DR Congo

Press conference on humanitarian efforts in Democratic Republic of Congo

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Because the crisis in and around Goma remained extremely dire and the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) remained overstretched, the "bottom line" was clear: more forces were needed to protect civilians, correspondents were told this afternoon at a Headquarters press conference sponsored by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Taking part were Fabienne Hara, Vice-President of International Affairs, International Crisis Group; Steve Crawshaw, United Nations Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch (on the situation in Goma); and, directly from Goma through a telephone-link, Juliette Prodhan, Oxfam aid worker.

Reporting from Goma, Ms. Prodhan said the streets were quiet at the moment, but a "traumatized" population lived in fear, as did the whole population in North Kivu. There had been no improvement in the living conditions of the population, and Oxfam had often not been able to reach populations in need. People in some areas had been without drinking water for over a week. Soldiers of the Congolese Army had been looting. Displaced people in camps, who had been looking for assistance and who had seen family members raped and killed, were caught in crossfire. Although two weeks ago, there had been an opportunity for counter action, that action was not forthcoming, and the intervention of European Union troops seemed to be a remote possibility. There was an immediate need for an effective ceasefire and a stronger MONUC.

Mr. Crawshaw said the threats against the civilian population were clearly there. Forces of General Nkunda (leader of the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP)) threatened civilians who had spoken out or had documented atrocities. MONUC was clearly overstretched. The political challenge confronting Security Council members was to authorize a larger force. They should no longer claim that they needed "more clarity" from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. It was "equally dismaying" that the Europeans had not stepped up to the plate, with the United Kingdom and Germany dragging their feet and France sending mixed messages. A failure to act would have devastating consequences, he warned.

Mr. Crawshaw welcomed the "flurry of diplomatic activities" that was taking place now, including the involvement of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Pressure was needed on President Kagami of Rwanda to exert influence in the area. The fact that the Congolese side had committed serious abuses should not be overlooked. The situation needed more troops, and Governments should be asked the hard question of how much worse the situation had to get before action was taken.

Ms. Hara added that MONUC could improve its performance. The appointment of a Force Commander could help. MONUC was also hampered by the fact that its mandate included supporting the Congolese armed forces; that army had vanished. There was a short-term need for an EU intervention with a time-bound and limited mandate. Peacemaking remedies were not the solution, however. There was a need for a political solution. The Nairobi and Goma agreements should be implemented and militias should be integrated into the Congolese Army. Also, agreements between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda had not been implemented. As those agreements only related to the security dimension, other dimensions, such as trade between the two countries, should also be addressed.

She warned that the crises of 1996 and 1998 could be repeated, as the elected Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was weak and had not improved the situation on the ground. There was a concern that Nkunda, at the edge of Goma, was trying to provoke the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR) into a fight. Communities remained divided and ethnic tensions remained possible. If Angola got involved, the situation could deteriorate again into a regional conflict.

Asked whether MONUC's mandate should be made more "robust", so that MONUC forces could be more "aggressive", participants answered that the real problem was that MONUC was stretched too thin. Although it was true that in some cases it had failed to protect civilians, it was "cynical", according to Mr. Crawshaw, to blame it for those failures rather than the lack of enough forces on the ground. Sitting back, asking for more information and waiting until December to take action made no sense. It was morally and politically unacceptable as well as short sighted.

MONUC was the "perfect scapegoat", Ms. Hara added, but more investment was needed in diplomacy, and "unity in the Council would be a good start". MONUC could improve, with more focus and strategic planning and setting priorities. Its mandate was flawed but, stretched thin as it was, it could not do the job.

In response to a question on how MONUC should confront abuses by the Congolese Army, which it was supposed to support, Mr. Crawshaw said there was some ambiguity there. The problem was not the mandate, but actual capabilities. There were many ways of confronting the Congolese forces, including diplomatic pressure. Accountability was necessary for serious war crimes that had been committed. The International Criminal Court had jurisdiction in the matter. The fact that abuses had occurred within MONUC was a matter of "bad apples". MONUC remained extremely important and valuable. Ms. Prodhan added that, two weeks ago, Congolese forces had been running amok but, because of its mandate, MONUC could do nothing.

Answering a question on confronting the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), Ms. Hara said MONUC had attacked the LRA in 2005, which had cost the lives of eight peacekeepers. The Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo had also failed in its obligation to protect civilians. MONUC needed a better mandate and more capacities, including good intelligence, to confront the LRA.

Belgium had played a positive role in the current negotiations in the Council, said Mr. Crawshaw, answering a question on why that country would not send troops. It had made clear, he added, that greater engagement was needed, but there was just so much the country could do without a broader European consensus.

Asked about French troops in the area, Ms. Hara answered that there were certain sensibilities, as North Kivu was the "backyard" of Rwanda, which would make it politically difficult. Rwanda would see a French force as a hostile one.

Regarding pressure on President Kabila to negotiate with Laurent Nkunda, something that, according to Mr. Crawshaw, would "make sense", Ms. Hara said. Nkunda had participated in the Nairobi process and negotiations had taken place there. There was therefore no need for direct negotiations, which could re-open the Nairobi agreement. That agreement should be implemented.

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