M23 rebels pass police officers as they withdraw from the city of Goma
In late November, the rebel group M23 successfully captured Goma, a city of a million people in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The global community, trying to explain the improbable rise of such a small rebel group, looked to Rwanda, who has allegedly supported the M23 rebels. While Rwanda has been accused of supporting the group for some time, the Goma take-over, as well as Rwanda’s recent election to a UN Security Council seat, has intensified international pressure on the Rwandan government. The exact nature of the relationship between Rwanda and M23 is not entirely clear. Nonetheless, it has generated a great deal of controversy and condemnation from the international human rights community, primarily due to M23’s use of child soldiers, violence against and rape of civilians, and arbitrary executions. Discerning the extent of Rwanda’s involvement in these actions, and finding the appropriate response, are important questions for a human rights community that has long struggled to increase protection of human rights in the eastern DRC.
The Political BackdropFollowing the end of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, primarily Hutu refugees fled into the neighboring DRC, which had long been home to (among others) those of Tutsi ancestry. Several years of conflict followed, which saw a number of shifting alliances, the disintegration and formation of various rebel factions, and the military involvement of most of the regional nations. The so-called “Africa’s Great War” involved six nations, as Rwandan-backed Tutsi rebels fought for control of the Eastern DRC. A peace accord was signed in 2002, and Rwandan and Ugandan troops withdrew from the DRC, but unrest has continued as various militias and rebel groups continue to operate in the Kivu provinces.
M23, or as they’ve recently begun calling themselves, the Congolese Revolutionary Army, started last spring as a mutiny by Tutsi rebels who had been integrated into the Congolese army under previous peace talks. Their rapid growth, and successful takeover of Goma, has forced a political response from the Congolese government. M23 has currently withdrawn from Goma in exchange for peace talks, and recently agreed to a ceasefire as the peace talks begin. It remains to be seen whether this ceasefire will be honored, as up until the announcement reports of M23 recruiting child soldiers, performing executions, and committing rape had continued.
The present controversy centers around Rwandan support for M23, which primarily appears to be in the form of financial backing and weapons. More recently, a UN report accused Rwandan defense minister, General James Kabarebe, of directly overseeing M23 forces. There is also strong evidence of Rwanda recruiting soldiers for M23, compiled most comprehensively in a September report from Human Rights Watch.
Finding the Appropriate Human Rights LensHuman rights groups have been tracking Rwanda’s actions in the DRC for some time, with mixed success. The complicated nature of the conflict, and Rwanda’s on-again off-again relationship with various rebel groups, makes tracing human rights abuses difficult in a region where violence has become the norm.
The strongest consensus currently is concern over Rwanda supplying arms and finances for M23, which has led some to withdraw aid money to Rwanda. Such support presumably violates the UN-imposed arms embargo on the DRC, which has been difficult to enforce given the DRC’s porous borders. Rwanda is also a signatory to the yet-unratified Central African Convention for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, which specifically addresses the arming of rebel groups. Determining the extent of any breaches, however, is difficult, as is tracing the route of weapons that end up in rebel hands. The Convention is partly designed to strengthen local institutional capacity for limiting the small arms trade, and certainly this situation highlights the need for ratification and implementation of the Convention, as local voices have been rather silent on this issue (or at least not incorporated into the global discourse).
One of the most concerning allegations regarding Rwanda’s role in the DRC is recruitment of Rwandans for the M23 forces, both adults and children. At least one of eleven defectees who said they had been recruited by Rwanda last June was a child, and the report from Human Rights Watch listed at least 7 boys under the age of 15 as forcibly recruited. Such recruitment is contrary to Rwanda’s own laws, and as Rwanda is a state party to both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, human rights activists have a broad range of tools to criticize any Rwandan recruitment of child soldiers. However, although M23 has been accused of widespread recruitment of child soldiers, existing reports of forced recruitment by Rwandan troops suggest that the targeting of children is the exception rather than the rule. Rwanda’s forcible adult recruitment may also raise human rights concerns. Although there are fewer international instruments addressing forced adult recruitment, if the international community focuses exclusively on child soldiers, it risks ignoring the most significant way in which Rwanda is enabling the rebels.
It is important to note, however, that much of the international criticism is centered not on Rwanda’s own actions, but on their support of a group accused of such consistent human rights violations and war crimes. A number of governments around the world support armed groups that have less-than-stellar human rights records. While bad behavior by other actors is no excuse to turn a blind eye to alleged abuses, the human rights community should be prepared to explain any targeted criticism of Rwanda, especially if strong evidence for direct human rights abuses on the part of Rwanda or those it controls is lacking. On the other hand, if Rwanda is in anyway overseeing M23 fighters, Rwanda’s government could then be implicated in human rights abuses much more directly. It remains to be seen how this will unfold, but in the meantime, any clarity that can be given as to the exact nature of the relationship between Rwanda and M23 will assist the international human rights community in finding the appropriate human rights instrument with which to respond.
The Trouble with “Naming and Shaming”Even if there is a greater elucidation of the situation, and a better understanding of potential rights abuses is established, it is unclear what the best response from the international human rights community should be. The traditional “naming and shaming” approach, while drawing attention to the situation, may prove problematic in such a politically charged environment. This is especially troubling given the history of Rwandan military activity in the DRC. The recent collaboration between Rwanda and the DRC after years of violence was seen by many as a desperately needed step towards regional stability, but the Rwanda-M23 link is leading to an alarming re-escalation of regional tensions. The global human rights community needs to find a way to substantially engage with human rights concerns in the region while still recognizing the fraught political and ethnic tensions.
One answer to this dilemma is simply maintaining as strict consistency as possible in identifying human rights abuses. This is, of course, difficult with limited resources, and allegations of human rights abuses by rebel groups may be easy fodder for international media. But in this conflict, it is important to recognize that Congolese soldiers have, by some accounts, committed more potential rights violations than their M23 counterparts. M23 is one among many rebel groups operating in a region where rape, looting, and violence are the norm, and serious questions remain about the neutrality of UN peacekeeping troops in the region. Yet much of the early criticism of M23 did not place it in the regional context, singling out the group from other actors. One must wonder is this imbalance has shaped what gets reported now—a recent UN article carries the headline “Documented cases of human rights abuse emerge against M23” despite the fact that much of the report describes 126 rapes committed by the Congolese army. While the media’s focus on M23 may be attributable to any number of factors, it is important to remember the potential repercussions of inconsistent “naming and shaming” in the public sphere. The political discourse, rather than focusing on ensuring protection for human rights, uses such inconsistencies for political gain. Rwanda’s reaction to the recent UN report, for example, criticized its neutrality rather than engaging with the truth of its claims.
It seems quite likely that Rwanda will continue to deny involvement in the DRC. But it is imperative that the international human rights community do their best to remain objective, even while continuing to raise human rights concerns, in the hopes of maintaining legitimacy in a complex and politically charged context. In the long run, perhaps the best lesson learned from the challenges of providing a politically neutral response to M23 is the importance of developing strong human rights instruments in the present, so as to have better tools to respond to any future rights abuses.