KINSHASA/KIGALI, 12 August 2009 (IRIN) – The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will continue military operations against Rwandan militias operating in the eastern provinces until they are dislodged from Congolese soil, says a minister.
“We shall review the achievements of the operations in November; before that, we shall continue pursuing the FDLR [rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda],” foreign minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba, said.
Even then, the military operations would not be suspended until all the militias were dislodged from Congolese soil, he told IRIN.
The militias and the national army, the FARDC [Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo], are blamed for massive human-rights abuses in North and South Kivu, including widespread rape and sexual violence.
At least 200,000 cases of sexual violence have been recorded in eastern DRC since 1996, according to the UN. Across the country, an estimated 2.1 million people have been displaced by conflict, including about 538,880 in South Kivu Province and 1,130,000 in North Kivu.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), sexual and gender-based violence cases recorded in South Kivu increased by 30 percent in 2009 compared with 2008.
In territories such as Shabunda, west of the South Kivu capital, Bukavu, however, 80 percent of rapes have reportedly been committed by the Congolese military.
“Crime against humanity”
Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, on a visit to the eastern town of Goma on 11 August, described widespread sexual violence against women in the DRC as “a crime against humanity”. She pledged US$17 million to combat the scourge.
|Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, described widespread sexual violence against women in the DRC as “a crime against humanity” (file photo)|
“The US condemns the perpetrators of sexual violence, and all those who abet such violence and permit impunity to continue,” Clinton said. “These individuals are guilty of crimes against humanity. These individuals harm not only individuals, families, villages and regions, but shred the very fabric that weaves us together as human beings.”
Asked what should be done, she told UN Radio Okapi: “It is going to take NGOs and civil society. It has to start with making sure that the military of the DRC does not engage in any sexual and gender-based violence, and there has to be no impunity for anyone who does [and] an effort to cut off the funding for the militias and resolve the underlying political tensions in the east.”
Before Clinton’s visit, a coalition of 88 humanitarian and human rights organizations urged her to press the government and UN peacekeepers to offer more protection to civilians.
“Killings and brutal sexual violence against women, girls and also men have massively increased in eastern [DRC] since the start of military operations in January 2009,” said the Congo Advocacy Coalition, which includes international and national organizations.
The FDLR is one of the most active groups in eastern DRC. The FARDC is battling to dislodge the 6,000-strong militia, dominated by fighters believed to have participated in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
The militias control large swaths of land, mainly in the mineral-rich Kivu provinces; the illegal minerals trade helps to finance the war.
According to Rosemary Museminali, Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, the insecurity orchestrated by the FDLR since the 1990s remains the biggest challenge to the stability of both DRC and Rwanda.
|…These individuals harm not only individuals, families, villages and regions, but shred the very fabric that weaves us together as human beings|
“We are now in the process of restoring the permanent commission between Rwanda and the DRC,” she told IRIN. “This will enable us to foster political, social and economic cooperation for the benefit of our people.”
Relations between Rwanda and the DRC soured after the former invaded the latter in 1998, claiming to be pursuing the FDLR. Recent policy changes have, however, seen the former foes mend fences.
“We don’t need to be prisoners of the past, but we want to shape the future to be bright,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame told reporters on 6 August after meeting his Congolese counterpart, Joseph Kabila.
Kabila told reporters that military operations against the FDLR had been largely successful, adding that the militias were likely to be neutralized by year-end.
Last month, the International Crisis Group called for the suspension of the joint military operation against the FDLR, saying it had failed to end reprisal attacks against civilians.
“The Congolese Government… came out of many years of war, and that is very destabilizing to societies and very often human rights are considered a luxury during wartime,” Clinton said. “But there are no excuses any longer and there has to be more expected from the government here.”