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UN humanitarian chief calls for bolstered peace efforts in eastern DR Congo

UN humanitarian chief calls for bolstered peace efforts in eastern DR Congo

John Holmes
Increased dialogue and negotiation, and not a military solution, are crucial in protecting civilians from the violent clashes wracking the troubled eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes told the Security Council today.

“We need strong, urgent and concerted political and diplomatic action, by the DRC Government, by the concerned governments of the region and by the international community as a whole,” he said in an address to the 15-member body.

Mr. Holmes, who also serves as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, briefed the Council on his recent five-day mission to the vast Central African nation.

In Kinshasa, he expressed his concern to President Joseph Kabila and Government officials over the “potentially catastrophic humanitarian consequences of further fighting” among DRC forces, renegade troops and armed groups in the east, particularly North and South Kivu.

Nearly 1 million people have been internally displaced because of the fighting in the Kivus, and in North Kivu alone, roughly 300,000 people have been force to leave their homes since last November, he said.

In North Kivu, Mr. Holmes visited a camp in Mugunga, which he characterized as “a grim sight.” The capacities of UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Red Cross to distribute relief supplies are being stretched to the limit, and “we have recently noticed trends both of longer-lasting displacement than in the past and self-segregation along ethnic lines among the displaced,” he said.

At the Panzi Clinic near Bukavu in South Kivu, the Emergency Relief Coordinator heard first-hand from women who are victims of brutal sexual violence, which he said is a “particularly horrific feature of the DRC.”

He noted that the statistics are also shocking, with 15,000 women being treated since Pranzi opened its doors in 1999, nearly a third of them children. Almost 30,000 cases of sexual violence were registered in South Kivu last year, but “who can say what the true figure is? For many victims, registering a case and speaking out means almost certain ostracism by their own family and community,” he said.

The climate of “virtually total impunity” for such horrendous crimes must be reversed, Mr. Holmes told the Council. The Government must stamp out disorderliness in the military, and the justice system must be improved to bring perpetrators of sexual violence to justice.

“Everything in the DRC is huge, including its problems,” said Mr. Holmes. Emphasizing that the country’s crisis needs to receive the same level of attention as that in Darfur, he appealed to donors for increased funding, given the urgent humanitarian needs in the Kivus.

A brutal six-year civil war in DRC cost 4 million lives in fighting and attendant hunger and disease, widely considered the most lethal conflict in the world since World War II. Last year, the country held its first democratic elections in over four decades, the largest and most complex polls the UN has ever helped to organize.

“The point is that if we allow these issues to fester further they may put at risk all we have achieved in the DRC in the last few years, at such difficulty and cost,” he said. “That would be the biggest tragedy of all.”

Following today’s meeting, the Council expressed its deep concern at the insecurity in North Kivu. “Council members are particularly disturbed by the continuing violence and atrocities against civilians that have resulted in massive displacement of the population,” according to a press statement.

The body appealed to all parties to allow relief workers access to those affected by the conflict, and voiced support for the efforts of the UN mission in the country, known as MONUC, in protecting civilians.

Stressing that the DRC’s Government is the “only legitimate and sovereign authority” in the nation, the Council noted that it also is “responsible for dealing with the presence of the FDLR [Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda] on its territory, which remains one of the principal causes of continued instability in eastern DRC.”

Council members also urged “the Congolese authorities to redouble their efforts to seek a comprehensive political solution to address and resolve the root causes of the current tensions in the Kivus, in particular by convening the proposed roundtable.”