Monday, December 14, 2009

Congo: Over 1,400 civilians killed between January and September 2009, the majority women, children, and the elderly

Human Rights Watch - Press Release: In January 2009, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, following a dramatic shift in political alliances, launched joint military operations in eastern Congo against an abusive Rwandan Hutu militia, some of whose leaders had participated in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The operations were intended to neutralize the group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Les Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR), which over the previous 15 years had preyed on Congolese civilians in the mountainous provinces of North and South Kivu.

Government representatives said the operations would bring peace and security to the region. They have not. Two successive Congolese military operations—one conducted with Rwandan military forces, known as operation Umoja Wetu, and the second conducted with the direct support of United Nations peacekeeping troops, known as operation Kimia II— have been accompanied by horrendous abuses by both government and rebel forces against a civilian population in eastern Congo that has long suffered so much.

The attacks against civilians have been vicious and widespread. Local populations have been accused of being "collaborators" by one side or the other and deliberately targeted, their attackers saying they are being "punished." Human Rights Watch has documented the deliberate killing of more than 1,400 civilians between January and September 2009, the majority women, children, and the elderly. The attacks have been accompanied by rape. In a region already known as the "worst place in the world to be a woman or child," the situation has deteriorated even further. Over the first nine months of 2009, over 7,500 cases of sexual violence against women and girls were registered at health centers across North and South Kivu, nearly double that of 2008, and likely only representing a fraction of the total.

In addition to killings and rapes, thousands of civilians have been abducted and pressed into forced labor to carry weapons, ammunition, or other baggage across the treacherous terrain by government forces and FDLR militia as they deploy from place to place. Some civilians have been killed when they refused. Others have died because the loads they have been forced to carry were too heavy. Between January and September, the attacks forced more than 900,000 people to flee for their lives, seeking safety in the remote forests, with host families, or in displacement camps. During the attacks or as they fled, FDLR combatants or Congolese army soldiers pillaged their belongings and then burned their homes and villages. Over 9,000 houses, schools, churches and other structures have been burned to the ground in North and South Kivu. Many civilians, already poor, have been left with nothing.

Civilians have been targeted by all sides: the FDLR, the Congolese army and, in some instances, the Rwandan army. Civilians look to the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, for desperately needed protection. MONUC has a strong mandate from the UN Security Council to protect civilians and to use force to do so, but it has become a partner of the Congolese army in the military operations, and it failed to put in place adequate measures for civilian protection before operations were launched. Peacekeepers have made notable efforts to protect civilians which undoubtedly have helped to save lives, but in many instances they have arrived too late or not at all, leaving local people exposed to attacks with nowhere else to turn.

The first military operation, Umoja Wetu ("our unity" in Swahili), began on January 20, 2009, following a secret agreement between Congolese President Joseph Kabila and his Rwandan counterpart, President Paul Kagame. It resulted in the removal of Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda (photo), whose armed group, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (Congrès national pour la défense du peuple, or CNDP), had received substantial support from Rwanda and had defeated the Congolese army in successive battles in 2007 and 2008.

Rwandan authorities detained Nkunda and promoted Bosco Ntaganda, the CNDP's military chief of staff, to take his place. Ntaganda promptly agreed to integrate his troops into the Congolese army and to give up the CNDP's rebellion.

In exchange for Rwanda's assistance in removing the CNDP threat, President Kabila permitted Rwandan troops to return to eastern Congo and to conduct joint operations against the FDLR. Ntaganda, who has a track record of human rights abuses and is wanted on an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, was made a general in the Congolese army. An estimated 4,000 Rwandan troops, and possibly many more, then crossed the border into eastern Congo, where they stayed for 35 days.

Following the departure of Rwandan troops on February 25 at the end of operation Umoja Wetu, Rwandan and Congolese officials emphasized that the military operations were not complete. They pressed MONUC to join forces with the Congolese army to finish the FDLR. MONUC had been authorized by the UN Security Council to support and participate in military operations against the FDLR in December 2008, as long as such operations were conducted in accordance with the laws of war. But MONUC had been deliberately excluded from operation Umoja Wetu and many UN officials were deeply troubled at the turn of events that had returned Rwandan forces to Congolese soil. According to MONUC insiders, the MONUC leadership was worried about the consequences of being excluded from future military operations, concerned about a return of Rwandan troops if they did not step in, and confident civilians would be better protected were the peacekeepers to be part of military operations—so MONUC agreed to support the Congolese army.

In the rushed preparations that followed, MONUC officials did not set out clear conditions for their support, did not insist on the removal of known human rights abusers from the ranks of the Congolese army, and did not adequately prepare for the protection of the civilian population. On March 2, the Congolese army, with the direct support of MONUC peacekeepers, launched operation Kimia II ("quiet" in Swahili), an operation that continued at this writing.

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