505 civilians killed by the Congolese army in Nyabiondo, that was the sad statistic announced by Human Rights Watch yesterday. (For more on the history behind this violence, see my blog from a few days ago). An internal UN report I saw included some other sad numbers: 3,100 cases of sexual violence in North Kivu between January and July this year recorded by one local organization alone. Half of these cases cited the Congolese army as the culprits. Almost a million people displaced since the beginning of the year.
Hence the call by Human Rights Watch for MONUC, the UN peacekeeping mission, to withdraw support from the Congolese army. Since March this year, MONUC has provided food, fuel, transport and medical assistance to Congolese army units deployed in the Kimia II operations against the FDLR (the Rwandan rebel group based in the eastern Congo). The logic is sound: we shouldn't be supporting an army that is committing such terrible atrocities.
And yet: the Kimia II operations have put a dent in the FDLR, albeit not a fatal dent by any means. And the FDLR remain the linchpin to the conflict in the eastern Congo. So something needs to be done about them. Which is why today Alain le Roy, the head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, said that MONUC would maintain its support to the Congolese army, although it will withdraw its support from certain abusive units.
MONUC finds itself between a rock and a hard place (or, as they say in French, between the hammer and the anvil). Its main mandate is to protect civilians in imminent danger. But it has also been tasked to support the Congolese army - they two tasks now seem incompatible.
MONUC will have a hard time protecting civilians if it is not part of the joint operations. If the Congolese army starts raping or abusing civilians, MONUC soldiers will not be able to fly in troops on short notice and stop the carnage - they will find out about it only afterwards and they will arrive too late. And the operations, as far as diplomats say, will continue until the end of the year. The best option is therefore to do what MONUC should have done at the beginning. Withdraw support from the Congolese army, but only to renegotiate the terms of a new cooperation deal, under which MONUC can fully participate in the operational planning and execution of the operations, something that is currently not the case. That way, UN peacekeepers will be deployed on the front lines and can serve as a deterrent to abuses by units there. The watchful eye of a UN blue helmet will probably dissuade Congolese soldiers from abuses. Even when it doesn't, that proximity will give the UN a much better idea of who was in charge when the crimes were committed, which could help in prosecutions.
In the meantime, we finally need to get more serious about other, non-violent options for dealing with the FDLR. Arrest their officials in Kinshasa, Dar es Salaam, France, and Germany. Find out who the moderates are within the movement (i.e. the officers who aren't wanted for genocide in Rwanda, probably a large majority) and approach them to strike apolitical deals: give them an exit, a way out when they tire of the fighting. How many of them have diabetes, HIV, cancer and need medical treatment? How many have children they need to school? The jungles of the eastern Congo are not that hospitable. But until now, we've been all stick and no carrot with the FDLR.