Interview with Steve Hege, Former Coordinator, UN Group of Experts on the DRC

Steve Hege is the former coordinator of the United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which in November 2012 presented a report to the UN Security Council that contained overwhelming evidence of Rwanda and Uganda’s support of the M23 rebel group.

The interview was conducted by Francesco Mancini, IPI Director of Research, over email.

Francesco Mancini: In the Group of Experts final report published in November 2012, you and your colleagues concluded that the government of Rwanda, with the support from allies within the government of Uganda, created, equipped, trained, advised, and directly reinforced and commanded the M23 rebellion. Can you explain how you reached that conclusion? Was it simply based on “human intelligence” alone?

Steve Hege: As with all Groups of Experts for sanctions regimes, we adhered to a rigorous methodology approved by the Security Council. If by “human intelligence,” you are referring to first-hand witnesses to events, then yes, indeed, we prioritized these sources, primarily ex-combatants, but only as the starting point of our investigations. We interviewed individually over a hundred former M23 members, including 57 who claimed to be Rwandan citizens. All gave detailed accounts of Rwandan support to the rebels that they personally observed during their time with M23.

We then worked to corroborate this massive amount of information with a larger network of over a hundred others sources—some eyewitnesses and others considered to have credible access to the rebellion. These included local leaders, businessmen, border agents, simple peasants, as well as former Rwandan army officers and former officers of M23’s predecessor, the CNDP, who maintain frequent contact with their family and friends who joined the new rebellion. We also developed our own active sources within the M23 who themselves acknowledged the support of Rwanda and Uganda to their movement.

To further confirm the patterns and categories of external support being provided to M23, we sought out as many tangible pieces of evidence as possible throughout our investigations, including text messages, emails, and photos of meetings held in Rwanda to mobilize support for the rebels, money transfers to M23 and its allies, Rwandan military uniforms and ammunition cartridges found on the battlefield, recordings of radio communications between the rebels and Rwandan and Ugandan army officers, phone call logs made by individuals linked to armed groups, as well as satellite images showing very clearly the footpaths connecting M23 headquarters with Rwandan military bases, corresponding perfectly to descriptions of many ex- combatants (Annex 6).

In addition, to complement the information we had collected on the supply of arms by Rwanda, we also documented M23’s possession of heavy weapons traditionally used by the Rwandan army. When the Rwandan intelligence argued they had already destroyed all of these heavy weapons in their arsenal, they could only show us some old AK-47s as proof and tried to convince us that 75mm cannon rounds we inquired about were hidden beneath them. We later obtained documents demonstrating not only that Rwanda had not destroyed any heavy weapons in the last decade, but that it even made a formal request for technical assistance in August of this year to destroy precisely the same 75mm and 120 mm rounds we cited in our reports.

Furthermore, we also relied on our own observations during frequent field missions to M23 territory, where we confirmed rebel use of Rwandan army radio equipment and uniforms. We personally witnessed close cooperation between the rebels and special forces of the Rwandan army (officially deployed in the DRC at the time) as well as deliveries of military equipment from Uganda. Despite the physical threats made against us and our collaborators, we also made seven trips to Rwanda in order to corroborate the details provided by ex-combatants, including a visit to Bosco Ntagnda’s Hotel Bushokoro in Kinigi, which not only perfectly matched their descriptions but was also surrounded by soldiers of the Rwandan army to protect the recruitment site.

Finally, we confirmed our information with intelligence agencies such as those of Uganda, Burundi, Western countries and the Congolese government, even though the latter had refused to cooperate with our investigations prior to the publication of the addendum to the interim report. We later received more official support from the Congolese authorities, but their information never constituted the foundation of any of our inquiries. Although they deny it now, senior Ugandan officials not only confirmed our findings on Rwanda, but also acknowledged that M23 received extensive support from within their own security services, promising us there would be investigations and arrests which never materialized.

FM: A 131-page response from the government of Rwanda to your earlier interim report claims that the Group did not give Rwanda a right of reply and did not talk to Rwandan officials. Is that correct, and can you give us more details about your engagement with them?

SH: We gave the Rwandan government several opportunities to respond to the results of our investigations. They first refused to receive us during an official visit to Kigali in May, later defending that our presence in Rwanda had nothing to do with the arms embargo; a rather odd argument given that the embargo is the raison d’être of the Group of Experts. Then, when the sanctions committee explicitly asked us to delay the submission of our addendum to the interim report to give the Rwandans an additional opportunity to reply formally, the Rwandan minister of foreign affairs declined to give me any response when I personally briefed her on our conclusions even before submitting the final document to the sanctions committee. A few hours after our meeting, at a UN press conference, the minister claimed that no one had shared with Rwanda the results of our investigations.

Regarding the official Rwandan rebuttal you mentioned; it is a document that we studied and which we responded to exhaustively in Annex 3 of our final report, but the major premise of their argument was that the Group was the victim of a huge conspiracy orchestrated by the Congolese government. Not only as experienced investigators would this have been impossible, but the Congolese government could not have been capable of fabricating hundreds of false witnesses, documents, radio communications, emails scattered across three provinces, particularly when, at the outset of the M23 rebellion, it was not even cooperating with us. If true, that would have been the sign of a very effective state, not the “black hole” in need of radical governance reform that Rwanda has consistently tried to portray the Congo as.

During a second visit to Kigali in July, Rwandan officials briefed us personally on their rebuttal, but appeared much more interested in interrogating us as to the identities of our sources and individuals collaborating with our investigations. Even though they acknowledged that, indeed, M23 recruits could have been coming from Rwanda, no investigation was ever even conducted.

From the beginning of August through the end of the mandate in December, the government of Rwanda repeatedly refused to meet with us or cooperate with any of our investigations.

FM: The Rwandans appeared to have conducted a “campaign” against you personally based on an article you had published in the past. Why did they claim you were biased against Rwanda, and did this undermine your work?

SH: When it was clear we were not going to alter the addendum to our interim report, the Rwandans orchestrated a character assassination campaign against the Group and me in particular, claiming that I was “genocide-denier” and sympathizer of the Rwandan rebels of the FDLR. They based this solely on an internal discussion paper, for which I had been named as the point of contact, inadvertently placed on a document-sharing site on the Internet. The paper sought to analyze the internal thinking and possible reactions of the FDLR against the civilian population during military operations planned in early 2009, as well as reflect on the their demobilization and repatriation within the historical and political context of the region, including the same massacres subsequently documented by the UN’s “mapping” report, which are critical to the ideology of the FDLR. It does not deny the Rwandan genocide, and it even refers directly to the involvement of some FDLR commanders in the genocide. This analytic exercise also encompassed other discussion papers on other armed groups in eastern DRC, including the CNDP at the time, but that does not mean that I defend their perspectives either. I personally requested that this document be removed from the Internet because none of the discussion papers were meant to be made public.

On the basis of this document, the government of Rwanda and their media surrogates published countless articles and blog posts against me, incited genocide survivors to call for my dismissal, hired US lawyers to repeat their same arguments as well as a French-Israeli “cyber-warfare” specialist to incessantly attack us, claiming that I wanted to take over the mineral wealth in the eastern Congo. They also made up information about my family and a supposed “ex-wife and child” and created blood-stained caricatures of me shredding files about the Rwandan genocide claiming that I “can only live in in a world with no Tutsis.” President Kagame himself told journalists that I “had been advocating the genocide for years,” and members of his close staff even spent months preparing false testimonies of FDLR officers about how I provided them weapons. Fortunately, I was able to personally interview one of them before he was to return to Rwanda and hold a press conference. He obviously had no idea who I was, and once confronted with the truth, he eventually acknowledged that he was paid to make these detailed false claims about “Steve Hege.”

Despite these attacks, the government of Rwanda is fully aware of my objectivity as an investigator on the armed groups, including the FDLR. During previous mandates, although the Rwandan intelligence services were not entirely satisfied with our conclusions regarding the links between the FDLR and the political dissident Kayumba Nyamwasa, they had, at the time, respected my objective approach in systematically documenting the support networks of the Rwandan Hutu rebels, particularly in the 2011 final report, which did include links to other Rwandan dissidents. I have also cooperated with German prosecutors in the ongoing trial against the former president and vice president of the FDLR, and in 2006 and 2007 with the UN peacekeeping mission, I conducted numerous missions into the dense jungles of South Kivu to convince FDLR combatants to voluntarily disarm and return peacefully to their homes.

But these types of false accusations—maybe not so hostile and personal— are to be expected with this type of work (investigating support to armed groups) particularly given that those violating the arms embargo obviously do not want this to be known, much less appear in an official document of the Security Council. In 2010 and 2011, I had already been accused by members of the Rwandan and Burundian political oppositions of supposedly being too sympathetic to their governments. It’s simply the natural reflex to claim the alleged bias of an investigator against those who appear in the conclusions of a rigorous and independent investigation.

Fortunately, diplomats are able to see beyond these frequent accusations against Group of Experts members, as despite Rwanda’s repeated demands for my removal, no member of the sanctions committee of the Security Council ever asked me even a single question about my so-called “partiality.”

FM: How were your conclusions received by members states from the sanctions committee? Will the election of Rwanda to the Security Council affect the work/reports of the Group of Experts?

SH: The Security Council was very supportive of our work, and the language of resolutions 2076 and 2078 reflect a strong consensus regarding the overwhelming nature of external backing to the M23 rebellion. Not only did we hold numerous meetings bilaterally and multilaterally with many Security Council members to discuss our methodology and findings, but engaged member states confirmed our findings on their own. The organogram in Annex 22 of the final report, which places Rwandan Minster of Defense James Kabarebe as the rebellion’s supreme commander, is just one illustrative example of the information that many countries hold in addition to our findings and that of several other independent inquiries.

From our perspective, it would of course be great if the sanctions committee immediately accepted our conclusions, but they do indeed thoroughly scrutinize our findings and attempt to corroborate them with their own information gathering. None of our reports alone would ever outweigh the internal reporting of a member state, particularly those who took unilateral measures in suspending aid to a development partner as important as Rwanda due to its blatant violations of the arms embargo. They may refer to our report publically, but important policy decisions are always based first and foremost on their own evidence base.

Despite Rwanda’s recent arrival to the Security Council, the Group’s mandate had already been renewed, and a new six-member team appointed by the Secretary-General. However, any member of the Security Council can block candidates for sanctions as well as proposed members for future mandates of the Group of Experts, a fact Rwanda’s mission to the UN has boasted about.

About the photo: A map from the November 2012 report shows RDF and M23 infiltrations towards Masisi territory.