now accomplished.
Basse denied that MONUSCO and the FIB were reluctant to go after the FDLR, insisting they would do so it if failed to give up by the 2 January deadline. But whether the FIB itself is impartial and neutral is the growing question. Ironically, the concerns about the FIB’s current relative dormancy come at a time when the legality and impartiality of its aggressive mandate are being questioned.
The International Peace Institute (IPI) has just published a report which argues that by giving the FIB a uniquely-offensive mandate, the UN Security Council inadvertently made not just the FIB but MONUSCO as a whole, a party to the armed conflict. ‘As the UN is now a party, all military members of MONUSCO will have lost the protections afforded to them under international law … and therefore no longer enjoy legal protection from attacks.’
This could discourage countries from contributing troops to MONUSCO. The authors of the IPI report also worry that the FIB could undercut the existing mandates of MONUSCO and other UN missions to protect civilians. They argue that MONUSCO already had a robust mandate to protect civilians before the FIB was created and suggest that it was more the lack of political will and capacity than the weakness of its mandate that had prevented MONUSCO acting more aggressively.
Presumably this is a reference to the widespread belief that several countries which have contributed large contingents to MONUSCO have given their soldiers standing orders not to endanger themselves.
The IPI report also contends that in a situation where Congolese government forces ‘are responsible and largely unaccountable for serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, the [Force] Intervention Brigade’s offensive mandate to “neutralize” the non-state armed groups and its relative silence on the FARDC stretches the concept of impartiality.’
As a key actor – perhaps the key actor – in the FIB, South Africa bears a special responsibility to remedy these faults. The FIB’s mandate is now a fait accompli and it is perhaps understandable why SADC insisted on it, given MONUSCO’s weakness. But it is still possible for the FIB to prove its impartiality by going after the FDLR as aggressively as it pursued the M23.
South Africa, incidentally, could also use some of its leverage through the FIB to discourage Congolese President Joseph Kabila from changing the constitution so he can stand for a third term in 2016, as he is widely suspected to be contemplating.
The Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework agreement signed by the DRC and other countries in the region in March 2013 also imposed many conditions on the Congolese government, notably that it should re-establish its authority in eastern DRC and take further measures to entrench democracy in the country. Kabila clinging to power would not serve that end.
Written by Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa