Open Letter to the UN Security Council on the Situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Open Letter to the UN Security Council on the Situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Supporting Dialogue and Demobilisation in the DR Congo
Supporting Dialogue and Demobilisation in the DR Congo
Open Letter / Africa

Open Letter to the UN Security Council on the Situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Excellency, 

History is again repeating itself in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). There is a risk of serious escalation of violence and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Congo (MONUSCO) is failing in its core mandate of stabilisation and protection of civilians. This month's renewal of MONUSCO presents a vital opportunity for the Security Council to review its strategy in the DRC. 

Eastern Congo is again rapidly destabilising with the defection of Bosco Ntaganda from the Congolese army and the formation of the M23 Movement, another Tutsi-led rebellion allegedly supported by Rwanda. The government, weakened by presidential and legislative elections last November that were widely recognised as deeply flawed, is seizing the opportunity to please the international community by at last pursuing the capture of Ntaganda. President Joseph Kabila seems to be gambling that this is an opportunity to break the parallel structures maintained by the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) within the army, and to remobilise domestic support around anti-Rwanda sentiment by pursuing a military defeat of the M23. In addition to the fragmentation of the army and new fighting between the Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC) and ex-CNDP elements, various Mai-Mai groups have expanded their reach and the Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda (FDLR) remains a persistent, if diminished threat, as the FARDC fails to control territory. 

The stabilisation strategy underpinned by MONUSCO was centred too heavily on an expectation that the 2008-2009 rapprochement between DRC and Rwanda was enough to contain the conflict in the Kivus. The bilateral agreement was based on President Kabila's willingness to integrate Rwanda's proxy CNDP forces into the army, but the strategy was short-sighted as it made no provisions for addressing the underlying causes of conflict beyond Rwanda's security objectives. The current mutiny underway in the Kivus is perhaps the clearest evidence to date of how little progress has been made in stabilisation. The 2008 and 2012 crises appear remarkably similar, including their ethnic dimension, reported support from Rwanda and the negative impact on civilians, including displacement and potential for increasing ethnic tensions at the community level. These crises are symptoms of unresolved regional and local conflicts over access to land and resources, as well as a failure to achieve structural reform within the security sector, poor governance and non-existent rule of law, and the inability to address the sources of financing for armed groups, end impunity and extend state authority, including through decentralisation. 

In this context, it would be a mistake if the Security Council seeks to make only minor adjustments to the current course in renewing MONUSCO's mandate. Without a new approach and re-engagement by the Security Council, MONUSCO risks becoming a $1.5 billion empty shell. 

MONUSCO has lost credibility on several fronts and urgently needs to reorient its efforts. 

First, the mission has had strikingly little success at fulfilling its primary objective to protect civilians, though some of its innovative operational improvements should be acknowledged and encouraged. The population remains profoundly vulnerable to violence and frustrated by the lack of protection as illustrated by the recent attack on UN peacekeepers in Bunyiakiri, South Kivu. Despite progress against the FDLR, the threat of armed groups remains pervasive and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) cites an additional 218,000 internally displaced persons in North Kivu between 1 April and 31 May 2012. Durable protection of civilians will only come through an enhanced political process and the establishment of accountable state institutions. 

Secondly, MONUSCO technical and logistical support to deeply flawed elections in 2011 and the inability to successfully promote dialogue between the parties has altered perceptions about the mission's impartiality. Neither the Security Council nor MONUSCO articulated clear red lines for the credibility of the process, and the good offices role of the mission appeared underutilised. With the failed decentralisation agenda, constitutional reforms that further expanded the power of the presidency and little accountability for violence and massive fraud associated with the elections, the evidence continues to mount in support of the concerns Crisis Group expressed to the Security Council last year about the potential for authoritarian drift and consequences of the failure to resolve grievances through elections. If not corrected, international involvement in the DRC, including through MONUSCO, risks entrenching an unaccountable government and undermining its own eventual rule of law and peacebuilding efforts. 

The Security Council should undertake a review of MONUSCO's strategy and improve performance. 

MONUSCO's focus on the use of force to stabilise the Kivus is not enough. Despite the conditionality policy for MONUSCO support to FARDC operations, there remains a lack of clarity about the overall military strategy and articulation of an end state to the military operations against illegal armed groups. What is required is a comprehensive strategy and sustained local and regional engagement by the international community. Clearly there is a need to address both local drivers of conflict between communities and the interplay with regional dynamics, including relations with Rwanda, whether through renewed political dialogue or a national accountability and reconciliation process, or both. 

To bolster the government's accountability, the holding of credible provincial and local elections, including in the east, is essential. The mistakes of 2011 should not be repeated and clear standards on the organisation and holding of elections should be communicated to the government by the Security Council and MONUSCO, in particular serious reform of the Commission électorale nationale indépendante (CENI) and improved transparency in the logistics and supply procedures of the elections. MONUSCO should engage with key stakeholders, monitor CENI adherence to electoral law and report on the process. MONUSCO should not support elections that are clearly not credible. 

Security sector reform (SSR) is vital to stability in the DRC, but little progress can be expected without serious re-engagement and support from all sides, including the government, MONUSCO, the UN Security Council and key partners. Without a clear commitment from President Kabila and the government to a broader peacebuilding agenda, SSR will continue to flounder. The Security Council should only consider an enhanced role for MONUSCO in SSR as part of a broader political strategy for stability in eastern Congo and once some progress has been made in enhancing government accountability, otherwise the UN risks exacerbating rather than improving instability. 

The Security Council should send a signal to the Congolese government and its partners that it is time for a new strategic dialogue. A business-as-usual rollover of MONUSCO's mandate will send the wrong message to all parties. 

When renewing MONUSCO's mandate, the Security Council should:

  • Call on the Congolese government to arrest Bosco Ntaganda and transfer him to the International Criminal Court for trial;
  • Demand the end to illegal cross-border support to armed groups operating in the DRC, notably by Rwanda, and consider consequences for those parties who do not cease support;
  • Request the Secretary-General to undertake a strategic review of MONUSCO’s stabilisation strategy and report back to the UN Security Council, including on the development and implementation of a comprehensive strategy, with a strong political component, to address pervasive insecurity and the threat of illegal armed groups in eastern Congo.
  • Enhance attention to key governance reforms -- such as the holding of credible provincial and local elections, decentralisation and progress in the fight against corruption -- by updating operative paragraph four of Security Council resolution 1991 (2011) to include their achievement as one of the core objectives that is the basis for decisions on reconfiguration of the mission;
  • Insist on the holding of free, fair and credible provincial and local elections, as well as the timely re-organisation of legislative elections in Masisi territory that were canceled by the CENI;
  • Articulate clear standards for the holding of elections and condition MONUSCO support on serious reform of the CENI and improved transparency in the logistics and supply procedures and accountability for past election-related human rights violations.

Louise Arbour 
President and CEO
International Crisis Group

Commentary / Africa

Supporting Dialogue and Demobilisation in the DR Congo

Rising violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has the Great Lakes region on edge. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022 – Autumn Update, Crisis Group explains what the EU and its member states can do to help bring stability to the area.

The eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is experiencing an alarming uptick of violence. Fighting between the Congolese military and the March 23 Movement (M23), which resurfaced in November 2021 after suffering defeat in 2013, has surged. So, too, have attacks on civilians and camps for internally displaced people by other armed groups. The bloodshed has the entire Great Lakes region on edge and is creating friction beyond the DRC’s borders. Of greatest concern, the M23’s attacks have opened a rift between the DRC and Rwanda, with Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi labelling the rebel commanders “terrorists” who receive financial and logistical support from Kigali. 

Complicating matters is that the Congolese president has turned to some of his neighbours for support in tamping down insecurity in the east. Bent on rooting out the armed groups, in late 2021, Tshisekedi gave Ugandan and Burundian troops permission to carry out operations on Congolese soil. He then used the DRC’s accession to the East African Community (EAC) in March 2022 as an opportunity to ask the bloc for help. By way of response, the EAC agreed in April to establish a joint force composed of regional troops to battle militias in the east. But the force left out a key player: citing Rwanda’s alleged interference in the DRC’s affairs, Tshisekedi insisted that the country be excluded from the force, angering Kigali. 

So far, plans to stabilise the eastern DRC remain a work in progress. The new force has yet to fully deploy and is likely to face funding challenges. Meanwhile, diplomatic and demobilisation efforts meant to complement the military track show some promise but have yet to make substantial progress. 

The European Union (EU) and its member states should take the following steps in working to address instability in the eastern DRC: 

  • Refrain from providing financial support to the regional force – which some EAC states have already requested – pending greater clarity on its performance and the sufficiency of human rights safeguards.
  • Building on talks between Kinshasa and a select number of armed groups that were held in Nairobi in the spring, work with the DRC’s regional partners to develop plans for the next round of negotiations, focusing in particular on which militias should be included and for what purpose; in addition, provide financial and technical support for those negotiations. 
  • Provide support for DRC demobilisation efforts by pressing for greater clarity on links between the Nairobi political track, the EAC regional force’s mission and the DRC’s nascent community-based national disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) program. Ideally, groups that participate in the dialogue and express interest in demobilising would be given an opportunity to do so through the program. The program also requires donor support, which the EU and member states should provide if satisfied with anti-corruption safeguards and other criteria.
  • When evidence emerges that the DRC’s neighbours have violated its sovereignty – as was the case when a UN confidential report recently reached findings of Rwandan involvement with the M23 rebels – condemn the violations through bilateral and multilateral channels and underscore the threat that instability in the DRC could grow into a regional conflagration.

Turmoil in the Great Lakes

M23 rebels have once again taken up arms in the eastern DRC, a resource-rich area that has long been the battleground for overlapping conflicts involving regional powers and armed groups. The M23 is principally fighting the Congolese army, with hostilities centred in North Kivu province. This conflict has driven more than 170,000 people from their homes since the rebels re-emerged in November 2021, having previously been defeated and signed a peace deal in 2013. At first, the M23 mainly targeted Congolese soldiers, but since June the group has also been making civilian victims. MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, has expressed its concern about the M23’s sophisticated firepower and its own limited capacity to ward off the group. In a September interview with France 24 and RFI, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said “the M23 is a modern army with heavy weapons, more advanced than MONUSCO’s equipment”.

Along with the M23 insurgency, other armed groups have also intensified attacks on both military and civilian targets. Notable among them is the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan outfit whose biggest faction has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State and whose members kill locals and loot or burn down villages. In late August, for instance, suspected ADF fighters killed at least 40 civilians in North Kivu. Meanwhile, the Coopérative pour le Développement du Congo (CODECO), a loose association of militias of mostly Lendu ethnicity operating in Ituri, has killed dozens of civilians and terrorised many more since the year began in a spate of raids on camps sheltering displaced people.

A confidential UN report … included evidence of continuing ties, indicating that Rwanda has helped reinvigorate the M23.

The stakes are high for Tshisekedi, who plans to seek a second term in office in 2023 polls and has repeatedly pledged to end the turmoil in the east. He has sought outside assistance to make good on his promise. In late 2021, Tshisekedi permitted Ugandan and Burundian troops to enter the country to fight, respectively, the ADF and RED-Tabara, a Burundian rebel group based in the DRC. Tshisekedi pointedly did not seek Rwanda’s assistance, at least partly because he believes that Rwanda is behind the M23’s abrupt reappearance. Rwanda (along with Uganda) did indeed back the group from when it first emerged in 2012 until Congolese and UN forces defeated the movement a year later. As Crisis Group has noted elsewhere, a confidential UN report leaked in August included evidence of continuing ties, indicating that Rwanda has helped reinvigorate the M23.

Tshisekedi’s decision to allow Ugandan and Burundian troops into the DRC but not Rwandans infuriated Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has rejected Tshisekedi’s accusations concerning Kigali’s links to the M23. Kagame alleges that, to the contrary, it is Kinshasa that is cooperating with the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a remnant of the Hutu militia responsible for the 1994 genocide. While some evidence suggests that the Congolese army works with the FDLR in some capacity – the leaked UN report says some army commanders cooperated with a coalition of armed groups, including FDLR members, in fighting the M23 – Kagame’s frustration at being left out likely has other dimensions as well. He may be concerned that Rwanda will be boxed out of access to the eastern DRC’s natural resources, in particular gold, and that the Ugandans will extend their sphere of influence in the region at Rwanda’s expense.

The DRC-Rwanda dispute escalated further after Tshisekedi’s decision to seek support from the EAC in April. The EAC answered that request by deciding to form a joint force composed of regional troops to battle armed groups in the eastern DRC. But Tshisekedi insisted that Rwandan soldiers be excluded from the force, riling Kagame further. Kagame’s sense of grievance – coupled with his conviction that Kinshasa is aiding the FLDR and fuelled by economic interests – may tempt him to order a unilateral incursion to target the FDLR, which he still considers a threat, or to back another proxy.

Meanwhile, components of the regional force are beginning to deploy, but the full force has not yet taken the field. In August, the Congolese authorities reported that a Burundian contingent had entered the DRC under EAC auspices. In late September, the Kenyan defence forces started deploying materiel and troops. South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda are also to send contingents to fight alongside Congolese forces.

A Risky New Force

Aside from the costs of alienating Rwanda, the EAC deploying a regional force carries other significant risks. The force’s draft battle plan says the bloc is to assemble between 6,500 and 12,000 soldiers with a mandate to “contain, defeat and eradicate negative forces”. The new forces will for the most part be joining forces from those countries that are already on the ground either by invitation of the Congolese (in the case of Burundi and Uganda) or as part of the UN peacekeeping mission that operates in the DRC with a civilian protection mandate (in the case of Kenya and Tanzania).

The presence of so many foreign forces in the eastern DRC could spell trouble. In the past, the DRC’s neighbours have repeatedly undermined stability in the east by arming proxy fighters and helping themselves to mineral wealth, such as cobalt, coltan and gold. Some – for example, Burundi and Uganda – may well continue to push their own agendas, even when their troops are placed under joint force command, as appears to be the plan. The force’s deployment could also energise armed groups unhappy with an influx of foreign soldiers, escalating levels of violence, including against civilians. Nor is it clear how the new force will coordinate with MONUSCO, which has an overlapping territorial writ but a different mandate focused on civilian protection. Finally, the EAC has never before deployed a peacekeeping or enforcement operation, much less put in place safeguards for protecting civilians, raising considerable concerns about human rights violations by the troops themselves. 

Funding shortfalls are one reason the joint force has not yet fully deployed. According to the draft battle plan, which outlines the force’s objectives and rules of engagement, each country is to pay for its own soldiers. Some governments will likely struggle to bear the costs, especially if the operation drags on. Kenya has reportedly already asked EU member states, as well as China and the U.S., for money for men and materiel. 

Foreign powers have options beyond funding the EAC regional force to support stabilisation efforts in the eastern DRC.

But foreign powers have options beyond funding the EAC regional force to support stabilisation efforts in the eastern DRC, notably a recently initiated diplomatic track. Back when the bloc’s seven leaders agreed to the joint force, they launched a round of Kenyan-mediated talks with Congolese militia leaders in Nairobi. The first round was scrambled hastily together by the Congolese and Kenyan authorities in April and involved only about twenty of roughly 120 armed groups, excluding among others the M23 branch loyal to its military commander Sultani Makenga (the most active of the group’s two factions) and outfits considered to be foreign such as the ADF and FDLR. The Congolese are discussing a second round but have not scheduled it.

The DRC’s demobilisation strategy is another part of the picture. Launched in April but yet to hit its stride, it focuses on returning former fighters to their communities and helping them build livelihoods outside the military, rather than integrating them in the army or granting amnesties, as previous demobilisation programs did. This demobilisation effort is at least theoretically linked to the EAC’s diplomatic and military tracks. According to the draft concept of operations, the joint force is mandated to support Tshisekedi’s demobilisation efforts, suggesting that the EAC expects armed groups to either commit to demobilising through the Nairobi political track or become targets for the regional force. But the concept offers no detail about how this would play out in practice. 

What the EU Can Do

Given all the uncertainty surrounding the EAC regional force, the EU and member states should hold off on providing its support through the European Peace Facility or other channels pending information about the force’s performance, impact on the eastern DRC’s stability and respect for human rights. On the whole, given the long record of proxy warfare in the area and its harm to the civilian population, the bar for funding the force should be relatively high. Instead, the EU and its member states should support Tshisekedi’s and the EAC’s non-military efforts to stabilise the east, including through dialogue and demobilisation. 

As concerns dialogue, the EU should offer technical and financial support to a second round of Nairobi talks with armed groups active in the eastern DRC. As a threshold matter, EU and member states with strong relationships in the region should work with Kinshasa and EAC states to encourage progress toward a second round and help develop a framework for a meaningful process beyond individual rounds of talks. Fundamental questions, such as which groups should be included and specific topics and goals of the process, still require fleshing out. The EU could also support efforts to establish the Office of the Inter-Congolese Peace Dialogue, which will support the Nairobi talks and oversee implementation of the EAC heads of state agreements on peace and security in the DRC. 

The EU and member states should ... help Congolese authorities breathe life into Kinshasa’s disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration strategy.

The EU and member states should also help Congolese authorities breathe life into Kinshasa’s disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration strategy, which although promising is still in the very early stages of implementation. This line of effort should be of particular interest to Brussels given the EU’s new strategic approach in support of DDR. One way they can help is by encouraging greater clarity on how demobilisation efforts are linked to both the joint force’s mission and the Nairobi political track. There should be incentives for armed group members who wish to come off the battlefield to enter the demobilisation program, including the offer of an alternative to armed activity. 

Financial and technical support will also be important. Donors have been reluctant to foot the bill because previous demobilisation efforts were largely donor-driven, lacking local buy-in, tainted by alleged embezzlement and unsuccessful in permanently dismantling any armed group. Government officials and military officers alike have treated the programs as sources of patronage. The new initiative, however, is designed to send former fighters home to civilian life and help them develop alternative livelihoods rather than integrating them in the army, as previous programs did; diverting them to unarmed vocations may help them sever their links to armed group chains of command. Against this backdrop, the EU should consider providing financial and technical support to the plan to the extent it is satisfied with the adequacy of anti-corruption safeguards and if, as the program rolls out, it assesses that it holds out sufficient hope of genuinely offering low-level insurgents a viable future.

Finally, the EU and its member states should more directly address the challenge to peace and security created by neighbouring countries’ support for DRC rebels. The findings of the confidential UN report regarding Rwandan involvement with the M23 and other sources addressing alleged Ugandan support, for instance, should be the basis for Brussels and member state governments to relay clear messages to Kigali and Kampala condemning violations of Congolese sovereignty and underscoring the threat that instability in the DRC could grow into a regional conflagration. Member states represented on the UN Security Council can urge the Council to reinforce these messages from New York. Standing visibly behind the principle of territorial integrity is particularly important at a time when European states are condemning Russia’s transgressions in Ukraine. They should make clear that violations of this core principle of the UN Charter are to be condemned wherever they take place – in Europe, Africa or elsewhere.

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