The top United Nations envoy to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) today voiced optimism that calm could soon return to the country’s volatile eastern region, while noting that a number of challenges still remain.
“There is now a real prospect that the conflicts that have long blighted the eastern Congo can be ended,” Alan Doss, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for DRC and head of the UN peacekeeping force there, told the Security Council.
Highlighting progress on a number of fronts, he stated that operations by the Congolese Army, known as FARDC, in North Kivu, South Kivu and Orientale provinces have significantly eroded the capacities of the Hutu rebel Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR) and Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
The nearly 19,000-strong UN force (MONUC), set up in 2000 to help restore peace after years of multiple civil wars, has been supporting the FARDC in efforts to flush out the rebels.
Numerous waves of fighting over the years have produced around 2.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in DRC. An estimated 1.7 million people remain displaced in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu, with more than 400,000 persons having fled their homes since January.
Mr. Doss reported that most of the IDPs who had been regrouped in camps at the outskirts of the North Kivu capital of Goma as a result of the earlier conflict with the rebel Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) returned home. But there are still a lot of displaced people in North and South Kivu who are waiting for security to improve before returning home.
In addition, more than 2,000 children have been separated from armed groups since the beginning of the year, and the integration of the CNDP and other Congolese armed groups is approaching completion.
“Despite these positive developments, I do not want to imply that the troubles of eastern Congo are a thing of the past,” he stated, adding that significant problems remain, including new population displacements and human rights violations, as well as an “appallingly high” level of violence against women.
Yesterday the independent UN human rights expert Philip Alston called the joint Government-UN military offensive in the east “catastrophic,” stating that Government troops have killed, raped or mutilated scores of civilians this year in the context of these operations.
“I don’t agree with his assessment,” Mr. Doss told reporters, following his briefing to the Council.
“We certainly would agree with him, however, that on the humanitarian side because of displacement… because of human rights violations, there are a lot of preoccupations… Yes, there are concerns and we have to deal with those concerns as we go forward.”
While noting that MONUC is mandated by the Council to help the Government deal with rebellions and armed groups that have created “untold misery” for the country, he stressed that it does not give unconditional support to the FARDC.
“Putting an end to the armed groups, dealing with the issue of impunity and improving the discipline of the FARDC are all part of a broader effort to finally bring a very long-running conflict to an end in the eastern part of the country,” he added.
To underscore its full support for President Joseph Kabila’s declared zero-tolerance policy for acts of sexual and gender-based violence, Mr. Doss said that MONUC will withdraw support from Congolese battalions that show a blatant disregard for international humanitarian law.
In terms of looking ahead, he told the Council that the areas cleared of the presence of FDLR rebels by the Congolese armed forces must be fully secured to ensure continuing protection for the population and to allow displaced persons to return home.
Major operations against the remaining rebel strongholds should be completed as soon as possible with proper regard for the protection of civilians, and the discipline of the FARDC and its allies requires constant attention “to signal that impunity will not be accepted,” he added.
The Special Representative noted that some observers have suggested that the military operations in the east should be suspended to give the Congolese armed forces time to “get its house in order” and improve discipline.
He responded, however, that reducing the pressure now would give the rebels time to regroup and rearm.
In a related development, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was today in Goma, where he urged the international community not to forget the Congolese in their hour of need, comparing the hundreds of thousands of IDPs there to the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Mr. Guterres will briefly visit Rwanda before attending a special summit of the African Union (AU) on forcibly displaced people that will be held in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, beginning on Monday.