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Congo Kinshasa RPCV Learned Dees testifies before Congress on the Democratic Republic of Congo Peace Accords: One Year Later
Congo Kinshasa RPCV Learned Dees testifies before Congress on the Democratic Republic of Congo Peace Accords: One Year Later
Committee on International Relations
Subcommittee on Africa
The Democratic Republic of Congo Peace Accords: One Year Later.
Senior Program Officer for Africa, National Endowment for Democracy
July 22, 2004
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Sub-Committee:
I welcome the opportunity to be here to testify at today’s hearing on The Democratic Republic of Congo Peace Accords: One Year Later. I would also like to thank you Chairman Royce and also you Congressman Payne and all of the members of the Committee for holding today’s timely hearing and for your concern about the crisis in the Congo. I would also like to thank you both for your support for the National Endowment for Democracy over the years.
As the members of the panel are aware, the transition in the Democratic Republic of Congo is at a crossroads. Fighting in Bukavu in May and June of this year provided proof that the transition, in the words of a recent International Crisis Group briefing, is not synonymous with peace. Indeed, the virus of violence is still prevalent in Eastern Congo, especially in Ituri, where despite the efforts of a beefed up presence of UN peace keepers with an expanded mandate, militias continue to kill at will, and in North Kivu, panic about a return to war has led to an ongoing mass evacuation of Goma.
The crisis in Congo is exacerbated by a long list of well known problems, both internal and external. Internally, Congolese spoilers -- politicians and their entourages who profit from a lack of progress in the transition -- continue to find ways to block the process, including surreptitious arming of militias. In many ways, the zone of conflict in the Kivu regions is a proxy fight which serves to protect the interests of those who benefit from the status quo. Thus the majority of the proliferating militias, more than two dozen in the east of the country at last count, have no political agenda, but continue to prey on innocent civilians and fight for control of the vast supply of natural resources in the hinterland of Congo. This remains a significant catalyst for violence.
Externally, neighboring countries, Uganda and Rwanda, continue to sponsor the renegade forces within Congo which are at the root of much of the violence. A draft report by a UN appointed group of experts, leaked last week, asserted that Rwanda actively recruited, trained and sheltered the renegade soldiers who staged last month’s violent take over of Bukavu. According to the report, Rwanda provided both a rear base for Congolese militias, and exerts command and control over some of the same forces. One of the leaders of the take-over of Bukavu, Jules Mutebutsi, and many of his troops, have been granted refugee status in Rwanda, and are protected by Rwandan troops. Laurent Nkunda, another one of the leaders of the recent Bukavu violence, is still on the loose in North Kivu, and threatening to wreak havoc there.
In response to the takeover of Bukavu and the military impotency of both the UN peacekeepers and the Congolese national army, President Joseph Kabila sent 10,000 troops to the east of the country. The resulting tensions with neighboring Rwanda raised concerns that a return to all out war was imminent. Critical diplomacy by the US government and by the Africa Union helped lower the temperature, but did not extinguish the flame that ignited the fire.
The latest conflict has exposed major weaknesses in the transition and raised doubts about its viability. The resulting crisis has also had political ramifications across the country and may have been a factor in the alleged coup attempt last month in Kinshasa. Only decisive action combining domestic and international pressure targeting those blocking the process or promoting conflict can save the transition and avert war.
Arriving at the Crossroad: The Transition One Year Later
I would like to focus my comments on how we arrived at this crossroad and what we can do to salvage the transition. In assessing the trajectory of the progress of the peace process in the last 12 months, it is worthwhile remembering a bit of relevant history. Fourteen years have passed since the late President Mobutu Sese Seko’s famous speech in which he acknowledged that the one-party system had been a failure and henceforth he would begin a transition to democracy.
Today, a decade and a half later, the latest chapter in the Congo’s transition without end could rightfully be called a dream deferred. The country’s already fragile societal and political fabric has been repeatedly shredded by a deadly cycle of political crises, ethnic conflicts, humanitarian disasters and war. Without going into the well-known details it is worth remembering that the conflict in the Congo has led, directly and indirectly, to the deaths of more than an estimated 3.5 million people, the displacement of millions more and the outright destitution of the majority of the nation’s 60 million people. Bluntly speaking, the situation in Congo currently remains calamitous and is, indeed, the world’s worst long-term humanitarian disaster.
It is in this context that the breakthrough represented by last year’s peace agreement offered both a rationale and a roadmap for optimism. The agreement sought to bring together the armed belligerents, the non-armed opposition, and civil society, in order to create a transitional arrangement leading to elections within 36 months. It is worth noting that accord was signed as a result of intensive internal pressure from ordinary Congolese citizens fed up with war, and consistent pressure from the international community, led by South Africa the African Union, and the United States anxious to put an end to a conflict known as Africa’s first World War.
Last year, the United Nations Security Council strengthened the mandate for the Military Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC). It increased the size of the force to 10,800 soldiers and included a provision allowing for the unambiguous use of force in fulfilling its mandate.
The complex agreement, a power sharing arrangement in which a president would share power with four vice presidents, was predicated on the cooperation and good will of all the actors. Indeed, the success or failure of the accord depends largely on getting those responsible for war to reinvent themselves as patrons of peace. Given this stark irony, there was considerable skepticism about whether, in fact, the peace accord was workable.
Early Signs of Progress
Despite the doubt, one year later we can say that substantive progress has been made. Indeed, a transitional constitution was signed into law, a transitional government sworn in, and a transitional parliament with more than 500 members was has begun promulgating legislation to enable the transition, and an electoral commission began laying the groundwork for elections.
In Kinshasa, a vibrant, independent media is playing an important watchdog role and there are almost as many media outlets: radio, television and newspapers as there are opinions. Indeed the capital, Kinshasa, is a vibrant political city filled with the normal intrigue one would expect in a country which is now in its 14th year of political transition.
In the interior, local governors and military commanders were named and assumed their duties, often after a protracted series of give and take negotiations. The moves have, in many cases, extended the authority of the Congolese state to areas where it had been absent for the better part of the last decade, although in other areas nominations have only solidified a status quo hostile to reunification and political change.
Another positive change has been the re-establishment of key economic and transportation links severed because of the war. Air traffic now links all the major cities of the country, with private companies now plying many of the routes. River traffic along the Congo river reconnected Kisangani with the capital Kinshasa and just this month the vital rail connection between Kindu, one of the country’s most isolated regional capitals, and Lubumbashi was re-established.
Congolese civil society has exerted internal pressure on issues ranging from advocacy on election legislation, initiating discussion on strategies to end impunity for human rights abuses (now supported by promises of prosecution by the International Criminal Court), peace education, and insuring the free flow of information via a vibrant independent media. Civil society has played a key role in keeping politicians aware of the desire for peace and provided a mass-based momentum for moving the transition forward.
External pressure, both bilateral and multilateral, has also contributed to progress. The two main international institutional levers of pressure have been the Comite International d’Accompagnement de la Transition (CIAT) which includes representatives of all the member countries of the security council, Belgium, South Africa, Zambia, and Angola and the European Union has used the carrot and stick approach to encourage progress, and the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), which, most successfully, has made progress in dampening down the levels of violence in Ituri province where violence has directly to led to more deaths than anywhere in the conflict.
This tangible progress, especially late last year, created a sense of momentum crucial to overcoming inertia and pessimism.
The Genesis of a Crisis
But despite the progress the most recent news is bad. The recent events in Bukavu, which were preceded earlier in the year by multiple discoveries of arms caches, shoot-outs by competing regiments of soldiers, brazen arms smuggling and overt threats of violence, have left the impression that not only was war imminent, but that preventative action would at best be pro-forma. In the same way political progress in Kinshasa created momentum for peace, ignoring violence and rising political tensions in the east of Congo has led to a fatalistic climate of pessimism and deja vu. The same situation is repeating itself today in Goma. Local officials, civilian and military are threatening members of civil society, soldiers are infiltrating the city, and the free flow of arms continues in the region and in the city.
There has been, I think, inordinate focus on the technical mechanisms of the transition, particularly the elections, at the expense of solving the crisis of violence in the east. While extensive attention of the Kinshasa-based international community has been paid to the details and speed of the parliament’s enabling legislation about the transition, equal amounts of time and political capital have not been spent on stopping the rampant arms smuggling, stopping recruitment and training of militias in North Kivu and South Kivu, and ways to jump start a moribund demobilization program. The strategy seems to have been that peace in the east of Congo would come from political progress in the west. Focus on elections seems to have become an end rather than a means to an end.
Another key link in the chain of crises affecting the Congo’s transition is the woefully inadequate crisis performance of MONUC. The revamped and reinforced contingent of peace keepers has been slow and indecisive. Nowhere is this more evident than in its performance before and during the crisis in Bukavu. Repeated confusion over the group’s mandate and how aggressively to enforce it has only solidified the perception in Congo that MONUC is at best a paper tiger, at worst a Trojan Horse. As the instrument intended to enforce the will of the international community, MONUC has been woefully inadequate.
To be fair, MONUC is undermanned at its currently mandated level of 10,800 soldiers, but it could bolster its efficiency by developing and implementing, in collaboration with the international community and the Congolese Transitional Government, a political strategy aimed at sorting out the problems of violence in the Kivus. In that context enforcement of its already robust mandate to lead the demobilization process, monitor the movement of armed groups in North and South Kivu, track the movement of weapons, and to inspect and seize any illegal weapons which contravene UN resolution 1493 would thus be an extension of a comprehensive plan of not only what could be done, but a strategy of how to do it.
The legacy of seven years of war in Congo has left the Congo on the verge of collapse. Only a strong desire for peace and a strong sense of Congolese national identity have prevented moves toward secession. Yet, despite these realities, ethnic tensions are at an all time high, and xenophobia directed, especially, though not exclusively, at the Hutu and Tutsi communities present a particular challenge. These issues risk being exploited by politicians during any future electoral period, as well as a pretext for outside intervention by Congo’s neighbors.
Congo is also host to thousands of Rwandan soldiers and militia members responsible of genocide. Although they have coalesced into a group which now includes members not culpable for genocide, they present a particular challenge for the international community which bears a good deal of responsibility for their presences in Congo. The Rwandan government regards them alternately as perpetrators of genocide, mortal enemies seeking to reverse the current political order in Rwanda, and as a convenient pretext for involvement in Congolese internal affairs. Thus these soldiers are seen by the government of Rwanda as a foil and a foe, and by the Kinshasa government as an occasional ally. It is ordinary Congolese, however, who are the foremost victims of these marauding militiamen.
NED Support for Civil Society
Congo is known for its vibrant civil society, which encompasses NGOs, religious institutions, trade unions and independent media. In a country where many of the prominent politicians are associated with the era of independence, NGOs in particular have proven to be an important training ground and reservoir for emerging political leadership. This role was explicitly acknowledged when civil society was designated as an equal partner in the peace talks and a quota of seats in the government was actually set aside for their representatives. As a result, at least five key transitional institutions including the election commission, the media oversight commission, the upper and lower house of parliament, and the truth and reconciliation commission are all headed by well-known members of Congo’s long established and well organized civil society.
For many years now, NED has been one of the foremost international donors supporting Congo's democracy movement, and the DRC remains NED's number one priority in Africa. NED's first grant was made to a human rights group, La Voix des Sans Voix, in 1991. Last year NED made 38 new direct grants to Congolese groups concerned with human rights, free press, democracy education, and conflict resolution. The American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS) also received a NED grant to help revitalize Congo's trade union movement. In fact, NED supported the NGO efforts of three of the five civil society leaders named to head key transitional institutions.
Civil society NGOs continue to play a major role across the country. Often, they represent local initiative in the face of crisis. Other times they have become the leading agents of social change and development. In eastern Congo, where the devastation has been the worst, civil society is the leading voice for peace and non violence. In Kisangani, a coalition of human rights organizations, many of which are NED grantees, including Groupe Lotus, Les Amis de Nelson Mandela, Groupe Lufalanga, Justice et Liberation, and several others, have joined forces to resist ethnic scapegoating and have preserved a climate of ethnic tolerance in the face of political volatility. In Butembo, civil society members, led by local businessmen, intellectuals, NGO leaders and religious figures have negotiated local ceasefires, and even taxed themselves to raise enough money to build a university, construct a dam to provide electricity to the city, build a teaching hospital and numerous other major projects in the face of war. These efforts provide both an example of the leadership and vision which civil society is capable of providing in Congo.
Supporting such efforts can never completely replace the efforts of a state, but the cost benefit ratio suggests that these efforts are well worth the investment. Thus, whether negotiating a ceasefire, working to resolve ethnic conflict, reporting human rights violations, or improving the lives of their fellow citizens, Congolese civil society groups are likely to continue to play a vital role in strengthening the demand for peace and working to make elections possible.
In conclusion it is clear that despite progress towards peace, that a return to war, with all the political and humanitarian consequences, is quite likely. Identifying and coercing cooperation from all the negative forces trying to block or stall the transition is critical in putting the transition back on track. Elections can only happen if this important groundwork is done, and even then sticking to the timetable will require a cohesive and well planned strategy to overcome the logistical challenges in organizing elections. Thus, a focus on stopping violence by isolating the perpetrators and their sponsors as well as assisting the institutions of the transition will lead to an end of Congo’s perpetual transition and bring it back from the brink.
Taking of my hat as a staff member of the National Endowment for Democracy, which does not make policy recommendations and putting on my hat as a long-term watcher of events in Congo, I would like to conclude by offering some personal recommendations.
The Crisis at Hand: Recommendations
Treat the current situation in Congo as a crisis and respond accordingly. The situation in the Darfur region of Sudan has helped focus attention on an immediate crisis and longer term issues involving the sincerity of all actors in the search for peace. The situation in eastern Congo in general and in Goma specifically threatens to produce a Darfur-like crisis with similar humanitarian and political implications.
Use the situation in Goma as a test case for crisis management. Publicly identify the destabilizing forces in Goma by name, apply pressure to encourage their cooperation, and clearly signal the will of the international community to apply appropriate sanctions against individuals (including the potential for prosecution of the International Criminal Court) and countries which promote or support armed factions or conflict. This formula can be applied generally to all of the negative actors within Congo as well governments outside of Congo, especially Rwanda and Uganda.
Use the upcoming discussion at the Security Council on the renewal of MONUC’s mandate to examine the mission and performance of MONUC. Clarify questions about when and how MONUC can intervene. Provide additional resources, both human and logistical to implement the provision on weapons monitoring and seizure, as a priority. Compel MONUC’s leadership to develop, in collaboration with the transitional government of DRC, a strategy for pacifying eastern Congo.
Use the collaborative link of USG direct military cooperation with Uganda and Rwanda as a direct lever to influence their behavior in Congo. Continued cooperation should be explicitly and publicly linked with cooperation from both countries in stopping direct and indirect support for armed factions and individuals in the Congo. Lack of cooperation should result in a termination of the bi-lateral cooperation agreement.
As part of a strategy for the east of the Congo, the international community should focus on two key issues: general demobilization and identification, and repatriation of the FDLR forces in Congo. By encouraging Rwanda to create an environment conducive to their return, identify those FDLR forces willing to return and isolate those unwilling to return.
Continue to encourage the transitional institutions to efficiently complete their tasks. Encourage expeditious passage of legislation on elections, amnesty and nationality to clear the way for movement toward meeting the goal of elections. Identify and pressure spoilers, or other negative forces who may be working against the aims of the transition. Be willing to make an explicit link between culpability, amnesty and cooperation against individuals who block the process.
Be willing to consider allowing the US military to play a leading role in reforming and training the Congolese Army.
Expand support for local civil society efforts to initiate and sustain crucial interventions promoting peace, putting an end to impunity, reducing ethnic tensions, and preparing the Congolese people for their first democratic elections in four decades.
When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:
This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?
Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."
In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.
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