The deployment of the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade and the expulsion of the M23 rebel group have led many to herald a new era of peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province. Yet much of the province remains unsafe, many humanitarian needs are not being met, and stability over the long-term is far from guaranteed.
A multitude of armed groups are still active, and clashes between them and UN and Congolese forces have led to displacement and human rights violations. The UN’s much-touted “Islands of Stability” concept has also been poorly implemented, alienating many humanitarian actors. All of this is taking place in a difficult humanitarian context, with substantial funding shortfalls, growing pressure for the return of displaced people, and inadequate support for those who have gone home. A clear-eyed approach to North Kivu will be needed for the international community to tackle these challenges and preserve its hard-won gains.
After a Rwandan-backed rebel group, the M23, captured the capital of North Kivu in November of 2012, the UN Security Council authorized a first-ever UN brigade with the authority to “shoot first” and neutralize armed groups. In November 2013, troops from this brigade and the Congolese army defeated the M23. And yet almost eight months later, M23 fighters based in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda have yet to be demobilized, myriad other rebel groups remain active in
North Kivu, and a regional peace plan negotiated in early 2013 still has not been fully implemented. Joint operations between the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) and the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) against the remaining armed groups have led to ongoing displacement and human rights violations. Over 500 humanitarian agencies are operating in North Kivu. But significant funding constraints as well as complex displacement patterns – most internally displaced people (IDPs) live with host families and are displaced multiple times – have made it difficult to effectively respond to the enormous needs.
One of the reasons for the weak humanitarian response is the lack of analysis of what the needs are and the most appropriate way to respond. This lack of analysis has extended to host families, and the relationship between IDPs and hosts. As in other parts of the DRC, the priority has been on short-term, life-saving assistance that focuses on the distribution of food and non-food items, as well as emergency health and sanitation. In North Kivu, there is a clear sense of déjà vu around discussions of IDP returns. Over the past decade, IDPs have been encouraged to return at different stages, only to be displaced again when other armed groups took control of the area. In 2009, some IDP camps around Goma were forcibly closed. To make sure the rights of IDPs are respected this time around, the Humanitarian Country Team, MONUSCO, and the Great Lakes special envoys must maintain the position that all refugee and IDP returns must be voluntary and based on international law.
Regardless of motivation, IDPs are returning and are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. Many returnees lack shelter, food, and a means to support themselves. RI visited a community in Rutshuru and was told by an NGO working there that the government had demanded that they stop providing humanitarian assistance in order to focus on development programs. However, this is premature. Returnees have humanitarian needs, especially as the government in many areas is still failing to provide basic services.
- Donors should increase funding for humanitarian programs in North Kivu while simultaneously funding transition and development programs.
- The Humanitarian Country Team, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONSUCO), and the Great Lakes special envoys must maintain the position that all refugee and IDP returns must be voluntary and based on international law.
- No further Islands of Stability should be established and the International Security and Stabilization Support Strategy should be the framework that guides all stabilization activities.
- MONUSCO should play a more proactive role in protecting civilians from abuses by the Congolese army (FARDC) during joint operations, and the Force Commander should encourage MONUSCO troops on the ground to pressure FARDC offenders to halt actions that violate international humanitarian and human rights law.
- A civilian risk mitigation advisor should be placed in the Force Commander’s office to strengthen the contingency planning process.
Michelle Brown and Michael Boyce assessed humanitarian and protection efforts in North Kivu Province in May 2014.