Government forces in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) carried out their first attack against rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) on 24 February 2015, almost a month after this operation was first announced. The attack against the FDLR comes in the wake of a serious disagreement between the DRC government and the United Nations (UN) over the forced disarmament of the FDLR.
Military action against the FDLR has been on the cards since the expiry of the 2 January 2015 deadline set by the Intergovernmental Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for the FDLR to voluntarily disarm.
The disarmament of all rebel forces in the eastern DRC forms part of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the DRC and the Region (Framework Agreement) signed in February 2013.
The attack against the FDLR comes in the wake of a serious disagreement between the DRC government and the United Nations
Meanwhile, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) has been concerned about the continued instability in the eastern DRC for some time and has followed closely the implementation of the Framework Agreement. The progress made in this regard was discussed by the PSC on 23 February 2015.
In its decisions, the African Union (AU) Assembly, meeting in January 2015 for its 24th summit, also expressed support for the implementation of the Framework Agreement and emphasised the importance of the neutralisation of all armed forces in the eastern DRC.
Disagreement with UN over allegations of war crimes
Initially, the offensive against the FDLR was set to be a joint effort by the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) and the United Nations (UN). The UN Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), consisting mainly of South African and Tanzanian troops and with a Chapter VII mandate, was expected to be mobilised in this offensive. The FIB successfully defeated the M23 rebel group in mid-2013.
However, on Sunday 15 February President Joseph Kabila told ambassadors in Kinshasa, including Martin Kobler, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in the DRC, that the Congolese government would forego any help from the UN in this operation. ‘The head of state officially announced to its partners that the DRC renounces any cooperation with MONUSCO [the UN Stabilisation Mission in the DRC] in the operation of disarmament against the FDLR,’ government spokesperson Lambert Mende said after the meeting. According to Mende, Kabila also told the DRC’s partners and ambassadors to refrain from making statements that do not ‘respect the state’. ‘We want to say to the various actors, the DRC is not under guardianship of the UN or anyone else.’
Abuses by the FARDC in the eastern part of the country have been well documented by Human Rights Watch and others
The conflict between the DRC and the UN started with the UN’s request that the Congolese government replace two generals appointed to head the military operation against the FDLR. This was due to allegations of human rights abuses against generals Bruno Mandevu and Fall Sikabwe, who have been on the UN’s red list for years. In terms of its mandate, the UN could not be seen to go ahead with a joint operation led by these officers. Abuses by the FARDC in the eastern part of the country have been well documented by Human Rights Watch and others.
Impact on future DRC–UN relations
The disagreement over the FDLR operation raises several questions about the future of relations between the DRC and the UN. The UN’s withdrawal from the operation against the FDLR also provides a useful argument to those critics of the UN and of Kabila’s government, notably neighbouring Rwanda, that maintain that the actors involved did not want to attack the FDLR in the first place.
Following Kabila’s rejection of MONUSCO’s help, the DRC government tempered its stance by stating that nothing was stopping MONUSCO from ‘carrying out its own operations against the FDLR’. Mende told Radio Okapi that the tension in the relationship ‘doesn’t concern other missions that MONUSCO has been charged with’. He said a UN Security Council resolution ‘gives a mandate to the mission to find and disarm the armed groups with or without the FARDC’. MONUSCO has 22 000 troops stationed in the country.
In the short term, the DRC will have to do without the food, fuel and logistical support the UN provided to FARDC operations in the past.
The UN’s withdrawal from the operation also provides a useful argument to those critics of the UN and of Kabila’s government
This is, however, not the first strong statement by the Congolese head of state against the UN presence in the DRC. In fact, the name change of the mission from MONUC (UN Organisation Mission in the DRC) to MONUSCO (UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC) in 2010 came after just such a spat, when Kabila said a peacekeeping mission was no longer needed in his country.
Concerns over civilian casualties
South Africa and Tanzania are both said to have expressed reservations about the possible collateral damage, especially to civilians, during an operation against the FDLR. The FDLR has been in the region for close to 20 years and is largely embedded in communities in the eastern DRC.
The issue of civilian casualties was widely discussed in the corridors of the 24th AU summit, since the deadline for the FDLR to disarm had expired on 2 January and a joint MONUSCO–FARDC operation was expected. In the run-up to the Assembly meeting on 30 and 31 January, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told journalists in Addis Ababa that an attack could happen ‘as we are sitting here’. She told the media that South Africa trusted the military hierarchy to make sure there were no civilian casualties.
Asked at the summit about the possible withdrawal of UN troops from the FDLR operation due to fears of civilian casualties, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete brusquely answered that the FIB was part of the UN and that it was up to the latter to decide.
Rwandan media slammed the UN for its reticence to participate in the joint operation against the FDLR
Meanwhile, neighbouring Rwanda, which maintains that the FDLR is a serious security threat, accused both the DRC government and MONUSCO of finding excuses not to attack the FDLR. Rwandan media slammed the UN for its reticence to participate in the joint operation against the FDLR, which is largely made up of Hutus who fled after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Commentators on social media also accused the DRC government of not really wanting to carry out its threats of forcibly disarming the FDLR.
It has become clear that, apart from the disagreement with the DRC government, the FIB’s operation against the FDLR is also seriously hampered by the absence of the firm regional consensus that had been behind the military campaign against the M23. Tanzania and South Africa, two of the three troop contributors to the FIB, have not shown as much enthusiasm to go after the FDLR as against the M23.
FDLR a threat to peace
However, experts agree it would be a blow to peace in the DRC if the FDLR were not eventually disarmed. Rwanda has for the past 20 years used the FDLR’s presence in the eastern DRC to justify its intervening in the country.
In addition, the DRC has a legal obligation in terms of the Framework Agreement, which commits all the parties to end their support for rebels in the eastern DRC. The AU, SADC and the ICGLR are all guarantors of this agreement.
Other anti-rebel operations to continue
Despite the UN’s withdrawal from the FDLR operation, indications are that the FIB will remain mobilised in the eastern DRC. The Ugandan rebel group Allied Democratic Forces–National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU) has been particularly active over the last several months, gaining terrain and attacking civilians. There is also a plethora of smaller armed militia groups in the eastern DRC that have yet to be neutralised by the UN and the FARDC.
Despite the UN’s withdrawal from the FDLR operation, indications are that the Force Intervention Brigade will remain mobilised in the eastern DRC
Major issues for the PSC
For the PSC, the disagreement over the military operation against the FDLR and the continuing violence and threat of violence by armed groups against civilians in the eastern DRC are major concerns.
Another area of concern for the PSC is the challenges that the lack of firm regional consensus and the disagreement between MONUSCO and the DRC government present for the implementation of the Framework Agreement.
Options for the PSC
The PSC could initiate the convening at the AU of a joint meeting of the ICGLR and SADC to deliberate on and address the various issues inhibiting the implementation of the ICGLR–SADC decision on the FDLR and of the Framework Agreement.
The PSC could request the AU Commission to work with the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General for the Great Lakes Region to initiate a broader regional dialogue. This could be part of the PSC Framework for addressing the regional root causes of the conflict, including the issues of refugees and the disarmament of all armed groups.
The PSC could also request the AU Commission chairperson to engage the DRC government with a view to resolve the on-going lack of cooperation between the DRC government and MONUSCO.
Signing of Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the DRC and the Region, 24 February 2013,
Joint meeting of SADC and troop-contributing countries on the DRC, 30 January 2015.
ISS Today, 18 February 2015.
ISS Today, 12 January 2015.