This month, one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s longest-running conflicts may finally reach an inflection point. After months of political posturing, it appears that the international community will now launch a military offensive against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The Congolese armed forces (FARDC) will be expected to lead the way, supported by the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUSCO).
The FDLR, formed by Rwandan militants implicated in the 1994 genocide, were given a January 2nd deadline to lay down their arms by African and Western leaders. While a few hundred FDLR fighters have surrendered in recent months, a group of international envoys last week deemed this insufficient. They declared that “MONUSCO and its [Force Intervention Brigade] must now engage in counter-FDLR operations, as directed by its leadership and in support of the DRC government, in fulfillment of their mandate to neutralize all armed groups.”
Such operations carry great risks for civilians caught in the crossfire. Like many armed groups in the eastern DRC, the FDLR do not spend their time in barracks or military encampments; instead, they are embedded in local communities. And in the process of going after their fighters, MONUSCO and the FARDC could cause enormous collateral damage. During a previous offensive against the FDLR in 2009, for example, just 1,061 FDLR members were disarmed but roughly 900,000 people were forced from their homes and 1,400 civilians were killed.
Now is the time for MONUSCO and the FARDC to recall the terrible lessons of the past and show that they can do better. It’s also the time for humanitarians and local authorities to prepare their response and ensure that fleeing civilians can find refuge.
First, MONUSCO – and especially its Force Intervention Brigade – must implement the protection of civilians contingency plan which it drafted in preparation for the FDLR offensive. This plan, created in consultation with humanitarians, could help MONUSCO avoid the mistakes of past campaigns. But it won’t do any good if troops on the ground don’t follow it.
Second, MONUSCO must give humanitarian agencies the time, information, and space to assist people in need. MONUSCO is understandably keen to keep its military plans confidential, but it also has a duty to give its UN partners – like the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – the information they need to protect and assist victims. During previous offensives, humanitarians have accused MONUSCO of withholding information that, if shared, could have saved lives. This must not be repeated.
Third, aid providers, donors, and the Congolese authorities must anticipate a rise in displacement and prepare for it. In all likelihood, thousands of people will need shelter, food, water, and healthcare. Many will seek refuge with family and friends in communities that are already extremely poor. But others will flood into the camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) that dot the eastern DRC – camps that Congolese officials are eager to shut down. These camps should be kept open for as long as they are needed, and new arrivals must not be turned away.
Only time will tell if this new, aggressive approach can finally remove the FDLR from the field. But whatever the end result, innocent Congolese will surely suffer along the way. We must do all we can to limit and ease that suffering.
Photo: Displaced people gather outside their shelter in a camp near Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.