A year ago today, a rebellion by the M23 armed group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo ended when the group’s leaders and the Congolese government, as well as the guarantors of the peace process, signed a series of peace commitments, known as the “Nairobi Declarations,” following the M23’s military defeat. It was an important moment. M23 fighters, backed by Rwanda, had fought against the government for 19 months, briefly taking the main eastern town of Goma and committing numerous war crimes, including killings, sexual violence, and the forced recruitment of children.
The Nairobi Declarations were clear that M23 leaders responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other grave human rights abuses would not be eligible for any amnesty. Instead, those responsible for such crimes would be brought to justice.
Yet a year later, no progress has been made. Most of the M23’s leaders are in Rwanda and Uganda, effectively shielded from justice, despite commitments from all three countries to support regional justice efforts and not harbor or protect individuals allegedly responsible for serious human rights abuses.
Over the past decade abusive rebel leaders have been integrated into the Congolese army as part of peace agreements. This “reward for crimes” pattern has helped no one, least of all Congolese civilians. The abusive rebel leaders often continued to commit the same crimes while serving in the Congolese army and, when unhappy with their pay, their posts, or where they were deployed, defected to start new rebellions. The Congolese government’s commitment to arrest and prosecute abusive M23 leaders represented an important shift to end the revolving door. But it is meaningless if it is not followed up with action, and cooperation from Rwanda and Uganda is essential.
When the M23 was defeated in early November 2013 – after significant international pressure on the group’s Rwandan backers and the deployment of a United Nations Intervention Brigade to carry out offensive operations against armed groups – most of the M23 fighters and their leaders fled to neighboring Rwanda and Uganda. They included more than a dozen who are sought on Congolese arrest warrants for war crimes and crimes against humanity and six who are listed on UN and United States sanctions lists.
This month, a Congolese government delegation is in Uganda to prepare the repatriation of former M23 fighters to Congo. The delegation is due to travel to Rwanda in January to plan for the return of fighters who are there. As regional leaders discuss the conditions for these returns, a top priority should be ensuring the justice commitments made in the Nairobi Declarations are implemented and fair and credible trials are launched.
The international envoys to the Great Lakes region also have an important role to play. Their leadership played a crucial role in ending the M23’s rebellion and the signing of the Nairobi Declarations. That same leadership is needed now to ensure the commitments to justice become a reality, not just words on paper.