Democratic Republic of Congo: Mutiny in the east escalates

International and regional alarm over the situation in North Kivu is growing.  Ongoing army defections allow vicious militia to step in to the power vacuum as tens of thousands flee in all directions. Rwanda’s role remains under scrutiny.

The North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Picture: United Nations)

The March 23 movement (M23) mutiny is proving difficult to quell. The mutineers are former DR Congolese Tutsi rebels from the CNDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People) who joined the regular Congolese army (known by the French acronym FARDC) under a March 2009 peace deal.  They defected in April, led by indicted war-criminal General Bosco Ntaganda, aka ‘The Terminator”. This faction seems now to have joined up with another group of mutineers under Sultani Makenga, a CNDP officer.

As defections from FARDC continue and the national army is stretched beyond capacity, other militita groups have moved in.  Amid the chaos and violence, conditions in eastern DR Congo are worsening, with more than 200,000 people chased from their homes, fleeing in all directions and seeking refuge across the borders in Rwanda and Uganda.

It was the Kinshasa government’s announcement in April that it was finally ready to hand over Ntaganda to the International Criminal Court (ICC) which precipitated the mutiny.  The M23 operates from the Runyoni area, near the Rwandan border, and has launched several ferocious attacks.

The UN Security Council on June 15th strongly condemned the mutiny as well as the killing and abuse of civilians, mostly women and children, by armed groups. It had received a report from the head of the special UN peacekeeping force (MONUSCO), Roger Meece, who told the Council that it was vital to put an end to the armed mutiny, which has led to a worsening of the security situation and a major displacement of civilians. MONUSCO itself has been criticised for failing to protect civilians however.

The 15-member Security Council expressed “strong concern”  and called on all countries in the region to “actively cooperate with the Congolese authorities in demobilizing the M23 and all other armed groups, and preventing them from receiving outside support in contravention of the Council’s sanctions regime.” They also called for a full investigation of “credible reports” of outside support to the armed groups, the UN News service reported.

The outside support being referred to is neighbouring Rwanda.  According to the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW), Rwandan military officials have been arming and supporting the mutiny. HRW claimed that Ntaganda’s militia had built up its strength by recruiting hundreds of new members, including civilians in Rwanda who were forced into service.  “Witnesses said that some recruits were summarily executed on the orders of Ntaganda’s forces when they tried to escape,” HRW alleged in a June 4th report based on field research carried out the previous month.

The report accused Rwandan officials of assisting Ntaganda in the mutiny. “The Rwandan government should immediately stop all support to Ntaganda and assist in his arrest,” HRW added.

In a press statement, the Rwandan government denied the allegations, calling them “false and dangerous”. Rwandan President Paul Kagame told a press conference on  June 19th that he rejected all accusations of complicity: ‘You Congolese, don’t run away from your responsibilities and start claiming that this is our problem.’ Rwanda was ‘only in it to be part of the solution’, said Kagame, adding that the latest fighting did not involve outsiders, only ‘different shades of Congolese’.

Pressure is mounting for the publication in full of a UN investigation into the links between Rwanda and  the M23, said Africa Confidential. The DRC government and international human rights groups are accusing the US, because of its relationship with Rwanda, of obstructing the release of the investigators’ full findings. A UN Panel of Experts submitted an interim report to the Security Council on June 18th but diplomats say it excluded an annexe showing links between senior officials in the Rwandan government and  M23.

Although DR Congo’s Foreign Minister, Raymond Tshibanda N’tungamulongo, received his Rwandan counterpart, Louise Mushikiwabo, in Kinshasa on June 19th to sign a bilateral cooperation accord, relations between the two governments are worsening.

Tiny Rwanda should be inconsequential to the affairs of the DRCongo, one of Africa’s biggest countries, said iMaverick, South African daily tablet newspaper (6/6). Yet when Rwanda chooses to exert its malign influence from the unstable eastern border, the whole country shudders with the impact.

iMaverick said that as well as the strong historical reasons for Rwanda’s involvement, there are also financial concerns. Rwandan businesses have substantial interests in eastern Congo, as do Rwandan generals. There is also the precious matter of the abundant minerals, and the more stable the government in the DRC, the greater the threat to Rwandan interests.

‘If you resist, we’ll shoot you’

Political leaders must act immediately and halt arms supplies to the DR Congo where they continue to fuel unlawful killings, rape, looting and abductions, Amnesty International said in a new report published on June 12th.

The report, ‘If you resist, we’ll shoot you’, highlights how Congolese security forces and armed groups alike are able to commit serious human rights violations because of the easy availability of weapons and ammunition.

“The situation in the DRC demonstrates the urgent need for governments around the world to agree on a comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty when final negotiations take place at the UN in July,” said Paule Rigaud, Deputy Programme Director for Africa at AI.

In recent years, a range of weapons, munitions, and related equipment has been supplied to the DRC’s government, including small arms, ammunition, tear gas, armoured vehicles, artillery guns and mortars. The main arms suppliers to the DRC include China, Egypt, France, South Africa, Ukraine and the US.

In the majority of cases examined transfers have been allowed by supplier states in spite of the substantial risk the weapons are likely to be used for serious human rights abuses or war crimes in the DRCongo. AI is calling for an Arms Trade Treaty that requires supplying states to undertake a rigorous case-by-case risk assessment of each proposed arms transfer.

States must determine if there is a substantial risk that the arms are likely to be used by the intended recipient to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Where the risk is substantial the supplying state must stop the transfer until the risk is removed and safeguards are in place.

Senior DRC Armed Forces (FARDC) officials often sell or give weapons to armed groups, including those they are fighting against. Armed groups also frequently obtain weapons and ammunition left behind when FARDC units flee combat zones.

Following the waves of troop defections, the FARDC entrusted a colonel with a truck full of ammunition and tens of thousands of dollars for supplies. He then deserted to join a new armed group, taking the weapons and money with him, AI says.

As usual civilians bear the horrific cost of such lack of control, diversion of weapons and impunity.

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