Western guilt over the 1994 Rwandan genocide solidified U.S. support for Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame. This came to an abrupt end this June when a United Nations report accused Rwandan officials of aiding rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The United States demonstrated the consequences of defying Security Council resolutions that prohibit outside intervention by cutting foreign military financing appropriations to Rwanda. This decision encouraged the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany to cut assistance as well. By cutting off Kigali, the international community is finally addressing cross-border meddling that facilitates the ongoing violence in the African Great Lakes region.
The DRC has had a long history of conflict since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960. During the last two decades, most of the fighting has occurred in the eastern part of the country along the border with Rwanda and Uganda. The absence of an effective central authority in the eastern DRC exacerbates issues of citizenship, land rights and ethnicity.
The roots of the current crisis in the DRC date back to the Rwandan genocide. In 1994, Paul Kagame led the Rwandan Patriot Front (RPF) against Hutu genocidaires to end the mass killing of Tutsis. The current rebel leader responsible for wreaking havoc in the eastern DRC, General Bosco Ntaganda, fought as a member of the RPF under Kagame. After the overthrow of the Hutu-led Rwandan Government, Ntaganda followed the spillover conflict from the genocide across the Rwandan border into the DRC and fought for both rebel and national armies throughout the mid-90s.
In 2006, the International Criminal Court (ICC) formally indicted Ntaganda for allegedly using child soldiers during Africa’s world war (1998-2003). Later, the ICC amended the indictment with additional charges of rape, murder, persecution based on ethnic grounds and the deliberate targeting of civilians. Ntaganda’s blood-stained résumé earned him the nickname “the Terminator” among DRC civilians.
At the time of the ICC indictment, Ntaganda became a General in the Congolese regular armed forces, the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC). This position was brokered through a negotiation between the Congolese government and Ntaganda’s militant National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), whose mission was to protect Tutsi communities in eastern DRC from Hutu militias. It has been suggested that the Rwandan military created and backed the CNDP as a proxy rebel group to maintain influence in the mineral-rich DRC.
On March 23, 2012, the CNDP signed an agreement with the Congolese government that established the group as a strictly political organization and integrated its forces into the FARDC. In April, increasing pressure from the international community pushed DRC President Joseph Kabila to call for the arrest of General Bosco Ntaganda for war crimes. The former CNDP troops mutinied and formed March 23 Movement (M23), led by General Bosco Ntaganda. M23 has since embarked on a campaign to spread fear and violence through the eastern DRC. The violence has caused a serious refugee crisis in neighboring Uganda, where the influx of over 150,000 refugees has put pressure on social services and facilities.
The June 2012 United Nations report claimed Rwandan officials have been providing fighters, weapons, supplies, finances and logistical advice to M23 in the eastern DRC. Based on the information presented, the current conflict in the eastern DRC focuses on key actors including: the Congolese Government, M23 and external support from the Rwandan Government. It is important to understand that while the current conflict can be conceptualized through these actors, it is an extension of the ongoing conflict within the region that has cost several million lives over the past two decades.
For years the UN has tried to mitigate violence in the DRC. The largest UN peacekeeping force, MONUC, has been stationed in the eastern DRC since 1999. The June UN report and the decision made by the international community to cut military funding to Rwanda is good start, but this cannot be the only action taken to address violence in the African Great Lakes region.
M23 is only one rebel group contributing to violence in the DRC. The group and its high-profile leader are undoubtedly responsible for inflicting pain and suffering upon individuals in the most grotesque manners and need to be stopped. However, the international community must understand that this is only one group and there are other groups in the DRC capable of the same atrocities.
In addition to condemning Rwanda’s support for militant groups in the DRC, the international community must continue to address conflicts both politically and apolitically. Politically, they must encourage a stronger relationship between the DRC and Rwanda. Cutting military funding to Rwanda sent a clear message that the international community will no longer allow Rwanda to support rebels and destabilize the region. It will be harder to help re-establish trust between the two countries, but it is necessary. President Kabila must take responsibility for the DRC and President Kagame cannot keep meddling in its affairs.
Apolitically, the international community must continue to provide monetary support to neighboring countries experiencing the burden of refugee situations. Ensuring the safety of civilian populations at risk is of the utmost importance. Countries experiencing large-scale refugee situations do not have the resources to provide adequate facilities and services on their own. Providing aid to organizations like the UNHCR would help fund important programs that seek to protect individuals fleeing the conflict.
For years, the international community shielded Rwanda from criticism out of guilt from failing to act during the 1994 genocide. Ignoring Rwanda’s invasion of the DRC in 1996 and 1998 does not reflect what the world should have learned in April 1994. Allowing Rwanda to support rebel groups like the CNDP fails to prove the international community has done anything to alleviate conflict. Cutting funding to Kigali is a policy change in the right direction.