U.N.-supported military operations in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have had an "unacceptable" cost for the civilian population, said a coalition of rights groups Tuesday.
The call to action by the Congo Advocacy Coalition said 1,000 civilians have been killed, 7,000 women and girls have been raped, and nearly 900,000 people have been forced to flee their homes since January.
That is when the Congolese army began an operation called Kimia II to disarm and disband the militia group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, an organization of Rwandan Hutus, some whose leaders participated in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.
Though most abuses are still committed by the FDLR, the Congolese army has also killed, raped, looted, arbitrarily arrested and forced into labor innocent civilians in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu, the coalition says.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, has backed the Congolese army since March, and much of the statement’s criticism was directed at the perceived indifference of the U.N. peacekeepers to the civilian costs of the operation.
"U.N. 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," Oxfam’s Marcel Stoessel said in the statement.
The U.N. peacekeepers provide tactical expertise, transport and medical support, and food and fuel to the army. The groups said the U.N. should use its influence to demand that the army protect communities and the rights of civilians, in particular by requesting the removal of commanders with "known track records of human rights abuses."
"U.N. officials say that if they were not part of the operations then the threat to civilians would be even worse. Our response to that is that they should have put conditions on their support to such operations," Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch told IPS Tuesday.
The U.N. Security Council also authorized an additional 3,000 peacekeepers for the region in November 2008, but they are only just arriving now.
Meanwhile, residents are being forced to flee both the retaliatory killings of the FDLR and the advance of their own army, whose soldiers are often underpaid, underfed and under-trained. This has led to broader criticisms of the operation’s military offensive approach to the FDLR problem.
"Our recommendation is that there is a multi-pronged approach to the FDLR that does not focus exclusively on the military solution," Van Woudenberg said Tuesday.
"Military pressure may still be needed, but it should be limited in scope and really focus on the FDLR leadership. There is no doubt that a solution to the FDLR problem is required, but this should not come with a price-tag of causing more loss of civilian life," she said.
According to U.N. statistics cited in the statement, 1,071 FDLR rebels have given up their weapons and been repatriated to Rwanda since January. The group was estimated to have 6,000 or 7,000 fighters prior to January, however, and is thought to have recruited new combatants to replace those they have lost.
Eastern Congo has suffered from the rivalries of various militias for about 15 years. In December 2008, the Congolese took on the Lord’s Resistance Army, an organization of Ugandan rebels, in northern Congo, before launching the current operations against the FDLR a month later.
The scale and savageness of the fighting has been spiraling upward since then. FDLR rebels blame the civilian residents for the army’s pursuit of them and punish the residents brutally. The army, in turn, conscripts fleeing residents to haul ammunition and supplies across the hilly terrain. There are reports of some being killed when they grow too tired to work.
One well-documented massacre occurred in May in the village of Busurungi, where at least 100 people were killed by the rebels after the army had left the village. Women and children were forced into their huts, which were then set on fire, and several people were decapitated as a threat to deter passers-by from cooperating with the army.
Survivors said it was payback for the army’s massacre of rebels and their families in a nearby village. Victimized by both sides in the push and pull of this violence are the civilians.
The FDLR’s presence in eastern Congo and their material strength can both be traced back to their control of region’s mineral trade. This control is thought to have been somewhat destabilized by the military operations.
Tuesday’s statement said disarming the FDLR should remain a top priority for the Congolese government, but that it needs to "act urgently to improve protection of civilians."
It was signed by 84 international and Congolese NGOs, with a steering committee that includes Human Rights Watch and Oxfam. It hoped to influence diplomats and U.N. officials meeting at the Great Lakes Contact Group in Washington this week.
(Inter Press Service)