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Rwanda: the sequel? Emergency in DRC tests our political will to protect civilians

The situation in eastern DRC went from bad to catastrophic this week as ethnic Tutsi rebels led by General Laurent Nkunda launched a major offensive in the provincial capital of Goma. In the resulting chaos civilians became targets for both rebels and government forces, causing tens of thousands to flee the city. A tense ceasefire seems to be holding at the moment, but conflict threatens to erupt again at and any time and thousands of lives remain at risk.

The fighting has prompted world leaders and the international media to take notice of DRC in a way they haven’t for years. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called it, “a massacre such as Africa has never seen…taking place virtually before our eyes.” The response of the international community over the next several weeks will gauge our ability to respond to mass atrocities against civilians and the sincerity of our commitment to the Responsibility to Protect.

Between 1998 and 2003, the Democratic Republic of Congo played host to a devastating civil war, the deadliest conflict in terms of civilian casualties since World War II. Now, even despite the signing of several peace accords, and the presence of the world’s largest United Nations peacekeeping force, the violence continues. Atrocities are committed by both sides, including rape as a weapon of intimidation, forced displacement of thousands and mass killings. A UN-brokered ceasefire signed in January 2008 has been consistently violated by both the Congolese army and ethnic Tutsi rebels led by General Nkunda. The FDLR, extremist Hutu militia made up of former Rwandan génocidaires, also remain at large in eastern DRC.

General Nkunda’s attack on Goma this past Wednesday initiated the worst violence seen in eastern DRC since the January ceasefire. It is the latest incident in a resurgence of violence that erupted at the end of August between Congolese government forces and Nkunda’s CNDP rebels, who claim to be protecting DRC’s Tutsi population from the FDLR. Consistent with their past performance, Congolese government forces stationed in the area miserably failed to protect Goma’s citizens from Nkunda’s advance. Those that did not flee the city entirely began looting and raping, directly harming citizens they are obligated to protect.

UN peacekeepers are struggling to fill the resulting security vacuum. Despite pledges to “act against any effort to take over a city or any major population center by force,” it is doubtful that MONUC, the 17,000-strong peacekeeping force in DRC, will be able to effectively intervene at its current capacity. To deal with the current crisis, MONUC plans to redeploy troops from other areas of the country to enforce those in Goma. The UN Security Council is currently discussing a proposal to deploy 2,000 additional forces.

But it’s unclear how soon these forces will arrive, and the international community has been reluctant to send in reinforcements. Earlier this week, France proposed sending an EU humanitarian mission of up to 1,500, which he emphasized would only provide aid and would not assist MONUC in fighting against Nkunda’s rebels. However, following objections from Britain and Germany, the EU seems to have scrapped the plan, opting to focus on finding a political solution.

France and Britain’s foreign ministers, Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband, headed to the region on Friday to meet with Congolese and Rwandan leaders and to evaluate the humanitarian and security situations. US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, arrived on Thursday for talks with all parties aimed at minimizing tensions. Presidents Joseph Kabila and Paul Kagame of DRC and Rwanda have now agreed to attend an emergency summit in Nairobi.

It is critical that the international community continue robust diplomatic efforts focused on securing a political solution and increasing the capacity to protect civilians. In absence of a solution involving all parties, the situation threatens to erupt again into regional war. Tensions between DRC and Rwanda intensified last week, with DRC accusing the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan government of supporting Nkunda’s Tutsi militia, and Rwanda accusing the DRC military of fighting alongside extremist Hutu FDLR, which are largely comprised of ex-Interhamwe and Rwandan military soldiers who fled into eastern DRC after massacring over 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus during the 1994 genocide.

The current conflict in DRC is a direct result of a failure to fully address the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda.

The international community has expressed plenty of regret over our failure to intervene in 1994. It remains to be seen whether that guilt and our affirmations of “never again” will compel us to deal with the consequences that are threatening innocent lives on a massive scale today.

Click here to read a statement from the ENOUGH Project calling for a response to the current crisis in DRC.

-Nina McMurry, Congo Education Coordinator

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