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International community risks prolonging crisis in eastern DRC, says LSE professor

Photograph of Professor James PutzelProfessor James Putzel (pictured right), director of the Crisis States Research Centre| at LSE, has just returned from the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR) where the centre is carrying out long-term research. Here he gives a background to the problematic history and responds to the current crisis in the region:

The international community must change course in the DCR or it risks prolonging the crisis, which over the past decade has seen the deaths of more than five million people. So far international action has failed on three counts:

  1. The Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) (Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda), the force that carried out the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and that continues to reproduce the politics of ethnic hatred in the Eastern Congo remains at the heart of the humanitarian crisis in the Kivus.

The failure of the Congolese government and, by default, the international community, to take this bull by the horns over the past 14 years is central to ongoing violence and insecurity and constitutes the raison d'être for the very existence of General Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for People's Defence (CNDP), the force that has surrounded the city of Goma in recent days. Nkunda's offensive, condemnable in its own right for the human misery it has unleashed, is not the cause of the underlying crisis and it is disingenuous for the international community to behave as if it were.

Nkunda's CNDP enjoys considerable legitimacy among the Congolese Tutsi community who live in increasing insecurity. Continued support for the CNDP, despite its own record of brutality in warfare, stems from the role it plays as protector of the Tutsi community, which feels and is threatened not only by the FDLR, but by shifting alliances of Congolese interests who attempt, in their discourse, to unify the fragmented DRC through the demonisation of the Tutsi population and the Rwandan government across the border. Almost all the armed actors in the DRC have been involved in gross human rights violations in past encounters, including Nkunda as well as many who are now located within the national army. In fact, Nkunda was part of that army until he withdrew when it failed to protect the citizens of the East.

To suggest that the crisis could be solved by reinforcing the United Nations Mission (MONUC) or sending a European force with the objective of fighting Nkunda's army would be a misguided strategy that would not only fail, but would also prolong the crisis and the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people.

The government of Joseph Kabila has entered 'on again, off again' tactical alliances with FDLR elements and, by implication, has compromised the position of the United Nations Mission (MONUC), which finds itself at least perceived as part of this unholy alliance. MONUC needs to reposition itself to disprove such perceptions.

  1. Secondly, the international community has failed to preside over the construction of a coherent national army in the DRC. There is no functioning chain of command, no doctrine, no discipline and soldiers remain without pay. The DRC's national army has become a major source of insecurity, and neither their political nor military leaders are held to account.

This situation, ultimately the responsibility of the government of Joseph Kabila, has been allowed to continue even as OECD countries channel substantial foreign assistance to governance and development reforms in the DRC.

It should be kept in mind that it was the DRC's national "army", or deserters from it, that committed killings, looting and raping in Goma last week, while it should have been expected to protect civilians with the support of MONUC. Nkunda, has been a culprit in this regard in the past in his attempts to capture Bukavu in 2004 and his troops have been implicated in human rights abuses more recently in or around the territory he controls in North Kivu.

By contrast, today he appears to maintain discipline among his troops, attempting by his actions, enforcing a ceasefire in particular, to put pressure on Kinshasa, MONUC and the international community to finally confront the security situation in the East and to disarm and repatriate/dissolve the FDLR.

Peace and state-building both in the DRC and in neighbouring Rwanda can only continue when security parameters are in place for members of all ethnic groups to live together in peace. This must begin with the consolidation of a functional and socially accountable national army in the DRC.

  1. Thirdly the international community has failed to act against the very active, well-financed, network of support for the FDLR that exists throughout the OECD countries and elsewhere. This network is clearly well endowed.

Action against the FDLR's international network is crucial to keeping the Rwandan government on-board with peace efforts. The FDLR is to Rwanda what al q'aida has become to most Western countries - and they have been allowed to continue their operations only kilometres from the Rwandan border.

The international community has entirely failed to close down their international operations.

The current crisis in the eastern DRC is rooted in the legacy of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the inconclusive outcome of the Congolese wars. MONUC is in danger of becoming part of the problem, manoeuvred into an impossible position by the Kabila government. MONUC needs to be repositioned politically quickly or it will find itself operating in alliance with the génocidaires of past and present.

To avoid an escalation of the crisis and eventually achieve the disbandment of all armed groups, including Nkunda's CNDP, the international community needs to press for the final disarming of the FDLR, the protection of the Tutsi community and all other ethnic groups in the Kivus, and the reorganisation of the national army of the DRC.

While it is right for the international community to gain the Rwandan government's assurances that it is committed to finding a peaceful solution to the crisis, there is no current evidence that the authorities in Kigali want to get involved in another war. There is, however, the plausible assumption that they would not stand idly by if Tutsi communities are subjected to large scale violence. This background has to be taken into consideration as a new international response emerges.

5 November 2008