A New Plan For Peace In War-Torn Congo: Vague, But Not Hopeless

on February 26 2013 5:54 AM
Congolese Families
Families flee fighting between the Congolese army and M23 rebels in Rutshuru territory, eastern Congo, in May. Human Rights Watch

 

A group of African leaders agreed this weekend on new path toward peace for the troubled Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The new framework, which is ambitious in scope but light on details, marks the latest attempt to bring stability to the vast country of 68 million, which sits at the heart of the African continent. Conflicts have plagued the mineral-rich DRC and surrounding nations for decades; the most recent major disruption came last November, when a rebel group called M23 briefly seized the town of Goma on the DRC’s eastern border.

That uprising was partially quelled, but deadly conflicts are still simmering all across the DRC. The new agreement -- called the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Region -- outlines an inclusive approach to the crisis, though it is only a framework at this point.

Given the Central African country’s long history of failed peace deals and bloodshed, the agreement has been met with skepticism. As the details are filled in, it remains to be seen whether this could really be the beginning of the end of decades of conflict and failed peace plans.

“The framework agreement could be taken in 100 different directions,” says Federico Borello, an expert with the California-based human rights organization Humanity United. “It could be yet another agreement that is shelved and used by historians in the future, or it could be a game-changing event. It really depends on the political will.”

All Together Now

The document was signed on Sunday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, by 11 African leaders, including DRC President Joseph Kabila, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ugandan Vice President Edward Kiwanuka Sseknadi. Four witnesses also put their names on the dotted line, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and African Union Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

“There is an increasing recognition that the current path is untenable,” says the document, noting that militant activities and human rights violations continue to plague the country.

“Beginning with a cessation of hostilities, concrete action is needed by the Government of the [DRC] with support of partners, countries in the region, and the international community.”

The agreement grants oversight to officials from the 11 signatory countries -- the DRC, the Central African Republic, Angola, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia -- as well as representatives of the U.N., the African Union, the South African Development Community and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. In addition, a “national oversight mechanism will operate in full respect of the national sovereignty of the [DRC].”

A U.N. peacekeeping force, called the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MONUSCO in French, will be expected to lend its strength to any forthcoming initiatives.

MONUSCO was criticized last year when its force of 19,000 proved unable to stop M23 from taking over Goma, due in large part to its weak mandate. This time around, Ban and others have recommended that an intervention brigade -- outfitted with a peace enforcement mandate, which is stronger than MONUSCO’s current peacekeeping mandate -- should be entrusted with the ability to respond more forcefully to security threats.

But while security clearly presents an immediate challenge, critics of the agreement argue that it is more important to address underlying problems.

“It seems like a bulk of the effort is focused on reforming the Congolese security sector,” said Maurice Carney, executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group Friends of the Congo.

"But really, the core of much instability in the region for the past 16 years is that authoritarian regimes have militarized the political space. As it relates to the core issues -- brining about stability, instituting some level of accountability, bringing an end to impunity and supporting justice in the region -- the framework has a long way to go.”

Digging Deep

Even the drafters of the new framework acknowledge that it is far from complete. After all, a five-page document -- two-and-a-half really, since the text includes two translations -- cannot hope to contain a strategy comprehensive enough to end a conflict that has raged for decades.

The M23 takeover of Goma, which prompted the agreement, is only one recent episode of the long-running clashes in Central Africa, which have occurred primarily in DRC territory but involve actors from various countries.

Similar insurgencies of years past include the Alliance of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, which invaded the DRC in the 1990s, and the National Congress for the Defense of the People, which coalesced in 2004 and was absorbed into the Congolese army in an ill-fated March 23, 2009, agreement that would give the M23 its name.

The governments of Rwanda and Uganda have repeatedly been implicated as destabilizers. Reports from experts working on behalf of the U.N. Security Council indicated last year that both administrations backed the M23 insurgency.

The situation is further complicated by valuable resources. Despite being one of the poorest and least developed nations on earth, the DRC is home to mineral deposits including gold, iron, tin and tungsten. Criminal activities help divert some of these riches across borders, benefiting Rwanda, Uganda and proxy groups.

Inside the DRC, weak governance has created vacuums of power in regions far from the capital city of Kinshasa, allowing a kaleidoscope of militant groups to assert power and commit atrocious human rights abuses against civilians.

And overshadowing everything are memories of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which revolved around ethnic conflicts and killed more than 500,000 people, and the two massive wars that rocked the DRC and neighboring countries between 1996 and 2003. Millions of people died as a result of these clashes, which essentially pitted Rwanda and Uganda against the DRC and its allies.

Peace deals of years past have achieved varying -- never very high -- levels of success. Sunday’s framework could very well amount to one more failed attempt, but it is at least uniquely bold in its scope.

“This is not simply an internal agreement between the Congolese government and some armed groups in the DRC; it’s an agreement signed by 11 states,” says Borello. “Older agreements were meant to address specific and short-term threats of armed groups, but the ambition of this framework is to take a more comprehensive approach, addressing the real root of the conflict and not simply its symptoms.”

From the Ground Up

The day the framework was signed, it became clear that M23 rebels -- who have remained within kilometers of the city of Goma -- still pose a very real threat to DRC stability. On Sunday and Monday, at least 8 people died due to an episode of rebel infighting, which took place just north of Goma.

And M23 is far from the only organization that threatens peace for citizens of the DRC.

“The M23 has greater potential to destabilize the region because of its military strength and the support it enjoys from Rwanda and Uganda,” says Borello. “But a number of local armed groups are also active and committing human rights violations. They have slaughtered civilians and continue to do so, so certainly this framework needs to address not only the M23 but other groups in the region.”

But quashing insurgencies is only the beginning. The success of militant groups owes largely to the weakness of the state, which in turn has its roots in the national government’s shaky claims to legitimacy.

The DRC held national elections in 2011, which resulted in a victory for Kabila, the incumbent. But the polling process was heavily flawed, according to international watchdog organizations. Protests erupted, but Kabila refused to entertain notions of foul play and still wields power in Kinshasa.

The political character of neighboring countries also contributes to regional turmoil -- especially in the case of Rwanda, which has allegedly played a key role in fostering dissent in the DRC. Rwandan President Kagame has been accused of serious human rights violations in his own country, including suppression of dissent. But aid donors and diplomatic partners -- most notably the United States -- have refused to hold his administration accountable for these offenses.

“There are authoritarian figures in place in the DRC and Rwanda,” said Carney. “This is a crisis of democracy. The international community is saying that security is paramount, and they can deal with democracy later. But if you don’t have democracy, you’re building security on a weak foundation.”

The Way Forward

As the Addis Ababa framework gets fleshed out in coming weeks, concerned individuals and organizations around the world are taking the opportunity to make their voices heard.

Humanity United -- Borello’s organization -- was one of several NGOs involved in the production of a comprehensive policy brief that weighs in on the complicated issue.

“A group of us -- including Congolese, European and American NGOs, humanitarian groups and advocacy organizations -- tried to build a consensus because we needed to find common ground to make our voices heard. We welcome the new framework, but the devil is in the details,” explained Borello.

The brief’s recommendations include well-regulated oversight mechanisms, more engagement of Congolese and global civil societies, and transparent coordination among regional actors.

According to Carney of Friends of the Congo, better engagement with the Congolese citizenry will have to be at the root of any lasting solution.

“The Congolese people are not asking the international community to come and fix their problems, or to impose a solution, or even to develop a solution,” he said. “What they’re asking is that the international community supports the democratic process in the Congo -- supporting reforms, investing in local institutions and working to expand the political space.”

That’s quite a tall order, but no one is under the illusion that ending decades of turmoil in Central Africa was going to be easy. Starting the peace process from the bottom up -- beginning with the very foundations of civil society -- will require a strong commitment and unprecedented levels of political will.

By itself, the Addis Ababa framework won’t do much to bring lasting change to the DRC. But if it encourages fruitful dialogue, both within the DRC and among experts in the international community, it is, at the very least, a good place to start.

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