Conflict & Justice

Q & A: Brief history of a long conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo


The head of the M23 rebel military forces, Brigadier-General Sultani Makenga (R), sits on November 25, 2012 in the yard of a military residence in Goma in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over half a million people have been displaced in eastern Congo since the outbreak of the M23 rebellion.



As the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) continued to escalate on Friday, the UK froze its funding to Rwanda over allegations that it had been financing Congolese rebels, the Guardian reported.

Britain is the latest major donor nation to withhold funding from the Rwandan government over the allegations.

Meanwhile, M23 rebels occupying Goma, who had previously promised to leave the DRC city they overtook last week, on Friday opted to extend their stay.

News24 wrote of the foot-dragging:

"The delay raises the possibility that the M23 rebels don't intend to leave the city they seized last week, giving credence to a United Nations Group of Experts report which argues that neighbouring Rwanda is using the rebels as a proxy to annex territory in mineral-rich eastern Congo."

The UN presence in the DRC is long and complex. What began in 1999 as a peacekeeping mission — the most expensive the UN was running at the time — has since morphed into a "stabilization mission" intended to capitalize on earlier progress and bring post-conflict order. But recent unrest in the country and a rebel incursion into Goma brings up the question of whether there's any peace on which to build.

For answers on the conflict, GlobalPost interviewed Scott P. Campbell, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights representative in the DRC.

Who are the M23, and what are they fighting for?

In a recent opinion article, the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the M23 is led by “some of the worst violators of human rights in the world, with appalling track records including responsibility for massacres and involvement in mass rapes.” Since their creation in May, the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office, or UNJHRO [the umbrella group for the UN's mission in the DRC] has received a large number of serious allegations of human rights violations by the M23.

The M23 is the latest in a series of armed groups to emerge in a longstanding cycle of conflict with underlying causes [including] disputes over abundant natural resources (read: land, gold mines, coltan, etc) in eastern DRC. The M23’s leadership is predominately Tutsi. This community believes that the Kinshasa government is neither able nor willing to protect their interests in eastern DRC, North Kivu province in particular, and to defend them against anti-Tutsi sentiment.

The M23 is named after the failure of the agreements of March 23 2009, in which a former rebel group, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) agreed to integrate into the national army under the condition that CNDP officers be given key senior officer positions. This agreement broke down as the Kinshasa government attempted to deploy former CNDP officers outside of the Kivu provinces and dismantled parallel chains of command within the army. For the M23 mutineers, they maintain that the Kinshasa government had not respected the March 23 agreements, specifically in terms of unpaid wages and poor living conditions of integrated soldiers.

The UNJHRO has extensive documentation on a good number of senior officers in the M23 movement going back, in many cases, for years. One senior commander, Bosco Ntaganda, has been indicted by the ICC for crimes including the recruitment and use of child soldiers. In my view, a key factor that sparked the creation of the M23 was Bosco Ntaganda’s defection from the Congolese army when he feared that his arrest was imminent.

How are Rwanda and Uganda involved in this conflict, and what are the regional implications of its escalation?

The conflict in North Kivu province has local, national and regional causes, and all of these need to be addressed if peace is to take hold. The UN Group of Experts report, published last week, lays bare the extent to which Rwanda, and to a lesser extent, Uganda, has been supporting the M23 rebel movement.

For Rwanda, the continued presence of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in eastern DRC gives rise to security concerns. In addition, eastern DRC is part of Rwanda’s traditional sphere of influence, and Rwanda has important economic and trade interests in eastern DRC.

The constructive engagement of neighboring countries is a prerequisite for a durable peace to take hold, including in their commitment to ending cycles of violence, impunity and economic exploitation of eastern DRC.

How is the situation now, especially in Goma, different from (or similar to) past iterations of the conflict?

North Kivu has suffered from cycles of ongoing violence for decades. Many of the issues and many of the actors remain the same, even as armed groups change their name. There is a need to address the root causes of the conflict, and also end the impunity of the war criminals at the head of many of the armed groups currently operating in North Kivu.

The UN's mission in the DRC, MONUSCO, is one of the largest and most expensive the organization has carried out. What are its main activities, and why is it so important?

MONUSCO’s main responsibility is to protect unarmed civilians from attacks by armed groups. The mandate of the UNJHRO includes monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation in the DRC. The UNJHRO team in Goma is investigating allegations of human rights violations committed by the M23 and the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) linked to the recent combat.

Since its deployment in 1999, the UN's mission in the Congo has played a key role in reuniting a divided nation and in stabilizing large parts of the DRC. While nationally, the picture is much better — the conflict that led to the creation of the peacekeeping mission involved seven regional armies in the DRC and countless numbers of Congolese killed — it is of course disappointing to see that conflict persists in a number of areas. In addition to its protection of civilians role, MONUSCO is working hard to resolve the complex issues that lie at the heart of this violence.

The UN has been criticized for failing to prevent abuse of civilians during the conflict. Can you describe what the peacekeepers/stabilization forces do, and what challenges they face in achieving their goals? Is there a peace to keep?

MONUSCO has the mandate to support the FARDC and to protect civilians. MONUSCO was actively involved in supporting FARDC, including with the use of attack helicopters, in combat to the north of Goma (UN helicopter gunships flew 17 sorties, firing 500 rockets and four missiles in the defense of Goma). When the FARDC retreated after initially holding back the M23 advance, MONUSCO found itself alone faced with a well equipped and well armed rebellion of around 3,000 men. MONUSCO has not the mandate and has a not a force equipped to wage war alone. MONUSCO is one of the biggest peace operations in the world, but the challenges of operating in the DRC are enormous including due to the size of the country — roughly the size of the US east of the Mississippi — the lack of infrastructure and the multiple zones affected by the conflict.