D.R. Congo: Groups Fear for Civilian Safety

UN Humanitarian Envoy Must Make Civilian Protection Top Priority

A coalition of 100 humanitarian and human rights organizations today called on John Holmes, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, to insist that protecting civilians be a top priority of the joint Congolese and Rwandan military operation in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Holmes is due to arrive in Goma, the North Kivu capital, on February 7, 2009.

In a public letter to Holmes, the Congo Advocacy Coalition expressed alarm that the joint military operation has to date contributed to the flight of thousands of people from their homes in anticipation of violence, adding to the 1.2 million already displaced in earlier waves of fighting. The coalition further raised concerns about reprisal killings and the use of civilians as human shields by the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), as well as reports of rape and looting by all sides.

“Congolese civilians are always targeted when there are military operations and their fears of being killed, raped, or looted are very real,” said Juliette Prodhan of Oxfam. “The Congolese and Rwandan forces and UN peacekeepers should do all that they can to ensure that civilians are protected during the joint operations and are not once again the targets.”

Intensified Military Action

On January 20, 2009, the Congolese and Rwandan governments began a joint military operation against the FDLR, an armed group based in eastern Congo, some of whose leaders are wanted on charges of genocide. While there have only been a few skirmishes so far, there is widespread anticipation that the fighting could intensify and spread in the coming days and weeks.

The coalition warned against a repeat of the unimaginable brutality suffered by Congolese civilians in Haut-Uele territory in northeastern Congo following the launch of a joint Ugandan and Congolese military operation to disarm the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group based in Congo. More than 700 people were massacred by the rebels in less than one month. Minimal protection measures had been put in place to protect those at risk and to halt the killings.

A Central Role For the UN

The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, has a strong mandate to protect civilians but has been left out of military planning in both joint operations, in the Kivus and Haut-Uele. It is also still awaiting 3,000 reinforcements authorized almost three months ago. In its letter, the Congo Advocacy Coalition urged Holmes to insist that the peacekeeping mission be given a central role in civilian protection and relief in planning all military operations and that the mission has the resources it needs, as mandated by the UN Security Council, in order to effectively protect civilians and ensure humanitarian access.

The coalition also called on Holmes to urge parties to resume the political process needed to address the underlying issues driving the Congo conflict, such as exploitation of mineral wealth, lack of justice, and representation of minorities.

“All of the armed groups need to disarm,” said Kubuya Muhangi, the president of CRONGD-North Kivu. “People in eastern Congo desperately want to go back to their homes and to be able to stay there without fear of having to run again.”

For more information, please contact:

  • In Kinshasha, for Oxfam, Juliette Prodhan (English): +243-81-700-7135
  • In Kinshasha, for Oxfam, Ellie Kemp (English, French): +243-81-348-9309
  • In Goma, for CRONGD, Kubuya Muhangi (French, Swahili): +243-99 861 0651
  • In Goma, for ENOUGH Project, Rebecca Feeley (English): +243-81-674-0222
  • In Washington, DC, for Enough PROJECT, Colin Thomas-Jensen (English): +1-202-682-6136