Congo Crimes Should Be on the Agenda of the UN Security Council

The UN's release of a long awaited report on crimes committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 1993-2003 is not only an opportunity to re-examine the historical record of mass violence in DRC -- the scale and nature of which was often overlooked in the wake of the genocide in neighboring Rwanda -- but is also a chance to correct the terms of the deceptive and fragile peace some leaders wish to proclaim in the resource-rich Great Lakes region of Africa.

The report exposes the scale and nature of the violence, in which for example fleeing women and children were lured into repatriation camps only to be executed. This should be enough to spark outrage and rouse international calls for justice and accountability. Indeed, if considered by a competent court, the documented crimes could be found to amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. Considering the consequences of decades of impunity in the DRC, which persists today and still drives conflict in Eastern DRC, this report demands the attention of the UN Security Council.

First and foremost, members of the UN Security Council should make good on their many promises to help end impunity in the DRC by supporting a Congolese national dialogue on the report and considering ways to promote accountability for the crimes, including by supporting a hybrid tribunal in the DRC. Such a national dialogue ahead of 2011 presidential elections would hopefully lead to greater efforts to improve justice and security sector reform and boost international support to these efforts.

While the Congolese have welcomed the report's release, the other region's leaders have reactived very negatively. One diplomat described it as a "nuclear bomb for the region" and President Kagame of Rwanda threatened to withdraw his country's peacekeepers before the Un made the report public. These reactions may cause some at the UN and members of the UN Security Council to see the report as a mere irritant to efforts to resolve the conflicts in Eastern DRC and promote reconciliation between Rwanda and the Congo. This would be a mistake and missed opportunity. It is critical to refocus the significance of the report for the people of the DRC, and to allow them to lead by taking ownership of their own history. There are several options for extending the reach of accountability to those who would otherwise escape Congolese justice, should that be the preferred course of action. An obvious one would be for the Security Council to extend the mandate of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, giving it a regional jurisdiction, for instance on foreign nationals for crimes committed in the DCR and extending its temporal reach beyond 1994 and at least until 2002 when the ICC was created.

Addressing the historic record of impunity in the DRC would go a long way to foster durable peace and real security in the region. The much-heralded rapprochement between President Kagame and President Kabila of DRC in early 2009 has not improved security for the Congolese people, as the recent rape of more than 500 people in just a few days near Walikale attests. Whatever the leaders' secretive, and likely temporary, agreements on integration of CNDP rebels into the Congolese army, joint operations against armed groups and the exploitation of Congo's resources, they don't appear to achieve results as various armed groups are splintering and realigning in the competition for resources and the region remains incredibly volatile.

For the last decade, peace efforts have been based on the narrative that the two previous regional Congo wars and the war between the Congolese government and Rwandan-backed CNDP rebels were justified by the fight against the FDLR, the Rwandan Hutu armed group whose leadership was partly responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. While the FDLR are and remain a scourge on the populations of DRC and Rwanda, the collective guilt felt by the international community for failing to respond to the Rwandan genocide led many powerful countries to turn a blind eye to the criminal and indiscriminant tactics used by Rwandan and Ugandan security forces during the two Congo wars as documented in the report. These same countries did not question the interests of Congo's neighbors in fighting not only the FDLR and other rebel groups, but maintaining a foothold in the wealthy mining regions of Congo.

By exposing the crimes committed on all sides, including Congolese, the UN report helps us better understand the combination of Congo's state collapse, the impact of external conflicts played out on Congo's soil, and the utter lack of respect for humanitarian law that has undermined efforts to establish peace and rebuild the state. If nothing else, the UN Security Council should at least take away from this report that no amount of military support alone will be enough to protect civilians or resolve the conflicts in the DRC.

Ending the conflicts once for all requires a new strategy of political engagement and a much-delayed realization of the Security Council's expressed commitment to accountability. An official debate on the report in the Council would be a start, but what the people of Congo really need is a genuine commitment from regional leaders and countries such as the US, UK, France and China to following up the report with action to combat impunity and foster fresh dialogue between the DRC and Rwanda, in particular, to negotiate contentious issues such as state reform, wealth sharing, citizenship and land issues. At the very least the Security Council should establish an advisory committee to explore accountability options in response to the publication of the mapping report. Without such a commitment the cycle of violence described in the UN's report will undoubtedly continue.

Fabienne Hara is Vice President for Multilateral Affairs at the International Crisis Group.