(New York) - The United States, European Union, and African Union should urgently intensify diplomatic efforts to protect civilians and bolster the UN peacekeeping force in eastern Congo, Human Rights Watch said today. As a result of the fighting in North Kivu, which resumed in August after the collapse of a January peace deal, tens of thousands of civilians are fleeing fighting between government troops and combatants led by the rebel general Laurent Nkunda.
"International leaders who successfully intervened before should act quickly to prevent the crisis in North Kivu from reaching catastrophic proportions," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Diplomats from Washington, Brussels, and Addis Ababa helped broker the ceasefire at the start of the year. Now the most senior members of their governments must back them up to bring an end to this crisis."
Rebel troops led by Nkunda took the town of Rutshuru on October 28, 2008, causing thousands of people to flee. Late on October 29, the rebels stopped just short of Goma, capital of North Kivu, after Nkunda announced a unilateral ceasefire. A rebel spokesman had said that their forces expected to take Goma in the next few days. Close to the Rwandan border, Goma is home to more than 500,000 people, including thousands of people displaced by earlier fighting.
On the night of October 29, government soldiers created chaos in Goma. At least 20 civilians were killed, including 5 children, and more than 13 people were injured when soldiers looted shops, attacked civilian homes, and stole vehicles. Soldiers reportedly raped women in their homes and elsewhere. In one case, soldiers raped three family members at their home and then shot dead a male relative.
Jendayi Frazer, the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and Louis Michel, the EU commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, are both in Congo today. South African president, Kgalema Mothlante, is also expected this week. They should press Congolese President Joseph Kabila to take urgent action to avert further loss of civilian life and destruction to the region.
The diplomats should call upon Kabila to cut ties between the Congolese armed forces and combatants of the Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), an abusive armed group largely made up of Rwandan Hutu, including some who participated in the genocide in Rwanda. Human Rights Watch researchers recently documented cooperation between Congolese army soldiers and FDLR combatants in fighting Nkunda's forces in mid-September. According to a November 2007 agreement between Congo and Rwanda, the Congolese government is supposed to disarm the FDLR but it has not done so.
Frazer is also due to visit Rwanda, where she should deliver a strong message to President Paul Kagame to end his tacit support for Nkunda. Frazer said on October 29 that Rwanda allowed its territory to be used as a base for Nkunda.
A peace agreement signed in January between the Congolese government and 22 armed groups, including the group led by Nkunda, collapsed in late August when combat resumed between Nkunda's forces and Congolese army soldiers.
Heavy fighting since then has displaced more than 200,000 people, according to UN estimates. Currently an estimated 1 million people are displaced in the province of North Kivu alone. Human Rights Watch researchers documented the deaths of at least 70 civilians and injuries to another 150 since the start of the fighting in August, figures that probably represent a small percentage of total civilian casualties.
Peacekeepers with the UN Mission in Congo (MONUC), which is supposed to protect civilians, have been struggling to keep Nkunda's troops from Goma. In recent days crowds in Goma and other places have stoned UN troops, angry that they are not doing more to help them.
"UN peacekeepers are too few and too ill-equipped to protect civilians in this difficult terrain," said Van Woudenberg. "Member states have to deploy more peacekeepers with greater military muscle if they want to end this crisis and avoid further humanitarian disaster."
High-ranking Rwandan authorities deny that they are giving any assistance to Nkunda, but Human Rights Watch has evidence that Nkunda recruits hundreds of his most experienced troops within Rwanda, many of them demobilized soldiers from the battle-hardened Rwandan army. Although exact numbers are not known, the fact that some 200 Rwandans have left Nkunda's ranks over the past 18 months to enter a UN-run demobilization program for repatriation to Rwanda provides some idea of the scale of this problem.
Nkunda, himself Tutsi, claims to be protecting Congolese Tutsi from oppression by the government in Kinshasa. Congolese of other ethnic groups suspect Congolese Tutsi of collaborating with neighboring Rwanda, remembered for its harsh occupation of the region. The presence of Rwandan recruits among Nkunda's combatants fuels hostility toward Congolese Tutsi as well as toward Rwanda. In recent research in North Kivu, Human Rights Watch found that some 40 Tutsi and other alleged sympathizers of Nkunda have been arbitrarily detained in Goma and some of them tortured by state agents.
"Senior diplomats should insist that President Kabila put an immediate end to the targeting of Congolese Tutsi and hold to account those responsible for abuses against them," said Van Woudenberg. "It's up to the Congolese government, not Nkunda, to protect its Tutsi citizens, as it protects all other citizens."
Last night, the UN Security Council called for respecting the ceasefire as well as prior agreements between the parties. It urged Kinshasa, Nkunda's group, and the Rwandan government to renew efforts to find a political solution. It also encouraged member states to explore ways to provide more troops to strengthen the UN peacekeeping force by the start of next week.