The UN Must Protect Congo's Civilians - THE GUARDIAN
The Guardian on February 27, 2009 published the following article by Anna Husarska, the IRC’s senior policy adviser.
VIP convoys come and go in east Congo's trouble spots, but the UN must do more to solve the conflict
For a provincial town still strewn with lava from a 2002 volcanic eruption, Goma, the capital of North Kivu in Congo, has had more than its share of attention from the United Nations. Over the past year, high profile UN figures have passed through – first the high commissioner for refugees, later the head of humanitarian affairs, and this weekend the secretary general Ban Ki Moon himself.
This is a lot of VIP comings and goings in a town with only a few yards of continuous tarmac road. Traffic jams will be as motley as they come. The most common vehicles here are the four-wheel-drive jeeps used by dozens of international aid groups and the white armoured vehicles of the UN peacekeeping forces. These will be pitted against motorbikes and "chukudus", homemade wooden scooters used locally as wheelbarrows.
The traffic is colourful, but the reason for Goma's international fame is tragic. Eastern Congo is the scene of a complex conflict that has been brewing (sometimes boiling) for a dozen years. There has been only one steady element in this theatre of war – indescribable suffering for men, women and children displaced by conflict between various armed parties, whose changing alliances and battles have resulted in continued violations of human rights, population displacement, and loss for generation after generation of Congo's civilians.
Crossing the province, jeeps and trucks of humanitarian groups such as the International Rescue Committee bring aid to those displaced. We build schools and latrines, support clinics for survivors of rape, distribute blankets, firewood and jerry-cans. Recently, the armies of two neighboring nations are using the territory of eastern Congo to hunt their own enemies, again causing havoc among the civilians. Ugandan soldiers are chasing the Ugandan rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, which took refuge in Congo's north-eastern corner. In mid-December, an attack on the LRA led to swift revenge. It is estimated that LRA fighters have killed 900 Congolese civilians since that attack.
In North Kivu, the conflict can be traced in part to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Until last January, a rebel group led by Congolese Tutsi renegade Laurent Nkunda was pursuing some of the – mostly Hutu – "genocidaires" grouped in the Democratic Front for Liberation of Rwanda (known as FDLR). The effect was that the civilian population once more paid the price. Human rights groups have documented massive abuses – killings, rapes, forced recruitment – on all sides of the conflict here. These atrocities have forced the displacement of at least one million people in North Kivu.
In December, the United Nations issued a long and detailed report on the UN arms embargo against Congo in which it documented the links between Nkunda and the Rwandan authorities on the one hand, and the FDLR and the Congolese army on the other hand. The report seems to have galvanised a new approach, and in mid-January alliances changed again. The Rwandan government announced that it had arrested its alleged former protegé, Nkunda; at the same time, the Congolese government invited the Rwandan troops to enter a joint pursuit of the FDLR.
Nothing much changed in the humanitarian equation: north of Goma and stretching across this scenic region of Africa's great lakes, civilians need food and shelter, water and sanitation, blankets and cooking pots. For lasting peace to take hold in eastern Congo new military alliances are not enough: a political solution must be found, one that recognises the complexity and root causes of the conflict here. The report released by the UN suggests that it could play a more robust role in reining in the armed groups to ensure that civilian populations are not targeted. The UN has taken one step by beefing up its own presence in eastern Congo recently. Now all those serving in the mission here must respect the terms of the UN resolution: their task, first and foremost, is to protect civilians. Those of us in the humanitarian community here hope that the secretary general will share this conviction as his convoy bumps around on Goma's potholes, puddles and lava.