If leaders of the M23 rebels are allowed to reintegrate into the Congolese army, the message will be clear: rape, pillage and murder will go unpunished.
On Nov. 19, armed men from a rebel group called the M23 were looking for a prominent civil society leader in a village outside Goma, a provincial capital in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. He'd been in hiding for several weeks after receiving text messages threatening him for his public denunciations of M23 abuses. When the rebels didn't find him, they shot his colleague, killing him.
The next day, the M23 — fighters who had integrated into the Congolese army in 2009 but mutinied earlier this year — took control of Goma. Ten days later, most of the M23 fighters began withdrawing, and local residents started telling Human Rights Watch about the abuses that these rebels had committed in many parts of the city and neighboring villages: killings, rapes, looting and other violence. The rebels targeted perceived opponents, including activists, government officials and their family members. Many of those people went into hiding after receiving personal threats.
M23 fighters shot a 4-year-old girl in the head after she asked why they were taking her father away. An 18-year-old woman said that M23 fighters broke into her home and demanded money and cellphones. They beat her and she gave them what she had, but it wasn't enough. One of the fighters loaded his gun and told her, "If you don't have sex with me, I'll kill you." He proceeded to rape her while her 1-year-old daughter lay next to her.
I've heard countless stories like these while documenting the M23's crimes, revealing a reality that stands in stark contrast to the image M23 leaders seek to promote, with declarations proclaiming their movement to be orderly, disciplined and respectful of human rights, and with grand visions for a "reformed" Congo.
Some foreign commentators appear to have been taken in by the M23's pronouncements, arguing that the M23 is a suitable force to provide the political framework for a new, independent state. Or they shift all the blame onto the abusive Congolese government, which is certainly a big part of the problem, but that factor cannot justify rebel atrocities against the population of eastern Congo.
These atrocities are not a recent development. Since M23's rebellion began eight months ago, Human Rights Watch has documented widespread war crimes by M23 fighters, including summary executions, rapes and recruitment of children.
M23 abuses should surprise no one, given that the group's leaders are responsible for some of Congo's worst crimes over the last 16 years. One of its leaders, Bosco Ntaganda, is sought on arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2002 and 2003. He and four other senior M23 leaders are on a United Nations sanctions list.
From its inception, the M23 has received significant support from neighboring Rwanda. Rwandan military officials have planned and commanded M23 military operations; supplied weapons, ammunition, uniforms and other equipment; and recruited at least 600 young men and boys in Rwanda to join the rebellion. Several hundred Rwandan army troops were sent to Congo to support the M23 in its military offensives, according to research by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Group of Experts on Congo.
Rwanda has gotten away with supporting a series of abusive proxy forces in eastern Congo for 16 years under the current government. While it continues to deny supporting the M23, Rwanda has justified similar interference in the past by claiming that armed groups made up of people who took part in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and fled to Congo remained a security threat to Rwanda. Western governments have often turned a blind eye, excusing Rwanda's meddling as they tout the country's economic development and invoke the legacy of the genocide.
Fighters from a previous Rwandan-backed rebellion were integrated into the Congolese army almost four years ago, following a familiar pattern of reintegrating rebels into the army., and thus worsening the army's already dire human-rights record. The Congolese government was unable or unwilling to exclude the worst abusers. Many of the former rebels, led by Ntaganda, established a parallel chain of command in the army and were responsible for targeted killings, mass rapes, abductions and resource plundering, all while maintaining close ties with their Rwandan backers, according to Human Rights Watch and U.N. documentation.
A similar situation may be presenting itself again. After M23 rebels took control of Goma in November, the Congolese government agreed to negotiate. The rebels officially withdrew from Goma on Dec. 1, and both sides sent delegations to Kampala, Uganda, a week later to begin talks. The talks did not get off to a good start, and have been suspended until early January. Meanwhile, the area around Goma has seen a build-up of military forces, suggesting fighting may flare up again soon.
Depending on the progress of talks, there is a risk that history will repeat itself and rebel commanders responsible for the worst abuses may be integrated into the army again.
Arresting the worst abusers would send an important message to the Congolese army, which has its own history of serious abuses, and to the various rebel groups in Congo that murder, rape and pillage will be punished.
At the international level, a window of opportunity is closing to help end the cycle of abuses in eastern Congo. Key players — including the United Nations Security Council, the African Union, the United States and Britain — should publicly press Rwanda to stop support for M23 and insist that M23 commanders implicated in war crimes be arrested and prosecuted, and they should assist efforts toward that end. They should also sanction Rwandan military officials, who have been identified by the U.N. as supporters of the M23 and who may be complicit in war crimes. Finally, they should urge Congolese President Joseph Kabila to carry through with commitments on justice and other much-needed reforms, including an overhaul of the country's corrupt and abusive security forces.
With real political will, past mistakes can be avoided and real progress made in ending the culture of impunity that fuels the relentless cycle of atrocities in eastern Congo.
Ida Sawyer is a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Democratic Republic of Congo for the last five years.