December 11, 2008

VII. MONUC: failure to protect civilians

MONUC placed one of its largest field bases, staffed with some 120 peacekeepers, at Kiwanja to protect civilians and the many international humanitarian agencies based there providing assistance in the region. Yet the force failed to keep the CNDP from taking Kiwanja and Rutshuru on October 29 and failed to prevent the killings and other abuses by CNDP and Mai Mai combatants in early November.

MONUC relied on cooperation from Congolese army forces to protect the towns, but the Congolese soldiers proved incompetent and their senior officer hostile. Whatever possibility MONUC might have had on its own was dashed by logistical deficiencies and competing priorities faced by the peacekeeping force.

 

Hostility towards MONUC

As a peacekeeping force operating in the Congo with the agreement of the government, MONUC is expected to cooperate with the Congolese army and, indeed, is directed by its mandate to do so in operations against armed groups. Yet Congolese military and political leaders have not provided MONUC their full support.

 

According to a senior UN official, some Congolese officials claim that MONUC assistance against the CNDP falls short, on occasion using this explanation to cover their own failures in combat.[64]  In a meeting in Goma on September 6, the Congolese Minister of Defense and the Minister of the Interior reportedly warned MONUC officials that if MONUC did not engage the CNDP more robustly, they would set the population on the peacekeepers.[65] Subsequently, crowds in North Kivu stoned MONUC and UN vehicles, erected barricades to impede their movement, and demonstrated outside MONUC bases. Congolese army soldiers were seen organizing such "popular" actions and participating in them. Since late August, these demonstrations have intensified and have resulted in injuries to 20 UN peacekeepers and damage to at least 25 MONUC vehicles.[66]

Col. Delphin Kahimbi,[67] second in command of the Congolese army in North Kivu and in operational command of the area of Kiwanja and Rutshuru, was one officer who has showed considerable hostility towards MONUC troops. On occasion, Congolese army soldiers installed their positions near MONUC posts, knowingly putting the peacekeepers and the civilians who cluster near their bases at risk of being caught in crossfire.[68] Intentionally making use of civilians, including UN peacekeepers not engaged in the fighting, to render military forces or a place immune from attack is considered to be "shielding," which is a war crime.[69]

In one such incident in early October, MONUC forces sought to evacuate a position near Ntamugenga where they were caught in the crossfire after Congolese army soldiers launched an offensive on CNDP positions deliberately using the MONUC base as cover. When they sought to leave the area of fire, Colonel Kahimbi attempted to impede their departure by permitting his soldiers to fire on their vehicles.[70] Col. Kahimbi also appears to have been involved in instigating anti-MONUC demonstrations in and around Rutshuru in September and October, sometimes in cooperation with Dominic Bofondo, the Rutshuru territorial administrator.[71]

As a result of this incitement of popular hostility, UN patrols in the region were limited and required more guards than previously. Restrictions on patrols in Kiwanja on November 4 and 5 meant that peacekeepers were frequently absent when residents were attacked.[72]

With only 120 troops, the MONUC force in Kiwanja counted on cooperating with the Congolese army in the event of a CNDP attack. Colonel Kahimbi's hostility against MONUC complicated such efforts at cooperation. As the CNDP advanced towards Rutshuru on October 26, MONUC officials advised Colonel Kahimbi to strengthen his forces at nearby Rugari and offered additional MONUC support. Colonel Kahimbi  declined the assistance and soon after became inaccessible by switching off his cell phone. When he was next in touch with MONUC two days later, the CNDP had taken Rugari and Congolese army forces had fled. Colonel Kahimbi and his troops retreated north, leaving MONUC on its own to protect Rutshuru and Kiwanja from attack.[73]

As one senior UN official told Human Rights Watch: "The plan to keep the CNDP out of Rutshuru relied so heavily on FARDC cooperation that when we lost it, we didn't have another plan."[74]

Logistical and technical problems

In early November UN forces at the MONUC base in Kiwanja were in transition with Uruguayan troops preparing to replace Indian peacekeepers. The Uruguayans had sent an advance party of two platoons, tasked with preparing the base for the arrival of the rest of the battalion.[75]

From October 26, two days before the CNDP arrived in town, the Indian troops had only occasional access to an interpreter who was serving with the disarmament and demobilization program. The absence of a full-time French or Swahili-speaking interpreter until November 11 hampered the communication of MONUC forces with the local population, making a prompt response to events difficult.[76] Similarly, the lack of intelligence information and capacity to analyze such information complicated planning military action and adequately protecting civilians.[77]

Competing priorities

On October 29, the day the CNDP advanced into Rutshuru and Kiwanja, Nkunda's forces were also moving south towards Goma. With "panicked instructions coming from New York and Kinshasa to 'save Goma,'" as one UN official put it, few were watching what was happening in Rutshuru.[78] Assuring the security of the outlying towns and the people living there was clearly of lower priority than protecting North Kivu's capital.

In Kiwanja a week later, assuring the security of humanitarian workers, a foreign journalist, and a group of military observers became the priority. In a situation where resources were inadequate, virtually none were devoted to protecting Congolese civilians.

The Indian troops had four Russian BMP (Bronevaya Maschina Piekhota) fighting vehicles, more effective vehicles than the armored personnel carriers available to the Uruguayan troops. But when the CNDP attacked, two of the four BMPs had been sent to Kalengera (some 7 kilometers south of Rutshuru) and were unable to return to town.[79] The other two BMPs were initially sent south to block the CNDP advance but then had to divert to assist in rescuing humanitarian workers whose convoy out of town had been stoned by local people angry at their departure. The Uruguayans had brought the humanitarian workers to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR)'s base, located between Kiwanja and Rutshuru, but the base was soon fired on by retreating Congolese army soldiers. The Indian BMPs were needed to extricate the workers and bring them safely back to the MONUC base in Kiwanja.[80]

MONUC had no other vehicles available to send south of Rutshuru to block the CNDP. Additionally, CNDP forces had dispersed into small mobile units and mixed with masses of fleeing civilians, effectively using the civilians as human shields so that they could not be attacked, in violation of international humanitarian law.[81]

The CNDP advanced into the two towns in small groups of 10 to 12 combatants each, moving through plantations on either side of the main road. According to a senior UN official, MONUC, as it is currently structured as a peacekeeping rather than a peace-enforcement force, does not have the capacity to take on this type of guerrilla warfare.[82]

Faced with the reality of CNDP troops in control of Kiwanja and Rutshuru, MONUC forces did not try to contest the CNDP establishing its administration in the towns.[83] 

A week later, when the Mai Mai attacked Kiwanja, MONUC peacekeepers again gave priority to protecting people other than the local population. They committed four patrols to trying to find the abducted foreign journalist mentioned above and two more to rescuing humanitarian workers and another to extricating a team of military observers. As a result, there were too few peacekeepers left to protect the local population.[84]

After receiving reports of killings the next day, the Uruguayan and Indian forces sent out one patrol each around 4 pm, each to patrol on one of the two key roads leading out of Kiwanja. The Uruguayans saw five bodies and part of another in the mile they traveled along the main road leading northeast towards Kinyandonyi. The Indians saw seven bodies during their patrol on the main road leading northwest towards Kanyabayonga. The patrols then returned to the base, while killings in town continued into the evening. No further action was taken by MONUC to stop the killings or to enhance protection for civilians in the town. During a patrol the next day, on November 6, the Uruguayans found another three bodies, two men and one child, all shot dead, inside a house between Nyongera and Kinyandonyi.

On November 7, MONUC sent a multidisciplinary team, including human rights monitors, to Kiwanja to begin the process of enhancing protection of civilians and to document the human rights violations. At the time of writing, no report has yet been published.  

[64]Human Rights Watch interview with senior UN official, October 20, 2008.

[65]Human Rights Watch interview with diplomat, Goma, September 16, 2008.

[66]Human Rights Watch interview with MONUC official, Goma, December 5, 2008.

[67]Col. Delphin has a serious record of human rights abuses, including detaining and torturing persons in his home. Human Rights Watch has previously called for investigations into his conduct, Human Rights Watch, Democratic Republic of Congo – Renewed Crisis in North Kivu, October 23, 2007, http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2007/10/22/renewed-crisis-north-kivu.

[68]Human Rights Watch interview with senior UN official, October 20, 2008.

[69]See ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 97.

[70]Human Rights Watch interview with senior UN officials, Goma, December 2, 2008.

[71] Human Rights Watch interviews with senior UN officials, November 29, December 2, and December 5, 2008.

[72]Human Rights Watch interview with senior UN officials, Goma, December 5, 2008.

[73] Human Rights Watch interviews with senior UN officials, November 29, 2008, and December 5, 2008.

[74]Human Rights Watch interview with UN official, Goma, December 2, 2008.

[75]Human Rights Watch interviews with senior UN officials, November 29, December 2, and December 5, 2008.

[76]Human Rights Watch interviews with senior UN officials, November 29 and December 5, 2008.

[77]Human Rights Watch interview with senior UN official, Goma, December 2, 2008.

[78]Human Rights Watch interview with senior UN official, Goma, December 2, 2008.

[79]Human Rights Watch interviews with senior UN officials, Goma, December 5, 2008.

[80]Human Rights Watch interviews with senior UN officials, November 29, December 2, and December 5, 2008.

[81] Human Rights Watch interviews with senior UN officials, December 5, 2008.

[82]Human Rights Watch interviews with senior UN officials, Goma, December 2 and 5, 2008.

[83]Human Rights Watch interviews with senior UN officials, November 29 and December 5, 2008.

[84]Human Rights Watch interviews with senior UN officials, November 29, December 2 and 5, 2008.