Monday, November 24, 2008

Some advice for Obasanjo in the DRC

FORMER President Olusegun Obasanjo visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) this past weekend in his new role as the UN Secretary-General's special envoy. The DRC has been a quagmire for envoys. Mr Obasanjo and his team must be wondering how on earth to achieve or measure success. We at Human Rights Watch hope that Mr. Obasanjo will achieve more than his predecessors, so we would like to offer some suggestions.

Human Rights Watch has been active on the ground in the DRC for years, reporting on torture, extra-judicial killing, systematic rape, child labour, abuses of governance and many other assaults on human rights. Much of its reporting has focused on eastern Congo, the region bordering Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan and Uganda, which has been in a semi-permanent state of war for years, fuelled by local ethnic tensions, illicit resource extraction, continental political rivalry and the violent ambition of the region's small men. The current crisis centres on the eastern district of North Kivu.

Human Rights Watch has reported how civilians in North Kivu have been abused by all sides, including the Congolese army. We witnessed the peace deal in Goma, North Kivu, in January 2008. It is now in disarray. In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of civilians have again been forced to flee their homes and hundreds have been killed in gruesome echoes of previous slaughters. A United Nations peacekeeping force called MONUC has been deployed in the area for several years to protect civilians and help disarm the competing militias. Unfortunately, it has lacked personnel, equipment, leadership and political support.

The festering sore in North and South Kivu is ethnic hostility. It goes back decades. Local militia leaders cynically use ethnicity as a cloak for their own political agendas. The CNDP militia, led by Laurent Nkunda, claims to defend the local Tutsi population. One of his aides has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. His forces get at least tacit support from Rwanda.

Of the Hutu groups, some FDLR leaders are accused of genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Although no longer targeting Rwanda itself, they continue to commit horrific crimes against their Congolese Tutsi neighbours. They often cooperate with other local militias such as Mai Mai and PARECO.

The Congolese army has a history of terrorising civilians. Soldiers continue to shoot, rape or extort from the people they are supposed to protect. Soldiers go unpaid and unfed while their commanders and corrupt officials in Kinshasa steal their salaries and supplies.

So, Mr Obasanjo, here's what we would suggest:

Firstly, make civilian protection your only priority. When you hear about human rights abuses, come down heavily on each perpetrator without fear or favour. Insist that those responsible for abuses be held to account.

Apply the same rules to the region's leaders. All of them are a big part of the problem. If Congolese soldiers commit abuses, hold President Kabila responsible. If CNDP commit crimes, hold Nkunda accountable and demand that President Kagame rein in Nkunda's Rwandan supporters. The same goes for the other militia and their leaders.

Press the UN Security Council to fund the peacekeepers properly. Western countries like doing peacekeeping on the cheap. They cut budgets, underfund them in the first place, or play musical chairs with over-stretched peacekeepers. They will now try to move peacekeepers from other parts of DRC to reinforce those in North Kivu, leaving other parts of the country at increased risk. Thousands in Orientale province fled their homes recently after being attacked by Joseph Kony's LRA. Ethnic tensions in Ituri province are boiling. Relocating UN troops from South Kivu could precipitate a new crisis there. You will have your hands full in North Kivu. You don't need the rest of the Congo going up in flames, too.

Push the Europeans to send in a 'bridging' force until MONUC can be reinforced. Deploying UN reinforcements to Congo will take several months. The European Union (EU) could deploy a force quickly to cover the gap. They did this successfully in 2003. It just needs political will to happen. Don't take no for an answer.

Get on with disarming all the militias. This must be done once and for all, based on clear timelines. The Congolese army should end its links with militia forces. A strong international presence will be needed to make disarmament a reality.
If you make saving civilians your priority, non-governmental organisations will be your allies. Many are already active on the ground helping the hundreds of thousands who are at risk. They also know the terrain. Reaching out to these groups and to the concerned media will increase your influence and increase your access to independent information.

Finally, your experience in dealing with armed regional conflict in West Africa and the related problems of porous borders, illicit mining, civilian protection, war crimes and justice give you a special insight. Nigeria and ECOMOG made mistakes in Liberia and Sierra Leone but also paid a heavy price in the lives of their soldiers.

You also know how, since the 1980s, West African governments have used proxy rebel groups to destabilise their neighbours. Like West Africa, the Great Lakes region is susceptible to waves of insurgency because of the complex web of military, political, economic, and ethnic factors, which shift and evolve over time.

Never forget that some five million Congolese have lost their lives from war-related causes in the past decade. These figures speak shamefully of the world's failure. A number of African governments - DRC itself, Angola, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Uganda - share the prime responsibility. There are worrying signs of an escalating conflict that will put many thousands of civilians at further risk. The success of your mission is more important, and urgent, than ever.