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Briefing: Humanitarian disaster looming in DRC as rebels take city of Goma

November 24, 2012
tags:#Africa, #AID, #DRC, #genocide, #Kagame, #Rwanda, #UNHCR, #UNICEF, #United Nations, #refugees
by:Jack Bicker
In a region that has seen more than five million conflict deaths over the last twenty years, UN peacekeepers can only look on as Rwandan backed M23 Rebels overrun the city of Goma.

What has happened? On Wednesday 20th November, a group of fighters known as the M23 Rebels overwhelmed the Congolese state army to take control of the largest city in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Between July and September this year, M23 activity in the region has resulted in the displacement of some 300,000 civilians to UNHCR camps, in addition to some 80,000 refugees who have fled this week. Of the 31 UNHCR camps in the region, the fighting has restricted access to all but one, and food and medicine are fast running out. Unicef estimates that hundreds of children have been separated from their parents in a region where reports of rapes, abductions, the burning of villages, massacres and forced displacement are commonplace, and currently herald a renewed humanitarian disaster.

Who are the M23 Rebels? The M23 Rebels are a militia consisting of soldiers who broke away from the main Congolese army on March 23rd this year under the leadership of two military commanders already accused of human rights abuses: Gen. Bosco Ntaganda – known as ‘the terminator’ - is wanted by the International Criminal Court both for war crimes and crimes against humanity, while his long term ally Col. Sultani Makenga is responsible for several massacres, as well as for the forced recruitment of child soldiers. The United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights has singled out five of M23’s leaders as being “among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations in the DRC, or in the world”, their crimes including ethnic killings, mass rape, abductions, crimes against children, and torture.

How do M23’s actions fit into conflicts in the region?  Both a forthcoming United Nations report, and investigations by Human Rights Watch accuse the neighbouring Rwandan government of supplying the M23 rebels with military support, including “overseeing operational planning, providing weapons and ammunition”, recruiting and training at least 600 Rwandans, and “deploying Rwandan army troops to eastern Congo in direct support of M23 rebels”. The United Nations report also suggests that Rwandan defense minister Gen. James Kabarebe is ultimately in command of the group, and also accuses senior Ugandan government officials of providing further assistance to M23 rebels in the form of “direct troop reinforcement in DRC territories, weapons deliveries, and technical assistance”.

What interest does Rwanda have in destabilising the border region with its near neighbour? The DRC is one of Africa’s most resource rich countries, with a mineral wealth estimated at some $24 trillion. Indeed, the city of Goma – taken by the rebels this week - is the main location for the processing and export of minerals from the country, leading an unnamed UN diplomatic source to suggest to Al Jazeera that Rwanda has “effectively ‘annexed’ mineral rich eastern Congo”. Al Jazeera went on to suggest that M23’s activities are “part of a Rwandan project to secure the region by default, and to extend its political and economic influence over the border into the mineral rich region”. M23 are also reported to be funded by mineral traders in Rwanda, who smuggle tin, tungsten and tantalum across the border.

This region, as with many parts of Africa, was arbitrarily carved up by colonial powers in the nineteenth-century without reference to traditional tribal and ethnic claims to specific areas. Part of the Kingdom of Rwanda was incorporated into eastern Congo as long ago as 1884; the result of this is that many ethnic Rwandans remain in eastern Congo, and local identities and relationships are far more complicated than international borders can take into account. It is for this reason that the Rwandan genocide of 1994, played out between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis, spilled over into both the DRC and Uganda.

What should the international community do to intervene? Speaking to the Guardian, one Goma resident expressed fears that once international attention has moved away from this recent conflict, the M23 rebels – whose members have a well documented history of human rights abuses – will engage in similar atrocities in the city. It is for this reason that thousands of Goma residents, as well as those from surrounding towns and villages, have fled to UNHCR refugee camps in what could result in a humanitarian catastrophe if left under-resourced.

The United Nations already has some 1,400 peacekeeping troops stationed in the city of Goma, whose mandate to protect civilians would not allow them to do anything other than watch on as the M23 rebels rolled into the city. According to HRW, it is vital that these troops remain in situ, to prevent M23 from further transferring their violence onto the civilian population.

In addition to this, HRW has called on the US government to extend pressure on the government of Rwanda to end its support of the M23 rebels. The organisation’s Washington director has stated that “The US government’s silence on Rwandan military support to the M23 rebels can no longer be justified given the overwhelming evidence of Rwanda’s role and the imminent threat to civilians around Goma… The US government should support urgent sanctions against Rwandan officials who are backing M23 fighters responsible for serious abuses”.

The UN already subjected Col. Makenga to an asset freeze and travel ban on November 12th, and the US imposed sanctions forbidding any US citizen from entering into any business transactions with him. As it becomes clear that control of the mineral wealth of the region is one of the driving forces for the conflict, the threat of these sanctions should be extended to politicians from neighbouring countries who have influence over the M23 group, and may hope to profit from this annexation. Similarly, it is incumbent on the conscience of the international community that mineral resources in Rwanda that may have been misappropriated across the border from the DRC, are subjected to the kind of scrutiny that will prevent them from entering into the global supply chain; a financial incentive without which the lives of thousands more Congolese citizens will continue to be at grave risk.

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Article written by:
jack bicker
Jack Bicker