(New York) – The United Nations Security Council should urgently increase the number of peacekeepers in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to protect civilians in the face of new fighting and mounting civilian deaths, Human Rights Watch said today. The Security Council is meeting today with Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Alain Le Roy to discuss the situation.
Despite Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s urgent plea on October 30, 2008, for additional peacekeeping troops for Congo, Security Council member states have not yet taken action. The UN peacekeeping force in the Congo, MONUC, has a mandate to protect civilians but lacks the troops to deliver effective protection throughout the vast region.
“The Security Council needs to move fast to increase the number of peacekeepers and save lives,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher on the Congo for Human Rights Watch. “The calls from the secretary-general and the cries of distress from the Congolese people should not continue to fall on deaf ears.”
The civilian toll continues to rise, including killings in the town of Kiwanja in North Kivu on November 4-5 that Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the Congo Alan Doss described as war crimes in a statement on November 7.
MONUC officials have been asking the Security Council for reinforcements since October 3. They say they need an additional 3,000 soldiers and police, particularly soldiers trained and equipped to respond as a rapid-reaction force.
European Union leaders last week discussed a rapid, short-term deployment of EU forces to help protect civilians until additional MONUC troops could arrive. But like the Security Council, EU leaders have not yet decided to send additional military support to the Congo.
The United Kingdom and other EU governments have urged MONUC to reorganize its forces to improve their response to the demands of combat, which resumed in eastern Congo in late August. But UN military experts say that MONUC is already overstretched and that such redeployment risks leaving formerly protected areas with few resources should fighting begin there.
Over the weekend, rebel forces led by Laurent Nkunda fought government soldiers and their militia allies to the north and southwest of Goma, the capital of North Kivu, resulting in further deaths of civilians and new displacement. The renewed combat provided a stark illustration that civilians continue to be at risk in multiple locations.
According to local sources and civilians who fled the abuses in the town of Kiwanja, at least 50 civilians were killed there, the majority by Nkunda’s forces in reprisal against those deemed to be enemy collaborators. This figure is at least 30 more than an earlier estimate. Human Rights Watch continues to receive reports of bodies found in locations in and around Kiwanja, indicating that the final death toll may be even higher.
A Congolese journalist, Alfred Nzonzo Bitwahiki, who was feared dead, escaped the violence and was later found alive. A foreign journalist, Thomas Scheen, captured by Mai Mai militia, was freed on November 7.
Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the combat are on the roads or crowded together in camps, some near to UN bases, often with no shelter from the torrential daily storms of the rainy season. In at least one camp, cholera has broken out, with dozens already dead and the illness spreading.
On Friday, Secretary-General Ban and several heads of state from the region met in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss the increasingly disastrous Congo situation with President Joseph Kabila of Congo and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. The summit called for an urgent ceasefire and requested former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, now the UN special envoy for the Great Lakes, and former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa to help seek a political solution to the conflict.
Over the weekend, leaders of the Southern African Development Community meeting in South Africa considered sending troops from their member states to help the Congolese government, though it was unclear how quickly they would be able to respond or how such troops would work with existing peacekeeping operations.
“Progress on the political front has not been matched by progress to meet the urgent need to protect civilians now at risk,” said Van Woudenberg. “Negotiations offer promise of a solution in the Congo in the long run, but civilians need protection now from the killing and raping.”