Cara Reichard is a junior political science major at Stanford University and STAND’s DRC conflict coordinator.
In early November, after a significant military victory in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo by UN and Congolese forces, the M23 rebel group announced its official surrender and disarmament. The rebel group promised it would thereafter use strictly political means to achieve its goals. M23, a nearly two year-old insurgency backed by the Rwandan government, consisted primarily of former CNDP rebels who had been reintegrated into the Congolese army (FARDC) following a peace deal signed on March 23, 2009 (hence the name, M23). These soldiers later defected, citing the Congolese government’s failure to implement the terms of the agreement.
M23 presented a significant security threat since its inception, even briefly taking control of Goma, the North Kivu capital city, in November of 2012. The defeat of M23 was therefore viewed as a significant accomplishment for the perpetually ineffective FARDC and its companion UN intervention brigade, which came into existence as the result of an unprecedented UN mandate to take offensive action against the rebels following their occupation of Goma.
Negotiations between M23 and the Congolese government, which began soon after the group announced its disarmament, stalled over a disagreement between the two sides on a seemingly small detail—whether to call it a peace “agreement,” as the rebels wanted, or a “declaration,” as the government preferred. A consensus was nonetheless eventually reached, and a “declaration” of peace was signed by the two parties in Nairobi in early December.
Among other things, the document declares the official end of M23 as a militant group and calls for the demobilization and reintegration of its members. It also calls for the return of displaced Congolese people to their homes, and the establishment of a committee to deal with land and property that has been stolen or destroyed in the conflict.
Importantly, while the declaration promises amnesty to many M23 members, it also makes clear that amnesty will be withheld for those individuals who are suspected of perpetrating serious crimes such as genocide, child conscription or crimes against humanity. This amnesty act was signed into law by President Kabila earlier this month.
While some human rights groups have voiced their concerns that even a limited amnesty policy risks perpetuating the cycle of impunity in the Congo, others argue that the rapid reintegration of M23 rebels into Congolese society will be essential for ensuring that the group does not revert to its militant ways.
The fall of M23 and subsequent peace declaration were important steps for Kinshasa, even if the negotiations did hit a few speed bumps along the way. But this is hardly the final chapter in the DRC’s struggle for peace and stability. Even with M23 gone, rebel groups still abound in the Congo. Though there is evidence to suggest that some militants are following in the footsteps of M23 and laying down their arms, the Congolese state has a long way to go before it has rid itself of all rebel forces.
M23’s defeat suggests a step in the right direction for the FARDC, but significant security sector reform will nonetheless be essential if the Congolese government hopes to capitalize on this important victory and firmly reestablish state authority in the country’s more troubled eastern region. In addition, regional cooperation—particularly in the more rapid implementation of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework Agreement, signed by 11 African nations last year—will be crucial if any long-lasting peace is to to be achieved.