Despite continued violence and human rights abuses by both rebels and the army, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has made sufficient progress over much of its vast territory for the 20,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force to withdraw up to 2,000 troops by June.
But the UN says it disagrees with the Congolese Government’s proposed date of August 2011 for the final withdrawal of the 11-year-old force (known by the French acronym MONUC), which has helped restore a measure of stability and democratic process to a country torn apart by years of civil war and revolts that resulted in the greatest death toll since World War II – some 4 million people killed by the fighting and the attendant starvation and disease it produced.
“The Democratic Republic of the Congo has made notable progress, considering the formidable challenges it has overcome during the past 15 years,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says in his latest report to the Security Council on MONUC, recommending that the mission be extended for another year from its current expiry date of 31 May.
“The country has come a long way, emerging from what was widely described as ‘Africa’s First World War,’ which involved nine foreign armies and numerous domestic and foreign armed groups fighting on its soil, and ending the balkanization that threatened its very existence,” he adds, proposing that the Council immediately authorize a drawdown of 2,000 troops by 30 June from the more stable, mainly western and central provinces.
But he highlights the “significant challenges” still facing the national Government, including continued fighting with rebels in the Kivu provinces in the east, where human rights violations are rife, weak Government institutions, the urgent need for training and reform in the national army and police, and socio-economic hardship in urban areas, compounded by the global financial crisis, that remains a source of potential instability, including in Kinshasa, the capital.
“I fully respect the Government’s vision regarding the full exercise of its sovereignty and the need to empower national institutions and build their capacity to assume responsibility for the tasks that MONUC is currently performing,” Mr. Ban writes of the Government’s proposal for total withdrawal of the peacekeeping forces by 30 August 2011.
“In this regard, however, a responsible exit strategy for the military component of the Mission must be anchored on building sustainable capacities for the rule of law and security institutions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in particular to consolidate the full exercise of the country’s sovereignty.”
Under Mr. Ban’s proposal the June drawdown would cover eight provinces, with the remaining troops concentrated in North Kivu, South Kivu and Orientale provinces. At the same time joint reviews would be held with the Government, beginning in early September, on the modalities and timelines for the successive drawdown phases, including “essential” joint agreement on specific benchmarks for measuring progress towards accomplishing agreed urgent tasks.
These tasks include successful completion of the ongoing military operations against rebel groups in the east, deployment of national army battalions adequately trained and equipped by bilateral partners to progressively take over MONUC’s security role, and the establishment of State authority through the deployment of police, territorial administration, and rule of law institutions, in areas freed from armed groups.
At the Government’s request MONUC would train and equip 20 national police battalions over three years, with the forming of three battalions in the first year. Mr. Ban also proposes that MONUC and the Ministry of Defence develop a package for training and equipping three military police battalions, an essential link in the military penal justice system.
“I am convinced that it should be possible to devise a MONUC strategy and conduct a drawdown process in a manner that both advances the realization of the aspirations and vision of the Government and avoids the risk of reversals that could trigger renewed instability,” he writes.
In reconfiguring MONUC’s mandate, he recommends that “the protection of civilians remain at the top of the mission’s priorities.”
Reviewing the past year, Mr. Ban notes that the Hutu-dominated militia known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) continued to conduct reprisal attacks against civilians, while elements of the national security institutions continued to be responsible for serious human rights violations.
Following charges last year of human rights abuses, including rape, by national army elements, MONUC screened and cleared the commanders of 18 battalions to participate in joint operations against rebels in the so-called Kivus and receive logistical support including air transportation, fuel, medical evacuation, and food rations.
In Orientale province, attacks against civilians by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group, continued and military operations targeting LRA in the DRC made little progress.
But Mr. Ban also cites positive development, including the rapprochement between the DRC and Rwanda, the end of another rebellion by the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), the launch of military operations against FDLR and LRA, and the increased rate of voluntary disarmament and demobilization by some FDLR elements which “opened unique possibilities to address the presence of armed groups in the eastern part of the country.”
At the same time he notes the significant challenges relating to the continued presence of FDLR and LRA – “large-scale humanitarian needs; the persistence of serious human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence by FDLR, LRA, and elements of the Congolese Army, including some who have been recently integrated; the illegal exploitation of natural resources; [and] inter-communal tensions.”