The people of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, buffeted by years of war, endured more armed conflict and related violations of international law in 2006 and 2007. Horrific attacks on civiliansincluding murders, widespread rape, and the forced recruitment and use of child soldiersincreased following political agreements that were supposed to bring these abuses to a halt. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes in the past 10 months. Abusive forces have not been disarmed, but on the contrary have consolidated their authority.
The Congolese government, backed by the international community, tried several short-term solutions to the fighting but failed to deal with the underlying causes of conflict. The inability of the state to protect its citizens from attack, the claims of armed groups to control parts of the territory and exploit its wealth, and the near total impunity for perpetrators of crimes, all remain unsolved.
Following fighting in August 2007 between Congolese army troops and renegade soldiers under former general Laurent Nkunda, United Nations leaders and representatives of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and South Africa acknowledged the risks of wider conflict and committed themselves to finding political solutions to the crisis. But even as parties agreed to seek a special envoy to facilitate discussions between Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Nkunda, Kabila gave indications that he was bent on further military action against Nkunda. A previous round of fighting between Nkundas forces and the Congolese army was supposed to have been ended by a Rwandan-facilitated agreement at the beginning of 2007 for integration of their forces, but this collapsed within months.
The government policy towards a second armed group, the Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), has also followed a confusing and contradictory course, with the army sometimes supporting, sometimes attacking this group composed largely of Rwandan combatants. The FDLR is supposedly committed to overthrowing the current government of Rwanda, but in recent years its members have attacked Congolese civilians more than they have engaged the Rwandan military.
The shifting configurations of the conflict in the past year have variously seen all forces fighting each other: Nkundas forces fighting the Congolese army, the FDLR fighting the Congolese army, and Nkundas forcesunder Congolese army authority in mixed brigades, and separatelyfighting the FDLR. Although crimes by all parties constituted violations of international humanitarian law, virtually none has been investigated let alone actually prosecuted.
Underlying the military conflict was a struggle for control over one of the richest regions of Congo. Nkunda, who claimed political leadership of his own movement, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), set up a parallel administration in parts of North Kivu, installing his supporters in administrative, police, and intelligence services. The FDLR, less centralized and more geographically scattered than the CNDP, made less pretense of administrative control but nonetheless exercised political dominance in substantial parts of North Kivu. It sought to profit from exploiting local resources, taxing trade, and extorting goods from Congolese who lived near its bases.
The struggle over North Kivu was embittered by ethnic hostilities, with Nkunda and his movement identified with Tutsi, while many other North Kivu residents, as well as most FDLR combatants, were Hutu. Both Tutsi and Hutu remembered past discrimination and violence against people of their ethnic group in Congo, and in neighboring Rwanda and Burundi. Both groups asserted the need to protect themselves from the other.
Rwanda, a major force in eastern Congo, regularly gave rhetorical support to Nkunda, saying he served a vital role in protecting Tutsi in North Kivu. On occasion some Rwandan officials allowed Nkunda to recruit new combatants, including children, inside Rwanda.
Further combat, whether involving two or all three of the parties, is likely to generate more crimes against civilians. Political action is urgently needed to resolve the fundamental issues of assuring protection to all Congolese peoples, and delivering justice for the horrendous crimes of the past. What is clear is that unless political will is found to address these core issues, it will be the people of North Kivu who will suffer most.