The M23 Conflict’s Western Front

Rwanda will join the UN Security Council at a time when regional stability is deteriorating — and the actions of the country’s government are being called into question.

While much of the world was fixated on other, perhaps more familiar conflicts, one of the longest-running and most worrying humanitarian and security situations in Africa took a turn for the worse. On November 18, the M23 rebel movement advanced to the outskirts of Goma, the largest city in the war-torn North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The rebels routed the Congolese military and demanded negotiations with the government as they sat only a couple of kilometers outside Goma, before taking the city on Tuesday. Refugees living around Goma, already displaced by eight months of hostilities between M23 and the government, have had to flee the rebels for a second time. And there are reports that the Congolese and Rwandan militaries are now trading fire.

For cynical observers, this current crisis in the eastern DRC is a dreary reversion to form. In April 2012, a group of soldiers and officers based in the country’s restive east, and led by International Criminal Court indictee and then-army general Bosco Ntaganda defected from the Congolese military. Ntaganda had once been the commander of a Rwandan-backed insurgency against the DRC’s government. Throughout the 2000s, Rwanda embraced proxy militants as a counter-balance to DRC-based Hutu militias attempting to overthrow the largely Tutsi government of President Paul Kagame. This policy also became a means of projecting hard power and protecting Rwandan economic interests in a resource-rich area.

Rwanda’s ethnic conflicts — and Kagame’s political and military ambitions — have spilled into the neighboring DRC for the two decades since Rwanda’s devastating anti-Tutsi genocide in 1994, feeding a nearly continuous state of war. Nkunda and his followers were brought into the DRC’s military as part of a peace agreement finalized on March 23, 2009. But that agreement has broken down, and fighting in the eastern Congo, aftershocks of a series of conflicts that have killed nearly 3 million people since 1996, goes on.

This past weekend’s escalation notwithstanding, the latest development in the M23 crisis might be taking place thousands of miles away from its front lines. On October 18, Rwanda was elected to a two-year term on the United Nations Security Council, achieving a long-sought after goal for Kagame’s government (UNSC seats are decided by a General Assembly vote and apportioned by continent; because it was the only African nation to stand for a Security Council seat this time around, Rwanda essentially ran unopposed). The election could hardly have come at a more opportune time for Rwanda. In June, a U.N. Group of Experts report<, prepared by a UNSC-approved panel that investigates possible violations of an arms embargo against the DRC, detailed how elements of the Rwandan government were actively aiding the rebellion in the country’s east.

The group’s next report, scheduled to be released in late November, will be even more damning. A copy of the report leaked online last week, and the document is unsparing and specific in its accusations of Rwandan ties to M23. “Rwandan officials exercise overall command and strategic planning for M23,” the report reads, before stating that the Rwandan defense minister and military chief of staff, along with a high-ranking general and defense secretary, have “provided strategic advice and [overseen] logistic support,” “played an instrumental role in sustaining M23’s political activities,” and “[managed] military ground support to M23.” (see page 9). The executive summary flatly states, “M23’s de facto chain of command includes General Bosco Ntaganda and culminates with the Rwandan minister of defense, General James Kabarabe.” (see page 2).

“It says Rwanda not only backs M23, but is now in command of M23,” said Jason Stearns, a former member of the Group of Experts and author of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, a history of the modern DRC’s conflicts (I spoke to Stearns before the report leaked, but after Reuters reported on the document’s content). “It’s a qualitative difference.”

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Even before Rwanda’s election, the U.S. and the international community had to weigh their commitment to stabilizing the DRC against other interests.

In the months after the June report, many of Rwanda’s closest international partners had an unusually harsh reaction to evidence that the country was still fomenting unrest in the DRC. The E.U.and Great Britain suspended some of their aid to the country. The United States, which will provide $213 million in aid to the Rwandan government next year, was strident in its criticism of Kagame’s government. The U.S. even suspended $200,000 in military aid — a small amount, but hugely symbolic, in light of the close strategic and economic partnership the two governments have forged since the 1994 genocide. Rwanda’s western allies stopped short of pushing for sanctions, or otherwise attempting to diplomatically or economically isolate Kagame’s government. But they still made it clear that Kigali’s behavior would have to change — that it wouldn’t be able to meddle in one of the world’s most desperate political and humanitarian environments without its external relations suffering as a result. There were early signs that Kagame had gotten the message: On July 15, the Rwandan and Congolese governments agreed in principle to the deployment of a multinational force along their border, and there was a “de facto cease-fire” in place until this past weekend. The upcoming GoE report, and the M23 offensive, make any short-term progress seem like a stalling tactic. Rwanda’s involvement in M23 hasn’t decreased since the controversies of the past summer. It’s actually deepened.

With a Security Council seat, the Rwandan government will have direct influence over the bodies empowered to investigate and sanction countries and individuals who stoke conflict in the DRC. “Decisions in the sanctions committee are taken by consensus,” Stearns explained. “This in theory means Rwanda could block a member from being appointed to the GoE. It would in theory at least be able to block certain people from being put forward for sanctions.” With the upcoming GoE report, there is a strong case to be made that members of the Rwandan government should be sanctioned. With a UNSC seat, that government has basically been empowered to police itself, even as the M23 conflict intensifies.

More powerful members of the UNSC — especially donors with economic and political leverage over Rwanda, like Britain or the United States — could always convince the Rwandan government to play a less obstructionist role on the council. But that could jeopardize Rwandan support on issues like Syria or the Iranian nuclear program.

Rwandan UNSC membership could also place the U.S. in a particularly awkward position. According to the U.S. mission to the U.N., the U.S. provides 27% of the $1.4 billion budget (over $378 million) for MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping force in the Eastern Congo and the largest UN peacekeeper deployment in the world. The U.S. has been a crucial supporter of DRC president Joseph Kabila, whose government is the target of the M23 rebellion — Stearns said that if U.S.-financed World Bank loans are taken into account, U.S. support for the DRC totals over $1 billion a year.

But even before Rwanda’s UNSC election, the U.S. and the international community had to weigh their commitment to stabilizing the DRC against other regional interests: for instance, Rwanda is a troop contributor to the U.N. mission in Darfur, and Uganda — another country thenext GoE report accuses of supporting M23 — provides the bulk of the AU peacekeeping force in Somalia, another focus of the UN’s efforts and attention. Despite the humanitarian toll that the M23 conflict has already taken, and despite the resources and diplomatic capital the US has dedicated to the eastern DRC, M23 remains an obscure issue, the sort of matter that policymakers aren’t likely to prioritize ahead of Somalia, Syria or Iran. “You can imagine a situation where the U.S. would look the other way when it comes to decisions or votes in the UNSC, in exchange for Rwanda backing them in other issues of global importance,” said Stearns.

Rwanda could use its position on the UNSC to water down the Sanctions Committee and insulate itself from any further backlash related to M23. “I think they probably feel they can play a spoiler role on the council for UNSC action against themselves and Uganda,” said Aaron Hall, a policy analyst at The Enough Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.

Yet Kagame’s government has already attempted to play a spoiler role in Turtle Bay, even before its term on the council begins. Rwanda has proactively fought off U.N. accusations of meddling in the eastern Congo, even as the evidence against it mounts — and its efforts over the past few months could provide a preview of how it would deal with the M23 issue when it joins the world’s most important multilateral body.

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After the M23 revelations surfaced in June, Rwandan diplomats were keen on discrediting the Group of Experts, and the country’s UN mission repeatedly accused GoE coordinator Steve Hege of harboring an ideological hostility towards Kagame’s government. At that point, Kagame could still have credibly distanced himself from the accusations that were being lobbed at him. In July, it was unclear if support for M23 was a policy that had originated with Kagame and his inner circle, or if it was the work of younger and more nationalistic members of Rwanda’s officer corps. Many outside observers had trouble discerning why Kigali would even want to destabilize the eastern DRC, especially after the 2009 treaty integrated Ntaganda’s Rwanda-supported insurgents into the Congolese armed forces. Early in the conflict, it was plausible that support for M23 was merely a function of divisions within Rwanda’s ruling party and security apparatus, and not a matter of state policy.

But Rwanda reacted aggressively to any accusations of wrongdoing. It has continued its efforts, and is now waging a campaign apparently aimed at getting the Security Council not to adopt the latest, more serious GoE report — the one that accuses Rwanda of commanding the M23 mutiny. The Rwandan government retained Akin Gump, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm, which submitted a report to the DCR Sanctions Committee on October 8 questioning the methodology of the GoE — a report that also specifically targeted Hege, according to Olivier Nduhungirehe, first counselor of Rwanda’s permanent mission to the United Nations.

Nduhungirehe accused the GoE of being systematically biased against his government. “They have an objective: to accuse Rwanda,” he said, before alleging that the GoE had deliberately undermined the Rwandan government’s UNSC bid by submitting a partially finished copy of the report a few days before the UNSC election. “The question was, why did the GoE rush to issue a report which was not ready, just before the election? We know that it was done intentionally. They wanted us not to be elected,” he said.

According to Nduhungirehe, Akin Gump took particular aim at Steve Hege. “The Akin group also had a specific legal opinion on how [Hege] was appointed and why he is thought to be independent,” said Nduhungireh. Given the Rwandan government’s rancor towards Hege, it is doubtful that the Akin document is grounded in a detached appreciation for international law or due process. In our interview, Nduhungirehe was clear that he views Hege as little more than an anti-Rwanda activist. He alleged that Hege is “sympathetic towards the FDLR genocide movement” (a reference to the DRC-based successor to the Hutu power groups responsible for the 1994 bloodletting) and accused the investigator of using the GoE report to promote his own views. “Steve Hege questioned the legitimacy of the Rwandan government, saying they are Ugandan Tutsi elite. These are his own words […] he had the perfect opportunity to implement his own views against Rwanda.”

These are tendentious claims, to say the least. It is true that that Hege wrote this, but it also happens to be blandly factual — Kagame himself was a Tutsi refugee who grew up in Uganda, as are several members of his government. The inflammatory claim that Hege is “sympathetic towards the FDLR genocide movement” derives from a similarly banal point of analysis (from this backgrounder), about the origins of grievances that many Hutu living in the eastern DRC harbor towards the government in Kigali. In essence, the Rwandan government has attempted to use a series of descriptive and uncontroversial statements to discredit a widely-respected investigator whose work hasn’t been questioned by anyone outside of Kigali’s orbit — but is still incredibly convenient for Kagame.

Despite the self-interested nature of the Akin Gump report, the Rwandans are still going about things in a fairly sophisticated way, according to Thomas Susman, the head of the American Bar Association’s government affairs office and an expert on lobbying. Susman, who has past experience working within the UN system, said that matters of law and order are managed on a surprisingly ad-hoc bases at the world body.

“The UN doesn’t have any procedures to follow,” he said. “They don’t have proceedings.” In U.S. court, there are clear protections and processes in place for individuals or countries that have been accused of wrongdoing; within the UN, the legal process is both less official and more labyrinthine and bureaucratic. “It seems to me not at all inappropriate for someone whose interests are being adversely affected by the UN in some way to want to hire someone to cut through the opacity and red tape” said Sussman, noting that Akin Gump is a respected international law firm with a reputation for its investigative skills.

The election of Rwanda to the UNSC is another sign of the country’s savvy and effective diplomacy. In addition to the prestige of a Security Council seat, it’s another way that Kagame’s government can protect its perceived interests while allaying the scrutiny of the international community.

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Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in the eastern DRC is becoming increasingly dire. Christina Corbett, an aid worker with Oxfam’s operations in Goma, the largest city in the eastern DRC, said that the areas that M23 occupies are relatively stable — but that the crisis has created a dangerous security vacuum, leading to the proliferation of local armed groups and a complete lack of certainty or physical security for much of the region’s population.

“It’s kind of this society in suspension,” she said, in an interview conducted before this past week’s escalation. “Everybody’s on the move.” Local militias — including some M23 off-shoots — are taking advantage of the area’s instability by charging illegal taxes, and impressing locals into forced labor gangs or paramilitary service. “It’s just dealing with so many unknowns,” she said. “M23 — what are they going to do next? Will there be a big push? They’re quite stable where they are now [the M23’s front lines were about 10 KM from Goma’s largest refugee camp]. They’ve got their own administration… Many, many other armed groups have emerged. There are ethnic dimensions. In humanitarian terms, it’s precarious. People can’t sustain an existence in this kind of environment.”

Over 200,000 people have been displaced since the M23 crisis began, and according to Oxfam, another 50,000 have fled their homes and refugee camps since this weekend’s escalation began. The eastern DRC’s problems would hardly be solved if the rebellion were to immediately end, as a weak Congolese state, readily-available arms, ethnic antagonism and the vagaries of regional politics have created an environment of seemingly-intractable conflict. Yet there is still a tangible humanitarian dimension to Rwanda’s continued policy of destabilizing its eastern neighbor. Rwanda’s UNSC election could cause problems for the U.S. and others. But the civilian victims of the M23 crisis might suffer the brunt of the consequences.

The Atlantic