Faced with a new round of human rights abuses against civilians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC, the United Nations Security Council has applied targeted sanctions to militant actors in one of the world’s most complicated conflict zones.
Rapes, abductions, summary executions, child recruitment -- all of these are taking place in the DRC today, where national security forces are too weak to stop a patchwork assortment of insurgent groups from terrorizing civilians.
These sanctions are different from the far-reaching measures imposed by Western powers on places like Syria and Iran, which squeeze revenues to weaken the offending states. The U.N. is addressing DRC unrest with a scalpel rather than a machete -- it has blacklisted only two individuals and two organizations that have been threatening stability in the region.
Unfortunately, this may be one of those situations where a scalpel can’t quite cut it.
According to the United Nations statement released on Dec. 31, the four entities now blacklisted by the organization are: M23, a rebel group that seized the eastern city of Goma for a week in November and has terrorized communities in the region while demanding dialogue with the DRC government; the Forces Democratiques De Liberation Du Rwanda, or FDLR, a band of Hutu militants who have used the DRC as a base for operations against the Tutsi administration of Rwandan President Paul Kagame; Eric Badege, an M23 military commander who has been accused of committing atrocities against civilians; and Jean-Marie Lugerero Runiga, a political leader of M23 who has been referred to as the group’s president.
The two groups will now face a strict arms embargo, while the two individuals will be subject to asset freezes and travel bans.
“We believe these designations will directly help advance the goal of a sustainable peace in eastern DRC," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. "We urge the rank and file of both the M23 and the FDLR to defect and demobilize in order to disassociate themselves from the sanctioned groups.”
But critics say Rice and her peers at the U.N. have taken a rather short-sighted approach.
While it is true that the sanctioned offenders are behind countless atrocities in the DRC, they do not operate in a vacuum. All have ties to the neighboring state of Rwanda, and all are enabled by the weakness of the DRC’s central government, whose power doesn’t extend far beyond the capital city of Kinshasa in the far west. A long-term solution to the violent unrest in sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country would have to address these larger issues.
The West is already heavily involved; international donors, led by the United States, supply hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Rwanda and the DRC on an annual basis.
But in the DRC, Western engagement with central government has been lacking. Kinshasa desperately needs to strengthen its political system and beef up security forces. Its ragtag national army is sorely under-equipped and riddled with corruption; troops have been accused of committing human rights abuses against civilians. Working toward stability in the DRC is a very tall order, and targeted sanctions against a few groups and individuals aren’t exactly a convincing start.
In Rwanda, relative stability and economic growth mask a very serious problem. It is widely believed that the administration in the capital city of Kigali is backing and funding M23, with hopes of destabilizing the DRC and maintaining illicit control of some of its neighbor’s vast mineral resources. The United States, a strong ally of Kagame since he came to power following the Rwandan genocide of 1994, has come under pressure from many in the international community to suspend development and defense assistance to Kigali. Washington responded only symbolically with a $200,000 cut in July, which barely made a dent in Rwanda’s annual budget of about $2 billion, 40 percent of which comes from international aid.
The United States administration, and most notably Rice herself, have been instrumental in downplaying Rwanda’s role in the DRC’s deadly conflicts, as evidenced by the fact that no Rwandans have been sanctioned in connection with M23 or other rebel groups.
The timing of the U.N. sanctions is interesting -- they were formalized just before Rwanda began a two-year term on one of the U.N. Security Council’s rotational seats on Jan. 1. Citing reports that Kigali was backing M23, the DRC had objected to Rwanda’s ascension to the Council. But those objections went unheeded.
Now, Rwanda will enjoy a more powerful diplomatic position on the world stage without being called to task for its role in abetting atrocities just over the border. The DRC, meanwhile, will likely continue to suffer the destabilizing effects of myriad militant groups -- the M23 and FDLR are just two of many -- that have upended order in the vast and verdant country for decades.
For the time being, the U.N. sanctions send a symbolic message -- at the very least -- that militants in the DRC may eventually have to face some consequences.
As Rice said in her statement, “We believe these designations will directly help advance the goal of a sustainable peace in eastern DRC.”