GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO – The Congolese government’s military operation in eastern Congo, Kimia II, backed by United Nations peacekeepers and aimed at neutralizing the threat from a Rwandan Hutu militia group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), has resulted in an unacceptable cost for the civilian population, said 84 humanitarian and human rights groups in the Congo Advocacy Coalition today.
The coalition urged diplomats and UN officials, who are due to meet in Washington, DC, this week to discuss the situation in eastern Congo and the wider region, to take immediate steps to increase protection for civilians.
“The human rights and humanitarian consequences of the current military operation are simply disastrous,” said Marcel Stoessel of Oxfam. “UN peacekeepers, who have a mandate to protect civilians, urgently need to work with government forces to make sure civilians get the protection they need or discontinue their support.”
Since the start of military operations against the FDLR militia in January 2009, more than 1,000 civilians have been killed, 7,000 women and girls have been raped, and over 6,000 homes have been burned down in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu. Nearly 900,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and live in desperate conditions with host families, in forest areas, or in squalid displacement camps with limited access to food and medicine.
Satellite imagery collected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) provides visual confirmation of the widespread destruction of homes and villages. In Busurungi, one of the main towns in the Walualoanda area (North Kivu) and the surrounding 100 square kilometers, AAAS estimates that 1,494 homes and structures have been destroyed, some as recently as September, amounting to an estimated 80% destruction rate. (For a selection of the images, see http://www.hrw.org/en/node/86034.)
Many of the killings have been carried out by the FDLR militia who are deliberately targeting civilians to punish them for their government’s decision to launch military operations against the group. Congolese government soldiers have also targeted civilians through killings and widespread rape, looting, forced labor, and arbitrary arrests.
In a bleak calculation by the coalition, for every rebel combatant disarmed during the operation, one civilian has been killed, seven women and girls have been raped, six houses burned and destroyed, and 900 people have been forced to flee their homes. (See table attached.)
Sexual violence has grown even more brutal in areas affected by the Kimia II operation. “We’re seeing more cases of mutilation, extreme violence, and torture in sexual violence cases against women and girls, and many more of the victims are children,” said Immaculée Birhaheka of Promotion et Appui aux Initiatives Féminines (PAIF).
Some previously displaced people in the Kivus have returned home to areas that have become relatively secure. But the ongoing military operations have caused new displacement of civilians in Masisi, Rutshuru, Lubero, Walikale, Kabare, Kalehe, Walungu, Shabunda, and Uvira territories of North and South Kivu, as well as in southern Maniema and northern Katanga provinces. Many civilians who have recently left displacement camps around Goma and elsewhere have moved on to secondary displacement sites since they fear returning home.
The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, has backed the Congolese army in the Kimia II operation since March, following a joint Rwandan and Congolese military operation against the FDLR militias, some of whose leaders participated in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. According to UN statistics, 1,071 FDLR combatants have given up their arms and been repatriated to Rwanda since January. The group’s estimated strength before military operations began was 6,000 to 7,000 combatants. Many reports indicate that the FDLR has recruited new combatants to replace some of those who have been repatriated.
UN peacekeepers provide significant backing for the Kimia II operation, including tactical expertise, transport and aviation support, as well as food rations, fuel, and medical support to Congolese army soldiers, at an estimated cost of well over US$6 million. Despite such support, UN peacekeepers have not used their leverage to get the government to remove commanders with known track records of human rights abuses from participating in the operations.
“With an investment this big, the UN has clout and should not remain silent when abuses occur,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The UN needs to make it clear that if the Congolese government wants its continued military support, the army should remove abusive soldiers from command positions and its soldiers should stop attacking civilians.”
Reprisal attacks against unarmed populations by the FDLR militia have made the task of protecting civilians increasingly complicated for the Congolese government and UN peacekeepers. Yet the 3,000 additional UN peacekeepers authorized by the UN Security Council in November 2008 are only just arriving in eastern Congo, and the helicopters and intelligence support requested by UN officials have still not materialized.
The coalition said that disarming the FDLR militia should remain a top priority for the Congolese government and UN peacekeepers, but that they need to act urgently to improve protection of civilians. The coalition urged diplomats and UN officials meeting in Washington, DC, at the Great Lakes Contact Group, to:
- Press for a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach toward disarming the FDLR militia that emphasizes protecting civilians. This would include taking into custody and opening judicial proceedings against those wanted for genocide and other more recent serious crimes, including the FDLR leadership based in Europe and elsewhere, and reforming the disarmament and demobilization program, among other measures.
- Push for accountability to ensure that those responsible for serious human rights abuses, including sexual violence, are prosecuted regardless of rank. Press the UN to make its support conditional on effective action by military authorities to curb abuses against civilians.
- Press the Congolese government to develop and put into effect an action plan to prevent and end the recruitment of children into the Congolese army and other armed groups, and insist that commanders cooperate with child protection specialists screening troops for children among their ranks.
- Support comprehensive military reforms by the Congolese government, with strict controls on how donor funds are used.
- Ensure that UN peacekeepers have the resources urgently needed to carry out their mandate to protect civilians.