We write to urge that you and your colleagues from other European Union member states use this week's EU Summit to urgently heed the call from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and decide to deploy an EU "bridging" force to North Kivu in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

There has been no stabilization of the dire humanitarian and human rights situation in eastern Congo nor is the unilateral ceasefire declared by rebel commander Laurent Nkunda on October 29 being respected. Competing armed groups continue to fight, especially in remote areas out of the media glare. While Nkunda's forces have not attempted to take Goma, that tenuous self-restraint has not been exercised in areas to the north of Rutshuru or in Masisi. There, fighting has continued between Nkunda's forces and pro-government Mai Mai militias, sometimes supported by combatants of the Rwandan Hutu FDLR.

The killing, raping, forced recruitment of children and young men, looting and other abuses of civilians goes on as before, forcing civilians to continue to flee their homes. The people of North Kivu live in an atmosphere of constant fear, not knowing from which direction the next attack will come, constantly poised to flee again. 

While the Congolese army, the FARDC, has not fought in recent battles due to the collapse of their command and control in October, the same cannot be said for pro-government militias such as the various Mai Mai groups and PARECO forces who are filling the vacuum.  Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of a multiplication of factions amongst these groups and cooperation between them and the FDLR.  The groups have fought Nkunda's rebels in the towns of Kiwanja in Rutshuru territory and on the road north towards Nyamilima and Ishasha.

In these incidents Nkunda's rebels moved north and took considerable new ground, resulting in further displacement of civilians.  There is a real risk of another upsurge in fighting with further civilian deaths and displacement of civilians. 

We applaud recent diplomatic efforts to organize a meeting between the rebels and the government as well as a new plan by the governments of Rwanda and Congo to tackle the FDLR.  But such steps have not yet resulted in immediate protection of civilians nor are they guaranteed to succeed. While it is positive that agreements have been reached in recent days at the political level between some of the conflicting parties and regional governments, to extend their dialogue and address issues such as militia disarmament, these developments bring no practical short-term value to the civilians on the ground. And experience shows that agreements between the parties in this region fail as often as they are signed.

While waiting for diplomatic efforts to succeed, there is an urgent need for greater protection of the civilian population. Only immediate action by countries with the capability to facilitate such protection - and that means the European Union - can help stabilize the situation and prevent further unnecessary suffering.

As diplomatic talks drag on, there is a growing risk that the ongoing conflict could attract abusive militia forces from other parts of eastern Congo, such as Ituri and South Kivu regions. At the same time, the redeployment of UN peacekeepers to Goma from more remote regions in North Kivu and from duties elsewhere in Congo increases the risk to those communities from where peacekeepers have been withdrawn.

On November 20, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1843 and authorized the deployment of additional troops and capabilities to the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC). However, the UN Secretary-General estimates that it could take up to four months to ensure such added deployment. The people of eastern Congo cannot wait.

In a December 4 letter to the EU High Representative Javier Solana, the UN Secretary-General called on the EU to help by immediately deploying an EU bridging force to close the security gap in North Kivu while awaiting the arrival of additional MONUC capabilities. The UN Secretary General specifically suggested that an EU force protect the airport in Goma and other strategic communication installations, secure key axes and supply routes in the Goma area and have the capability to intervene simultaneously in several locations to oversee actions of a defensive and principally humanitarian nature.

We call on the European Union to act quickly and deploy an EU bridging force to help the UN protect civilians and give the UN time to find and dispatch new peacekeeping troops. Quickly signaling that such a force will arrive may be enough to deter militia attacks in the short-term and may contribute positively to the ongoing diplomatic efforts. The EU must also make clear that those committing serious violations of international humanitarian law - and those who are their national and international backers - will be held accountable for the crimes committed in North Kivu.  

The last time the world relied solely on political and humanitarian efforts in the DRC, over five million died.  The last time the EU intervened in the DRC - in Ituri in 2003 - thousands of lives were saved. We urge you to seriously consider UN Secretary-General Ban's call for help and agree to deploy an ad hoc force to the Kivus to help the UN protect the civilian population. Fine words of concern are good, but experience in this region shows that actions speak far louder. 

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely yours,

Lotte Leicht                                                    
EU Director                                                    
Human Rights Watch                                       

Georgette Gagnon
Africa Director
Human Rights Watch