DR Congo: Civilian Cost of Military Operation is Unacceptable

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DR Congo: Civilian Cost of Military Operation is Unacceptable

Enhanced protection urgently needed due to disastrous toll on civilian populations

GOMA - The Congolese government's military operation in
eastern Congo, Kimia II, backed by United Nations peacekeepers and
aimed at neutralizing the threat from a Rwandan Hutu militia group, the
Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), has resulted in
an unacceptable cost for the civilian population, said 84 humanitarian
and human rights groups in the Congo Advocacy Coalition today.

The coalition urged diplomats and UN officials, who are due to meet
in Washington, DC, this week to discuss the situation in eastern Congo
and the wider region, to take immediate steps to increase protection
for civilians.

"The human rights and humanitarian consequences of the current
military operation are simply disastrous," said Marcel Stoessel of
Oxfam. "UN peacekeepers, who have a mandate to protect civilians,
urgently need to work with government forces to make sure civilians get
the protection they need or discontinue their support."

Since the start of military operations against the FDLR militia in
January 2009, more than 1,000 civilians have been killed, 7,000 women
and girls have been raped, and over 6,000 homes have been burned down
in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu. Nearly 900,000 people
have been forced to flee their homes and live in desperate conditions
with host families, in forest areas, or in squalid displacement camps
with limited access to food and medicine.

Satellite imagery
collected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science
(AAAS) provides visual confirmation of the widespread destruction of
homes and villages. In Busurungi, one of the main towns in the
Walualoanda area (North Kivu) and the surrounding 100 square
kilometers, AAAS estimates that 1,494 homes and structures have been
destroyed, some as recently as September, amounting to an estimated 80%
destruction rate.

Many of the killings have been carried out by the FDLR militia who are deliberately targeting civilians
to punish them for their government's decision to launch military
operations against the group. Congolese government soldiers have also
targeted civilians through killings and widespread rape, looting,
forced labor, and arbitrary arrests.

In a bleak calculation by the coalition, for every rebel combatant disarmed during the operation,

  • one civilian has been killed,
  • seven women and girls have been raped,
  • six houses burned and destroyed, and
  • 900,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.

Sexual violence has grown even more brutal in areas affected by the
Kimia II operation. "We're seeing more cases of mutilation, extreme
violence, and torture in sexual violence cases against women and girls,
and many more of the victims are children," said Immaculée Birhaheka of
Promotion et Appui aux Initiatives Féminines (PAIF).

Some previously displaced people in the Kivus have returned home to areas that have become relatively secure. But the ongoing military operations have caused new displacement of civilians
in Masisi, Rutshuru, Lubero, Walikale, Kabare, Kalehe, Walungu,
Shabunda, and Uvira territories of North and South Kivu, as well as in
southern Maniema and northern Katanga provinces. Many civilians who
have recently left displacement camps around Goma and elsewhere have
moved on to secondary displacement sites since they fear returning home.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, has backed the
Congolese army in the Kimia II operation since March, following a joint
Rwandan and Congolese military operation against the FDLR militias,
some of whose leaders participated in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
According to UN statistics, 1,071 FDLR combatants have given up their
arms and been repatriated to Rwanda since January. The group's
estimated strength before military operations began was 6,000 to 7,000
combatants. Many reports indicate that the FDLR has recruited new
combatants to replace some of those who have been repatriated.

UN peacekeepers provide significant backing for the Kimia II
operation, including tactical expertise, transport and aviation
support, as well as food rations, fuel, and medical support to
Congolese army soldiers, at an estimated cost of well over US$6
million. Despite such support, UN peacekeepers have not used
their leverage to get the government to remove commanders with known
track records of human rights abuses from participating in the
operations
.

"With an investment this big, the UN has clout and should not remain
silent when abuses occur," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior
researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The UN needs to make it clear that
if the Congolese government wants its continued military support, the
army should remove abusive soldiers from command positions and its
soldiers should stop attacking civilians."

Reprisal attacks against unarmed populations by the FDLR
militia have made the task of protecting civilians increasingly
complicated
for the Congolese government and UN peacekeepers.
Yet the 3,000 additional UN peacekeepers authorized by the UN Security
Council in November 2008 are only just arriving in eastern Congo, and
the helicopters and intelligence support requested by UN officials have
still not materialized.

The coalition said that disarming the FDLR militia should remain a
top priority for the Congolese government and UN peacekeepers, but that
they need to act urgently to improve protection of civilians. The
coalition urged diplomats and UN officials meeting in Washington, DC,
at the Great Lakes Contact Group, to:

  1. Press for a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach toward disarming the FDLR militia
    that emphasizes protecting civilians. This would include taking into
    custody and opening judicial proceedings against those wanted for
    genocide and other more recent serious crimes, including the FDLR
    leadership based in Europe and elsewhere, and reforming the disarmament
    and demobilization program, among other measures.
  2. Push
    for accountability to ensure that those responsible for serious human
    rights abuses, including sexual violence, are prosecuted

    regardless of rank. Press the UN to make its support conditional on
    effective action by military authorities to curb abuses against
    civilians.
  3. Press the Congolese government to develop and put into effect an action plan to prevent and end the recruitment of children
    into the Congolese army and other armed groups, and insist that
    commanders cooperate with child protection specialists screening troops
    for children among their ranks.
  4. Support comprehensive military reforms by the Congolese government, with strict controls on how donor funds are used.
  5. Ensure that UN peacekeepers have the resources urgently needed to carry out their mandate to protect civilians.

For more of the work of the Congo Advocacy Coalition, please visit the following:

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Oxfam International is a confederation of 13 like-minded organizations working together and with partners and allies around the world to bring about lasting change. Oxfam works directly with communities and that seeks to influence the powerful to ensure that poor people can improve their lives and livelihoods and have a say in decisions that affect them.

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