Africa breaks with the West over DRC sanctions amid M23 surge

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Friday, 1 July 2022 10:59

A protester holds a poster that reads "A state does not outsource its security" during a demonstration against Rwanda's suspected backing of the M23 rebel group in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. June 25, 2022. REUTERS/Stringer.
A protester holds a poster that reads "A state does not outsource its security" during a demonstration against Rwanda's suspected backing of the M23 rebel group in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. June 25, 2022. REUTERS/Stringer.

Disagreement between African nations and western powers over Congolese sanctions broke out this week at the United Nations in a symbolic showdown over the continent’s right to self-defense.

All three African members of the Security Council – Kenya, Ghana and Gabon – joined China and Russia on 30 June in abstaining from a resolution that extends the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) sanctions regime for another year through to June 2023. Nevertheless, the French-drafted resolution easily passed, with all 10 other Security Council members, including the US, voting in favour.

A key point of contention for the African bloc was the requirement that the DRC give advanced notification to the UN sanctions committee of any arms shipments or provision of military assistance, advice or training in the country. The notification requirement has been in place since 2008, but is coming under increased scrutiny amid reports that DRC is vastly outgunned by Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23),rebels and other militant groups in eastern Congo. Ahead of the vote, Ghana’s envoy to the UN released a statement on behalf of the three African council members denouncing the notification requirement as an “unnecessary bureaucratic impediment” that infringes on the sovereignty of the DRC.

“This requirement continues to impede the capacity of the DRC to curb the activities of armed groups as well as improve its ability to safeguard its internal security,” Harold Agyeman told the council at a 29 June briefing on the situation in DRC. “The notification requirement does not stop the proliferation of weapons in the DRC but only serves to avail information that should remain obscure for a sovereign state.”

Speaking to The Africa Report after the vote, the DRC’s envoy to the UN, Ambassador Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, said a key issue was that some arms suppliers don’t want the world to know what they’re selling, or to whom. As a result of the notification requirement, he said, the DRC orders for military supplies have repeatedly been turned down.

“This time [the renewal] wasn’t unanimous because we were able to convince those who wanted to listen that it’s not fair,” Nzongola-Ntalaja said. “You cannot treat a sovereign nation like you treat militias. We are a sovereign state. We have the right to defend our country.”

M23 game-changer

DRC has long bristled at the reporting language, but failed to get much traction in the past. Last year, the three African countries – then on the council (Kenya, Niger and Tunisia) – all voted in favour of renewing the sanctions regime.

Worsening violence on the ground – particularly the resurgence of the M23, a Tutsi rebel group that the DRC says is backed by Rwanda – has however changed the equation.

In his address to the UN General Assembly last September, DRC President Félix Tshisekedi said rising instability in eastern Congo prompted him to declare a state of siege. Given the government’s “constitutional mission to ensure the safety of all people and goods throughout the entire national territory”, he said at the time, it is imperative that the prior notification requirement be lifted.

Since then, the situation has only gotten worse.

Addressing the council on 29 June, the head of the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) Bintou Keita, said the situation in the DRC had deeply deteriorated since her last council appearance in March, largely due to an intensification of M23 attacks that have undermined relations between the DRC and Rwanda and threaten the UN mission’s progress. Between 28 May and 17 June, she said, more than 150 civilians have been killed as the redeployment of Congolese and UN forces to combat M23 has left a security vacuum that other groups, such as the Al Qaeda-linked Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), have taken advantage of.

The United States insists that the deployment of any additional force in eastern DRC must be closely coordinated with MONUSCO.

“During the most recent clashes, the M23 has [looked] more and more like a conventional army than an armed group,” Keita said. “It is imperative that the Council double down on efforts to rapidly deescalate the situation and unconditionally disarm M23.”

In his statement to the council, Ghana’s Agyeman said armed groups in eastern Congo have been able to get their hands on heavy artillery, enhancing their capability to contest both Congolese and MONUSCO forces.

“We call on the Council to respond favourably to the Congolese authorities’ request to waive the notification requirement for the acquisition of weapons as well as its sovereign right to receive military training and technical support for the security and defence of the Congolese people,” he said. “We urge the regional mechanisms as well as the international community to assist the DRC to stem the illicit proliferation and supply of weapons by sealing the loopholes being used by transborder criminal networks.”

Mixed feelings

Some countries that voted for the resolution said they also had concerns with the notifications.

“We would have liked to have seen greater consideration given to the concerns of some members of the Council, including the three African members, with regards to the notification requirement under the arms embargo,” said Majid Al Mutawa, the sanctions coordinator for the United Arab Emirates mission to the UN. “As we have previously stated, regional perspectives are essential to informing the Council’s responses to conflict and its drivers, particularly those with cross-border ramifications.”

Other countries, including the US, however, are wary of blindsiding the UN as the DRC and Rwanda draw ever closer to a direct confrontation.

“The United States insists that the deployment of any additional force in eastern DRC must be closely coordinated with MONUSCO, and it must be conducted in conformity with the parties’ respective commitments under international law, including international humanitarian law,” Deputy US Representative to the UN Richard Mills said at the 29 June briefing. “It must also be conducted in line with existing Security Council sanctions resolutions, and it must be formally notified to the Security Council prior to deployment.”

France sought to thread the needle with an amended resolution.

“France has heard the requests of the Democratic Republic of Congo concerning the notification procedure for supplies of military equipment and assistance,” French Permanent Representative to the UN Nicolas de Riviere said after the vote. “This is why, in order to support the capacity building and reform of the Congolese armed forces, this resolution significantly eases this procedure. It does not call into question the arms embargo on armed groups active in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

“France regrets that this step forward, which is admittedly partial but reflects the balance of positions in the Security Council, was not unanimously supported,” de Riviere said. “We hope that the measures remaining in force can evolve in the future in line with national efforts to combat arms trafficking and the spread of arms.”

Eye on Rwanda

Beyond the clash over the notification requirement, the DRC debate was also punctuated by sharp words aimed at both Rwanda and the DRC.

Mills said the US was “extremely troubled” by Rwandan statements “questioning MONUSCO’s impartiality”.

“The mission has worked hard to carry out its mandated objectives impartially in what is an increasingly complex environment,” he said. “Such statements encourage hostility to MONUSCO peacekeepers and they are unacceptable. To be clear, any rhetoric inciting violence or otherwise increasing the risks to MONUSCO’s personnel and their safety and security is unacceptable.”

At the same time, Mills called on the DRC elected officials to “clearly and unequivocally condemn” rhetoric targeting people of Rwandan origin in eastern DRC in public forums and social media platforms.

“This region is all too familiar with what can happen when groups manipulate their perceived differences to incite hate and violence against each other,” he said. ”We cannot allow this to happen again.”

Keita shared similar thoughts. She credited the DRC for publicly condemning inflammatory speeches and vowing to bring to justice instigators of ethnic violence, while applauding Angola’s offer to play peacemaker.

“I … urge the DRC and Rwanda to seize the upcoming summit to be hosted by President João Lourenço in Luanda as an opportunity to resolve their differences through dialogue,” she said. “In the meantime, it is imperative that both countries continue to make full use of existing sub-regional mechanism[s], such as the expanded Joint Verification Mechanism … to address their mutual grievances on the basis of established facts.”

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