A controversial United Nations-backed Government offensive against rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), during which Congolese soldiers are alleged to have committed massacres and gang-rape, has been replaced by a new UN-supported operation with a central focus on protecting civilians.
“A zero tolerance policy for human rights violations will be strictly enforced,” the UN Mission in DRC (MONUC) said today in a news release on operation Amani Leo, which began this month. It supercedes Operation Kimia II, which the UN had supported with helicopter lifts, medical evacuation, fuel, rations and firepower to keep rebels in North and South Kivu provinces from reclaiming areas previously under its control.
In December, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Philip Alston reported that while Kimia II, a joint operation launched by the national army (FARDC) and Rwandan troops against the mainly Rwandan Hutu rebel group FDLR in eastern DRC, was necessary, the manner in which it had been carried out had been “absolutely catastrophic” for civilians.
“There has been insufficient planning for civilian protection, and civilians have been raped to death and massacred in revenge attacks by the rebels,” he said. “Shockingly, civilians have also been gang-raped and hacked or shot to death by the Congolese army, the very force that is supposed to protect them.”
According to reports in December, 1,400 civilians were killed by Congolese or Rwandan troops and rebels in Kimia II and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said then that MONUC had suspended logistical and other support for FARDC units when there were sufficient grounds to believe their operations would violate human rights.
The new operation’s “principal objectives are to protect civilian populations, clear strategic areas of negative forces, hold territory liberated from FDLR control, and assist in restoring State authority in these zones,” today’s news release stressed.
“Joint planning is essential to map out the areas of risk and determine the most effective organization and deployment of our forces,” MONUC Force Commander Lieutenant-General Babacar Gaye said, outlining the operational goals and respective roles of FARDC and MONUC in Amani Leo. “Protection of civilians has been the central concern in our planning.”
At FARDC’s request, MONUC will provide rations and other essential support to units carrying out protection and preventive operations provided that they are jointly planned and conducted in accordance with international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law. FARDC and MONUC commands have agreed to several steps such as deploying military police at battalion level to prevent and punish abuses by their own forces and sensitizing military commanders.
Procedures are in place for approving and executing tactical support from MONUC, including fire support for jointly planned operations. In previewing Amani Leo to the Security Council last month, Mr. Ban’s Special Representative in DRC, Alan Doss, said MONUC’s participation was intended to strengthen protection and build on progress against recalcitrant FDLR elements.
He added that Kimia II’s goal of ending FDLR’s control of population centres and weakening its ability to exploit the country’s natural resources such as gold and cassiterite “has been largely achieved, although we do recognize there have been very serious humanitarian consequences.”
The Council then extended the 10-year-old mission’s mandate at a strength of some 22,000 military and police personnel until 31 May, with the intention of renewing it then for a further 12 months after further analysis.
Since its inception MONUC has seen a return to relative stability in much of the vast country, culminating in the first democratic elections in more than 40 years. However, fierce fighting has persisted in the east, particularly in North and South Kivu, where Hutu militants blamed for the Rwandan genocide of 1994 have fled, compounding hostilities in a region already beset by ethnic tensions.
Over 1.25 million people have been uprooted or re-displaced by violence in the two provinces and the volatile security situation has hampered aid agencies’ efforts to provide assistance.