Civilian populations are again the victims of the recent clashes between the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) and the newly-formed armed group called 23 March Movement (M23) in eastern DRC. Congolese civilians are facing displacement, with looting and abductions being carried out by both sides. This time, however, the M23 rebel group has been using Protection of Civilians (PoC) language as an integral part of a well-calculated communication strategy. M23 leader Colonel Sultani Makenga stated on July 8 that its combatants would leave major towns they had just taken, about 40km north of the town of Goma, in order to “let MONUSCO and the national police secure the civilian population.” Meanwhile both the government of the DRC and the UN mission in the DRC (known by the acronym MONUSCO) are struggling to respond; the UN mission simply stated that it is doing its utmost in coordination with the Congolese army to protect civilians.
Although rebels groups involved in armed conflicts are not known for their communication skills or their compliance with international law, some have at times successfully manipulated media and public opinions, while others have shown some abilities to conduct hostilities with some level of compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The recently-released ninth report to the Security Council on the protection of civilians in armed conflict (UN Doc. S/2012/376, May 22, 2012) made ample reference to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and “elements of the national security forces” are cited along with the armed rebel groups FDLR and LRA as being perpetrators who “continue to adversely affect civilians” in eastern DRC.
Regular armed forces committing violations against civilian populations is not unique to the DRC, but it has been a PR/communication nightmare for both the FARDC and MONUSCO, particularly since the previous UN mission MONUC started providing support to the FARDC operations in 2009 against armed groups following the rapprochement between the DRC and Rwanda. Though a UN “conditionality policy” was put in place later that year to try to address some of the legal implications of such support, implementing the mandate - protecting civilians but also supporting the extension of state authority - while still respecting the sacrosanct UN “impartiality” principle has been a challenge.
- The M23 has consistently been using PoC language as part of its communications strategy in the battlefield, contrasting its modus operandi with those of the FARDC, which is known to have failed to protect civilian populations and perpetrated violations;
- The M23 leader Colonel Sultani Makenga has denied fighting alongside ICC-wanted General Bosco Ntaganda, whom Kinshasa accuses of heading the army mutiny that gave rise to the M23; the June 30 Security Council resolution 2053 (2012) explicitly called for his arrest;
- The use of PoC language by M23 also serves the purpose of avoiding direct confrontation with MONUSCO, whose primary mandate remains PoC rather than fighting armed groups, even though the UN has moved troops to Goma to help defend it against the rebels and reportedly engaged its attack helicopters;
- Though the UN mission emphasized that its actions are driven by its PoC mandate, its support of FARDC affects the perception of its “impartiality” and hence its ability to play the role of peace broker.
- While M23 may be winning the communications (and military) battle on the ground so far, it has not won the communications war at the diplomatic level, which will likely determine the political outcome of the fighting.
During the recent fighting between the FARDC and newly-formed armed group M23 in eastern DRC, the rebel group M23 has attempted to use the media to its advantage from the outset, using PoC language as an integral part of a well-calculated communications strategy. In early June, the rebel spokesperson Colonel Vianney Kazarama provided regular and detailed accounts of the fighting, emphasizing the fact that they were only using light weapons which carry less risk of civilian casualties, while the FARDC was using tanks, helicopters and mortars.
As the M23 later gained momentum (as well as more combatants and heavier weaponry) and captured a series of key towns in eastern DRC, its leader Colonel Sultani Makenga stated on July 8 that its combatants would leave the major towns of Rutshuru and Kiwandja, about 40km north of Goma, in order to “let MONUSCO and the national police secure the civilian population” there, but that “if the army returns, [they] will fight them.”
Although this may simply be a tactical retreat ahead of discussions at the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) Addis Ababa meeting of July 11 and the African Union summit this week intending to defuse tensions between the DRC and Rwanda, this use of PoC language is not by chance - even if actions may not always follow words. It serves to avoid direct confrontation with MONUSCO, whose primary mandate remains PoC rather that fighting armed groups. It also contrasts with the FARDC’s reputation of perpetrating violations against civilian populations while conducting military operations or retreating. The army is also known for abandoning its positions, as happened in Bunagana where some 600 FARDC soldiers, including elite Belgian-trained commandos, reportedly escaped over the Uganda border when M23 attacked.
While the UN missions in the DRC have over the years repeatedly refined the way it carries out its PoC mandate - with better civilian-military operational guidance and improved communication channels with the local population including early warning systems - the latest developments could represent yet another challenge to both its credibility and “conditionality policy” (recently made into a more general “human rights due diligence policy on United Nations support to non-United Nations security forces.”)
The UN mission has moved reinforcement troops to guard the key city of Goma against attacks by rebels, while the DRC government is also moving a US-trained FARDC battalion - previously deployed with MONUSCO support last June to Dungu to conduct operations against LRA - to protect Goma. The UN mission also reported that it engaged its attack helicopters (but without apparently killing any M23 rebels). MONUC’s attack helicopters had already been used twice to stop Nkunda’s Congrès national pour la défense du people (CNDP) advances towards Goma: in November 2006, killing between 200 and 400 rebels, and again in October 2008.
Even though the UN mission has emphasized that its actions are driven by its PoC mandate (as MONUC did in 2006 and 2008), MONUSCO’s support to FARDC military operations—with FARDC troops committing abuses on civilian populations that sometimes exceeded those of rebel groups—affects the perception of its “impartiality,” hence affecting its ability to play the role of peace broker (as well as to implement its PoC mandate, inasmuch as it implies engaging with armed groups for better compliance with human rights and IHL). The decisions taken at the July 11 ICGLR meeting include the “immediate establishment of a neutral International Force to eradicate M23, FDLR and all other Negative Forces in Eastern DRC and patrol and secure the Border Zones,” without a mention of MONUSCO.
The M23 may be winning the communications (and military) battle on the ground so far, but it has not won the communications war at the diplomatic level, which will likely determine the political outcome of the fighting. The June 30 Council resolution renewing MONUSCO’s mandate “condemns recent mutiny led by Bosco Ntaganda and all outside support to all armed groups and demands that all forms of support to them cease immediately.” And the Council issued a press statement [SC/10702] on July 6 condemning recent attacks by the M23 group which resulted in the death of an Indian UN peacekeeper and the displacement of civilians and casualties within the FARDC.
Both the US and the European Union have also issued statements calling on Rwanda to halt any support to armed groups in eastern DRC, following the release of the UN Sanctions Committee DRC Group of Experts report indicating that high-ranking Rwandan officials are involved in support to the M23. The Rwandan government has denied the charges and called for renewed focus on action against the FDLR.
Arthur Boutellis is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute.
About the photo: Peacekeepers of the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), MONUSCO, work with government troops to secure Bunagana in May 2012. UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti