Meddling neighbours

Rwanda-DRC: Final UN report accuses Kigali of supporting M23 rebels

By Julian Pecquet, in Washington

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Posted on June 21, 2023 11:41

 © File photo of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame (REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer)
File photo of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame (REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer)

Rwanda is in the hot seat again following the release of a UN report documenting the ‘direct interventions’ of its military forces in Eastern Congo.

In its final account to the world body, the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo shared mounting evidence shared mounting evidence of Rwandan support for the M23 rebel group that has been wreaking havoc across the resource-rich eastern region. The damning report warns of worsening attacks on civilians and a heightened risk of political instability ahead of Congolese elections in December.

“The Group of Experts on Democratic Republic of the Congo noted with concern that dynamics related to the electoral process, combined with the ongoing heightened conflict in the east and strained regional relations, posed a threat to the country’s peace and stability,” the report says.

The report also casts doubt on hyped-up withdrawals and disengagement by M23, saying they “appeared to have been temporary and tactical, aimed mainly at buying time amid mounting international pressure”.

The release of the report prompted an immediate response from the Joe Biden administration.

“We reiterate our call for Rwanda to immediately remove Rwanda Defence Force [RDF] troops from Congolese territory,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.

“We also call on Rwanda to immediately cease support for the UN- and US-sanctioned M23 armed group, which the Group of Experts has documented committing multiple violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses, including rapes and summary executions of civilians.”

Focus on Rwanda

The report again sheds unwanted attention on Rwanda after President Paul Kagame released human rights activist Paul Rusesabagina in March, eliminating a major irritant in bilateral relations.

However, Kigali is having to defend itself, once again, against widespread accusations that it supports M23 despite its repeated denials.

The M23’s unrelenting killings and rapes are bolstered by the military support Rwandan commanders provide the rebel armed group

Just last week, Human Rights Watch released its own report accusing Rwanda of backing M23’s campaign of murder and rape and calling on the UN Security Council to sanction rebel leaders and their Rwandan enablers.

“The M23’s unrelenting killings and rapes are bolstered by the military support Rwandan commanders provide the rebel armed group,” Clémentine de Montjoye, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a press release.

“Both Congo and Rwanda have an obligation to hold M23 commanders accountable for their crimes along with any Rwandan officials supporting them.”

In the report, the UN experts write that Rwanda helped M23 double the Congolese territory under its control between November 2022 and late February of this year.

“The Group of Experts obtained further evidence of direct interventions by the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) on Democratic Republic of the Congo territory,” the report says. This was either to reinforce M23 combatants or to conduct military operations against the so-called Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), an ethnic Hutu group seeking to overthrow the Tutsi-led government in Kigali, and other local armed groups.

The experts add that they have “obtained further evidence – including documentary and photographic evidence and aerial footage – of military operations by soldiers clearly attired in RDF military uniform in [DRC North Kivu region] Rutshuru, Masisi and Nyiragongo territories between November 2022 and March 2023”.

Campaign of terror

The continued Rwandan support for M23 comes as accusations against the group continue to mount.

The new UN report notes what it calls a “shift in tactics” on the part of M23, with the rebels now accused of both indiscriminate and targeted killings of civilians presumed to support the FDLR and other armed groups.

The rebel gains come despite an array of groups opposing them, including the Congolese armed forces, UN peacekeepers with the MONUSCO mission, the East African Community Regional Force, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces and several private military companies.

Adding to the complexity on the ground, the latest report discloses, for the first time, “evidence of organisational links” between the Ugandan insurgents of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the Islamist militant group Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jama‘a in Mozambique.

Tragically, M23’s insistence that it is fighting to protect Tutsis has only put the ethnic group in harm’s way by fuelling anti-Rwandan discrimination, the report states.

“In public communiqués, M23 referred to an ‘imminent genocide’ against the Tutsi community it purported to protect, thereby inextricably linking the Tutsi community to its belligerent and expansionist objectives,” the experts say.

M23 also systematically pillaged the goods and crops of the local population and forced local people to contribute to rations for M23 combatants

The “manipulation of the genocide narrative by M23 and the Rwandan authorities has significantly increased the risk of civilians being targeted and could trigger widespread inter-ethnic violence between communities”, they say.

In the run-up to this year’s elections, the experts note that this discourse “has morphed into calls for the exclusion of Rwandophones” from voter registration rolls by political figures, civil society actors, local populists, activists and members of the Congolese diaspora amplified on social media.

In addition to acts of violence, the report also notes that “M23 also systematically pillaged the goods and crops of the local population and forced local people to contribute to rations for M23 combatants”.

Resource theft

Rwanda isn’t the only foreign actor called out in the report.

The panel of experts points out that the partnership launched in January between the United Arab Emirates and DRC, putatively to combat gold smuggling, is itself rife with challenges. While Primera Gold is credited with putting in place compliance mechanisms to meet national, regional and international requirements for responsible sourcing of minerals, questions abound.

“In the space of three months, Primera Gold DRC has exported 10 times the amount of gold that was exported officially by the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2022,” the report says.

The report notes that Primera Gold has obtained a “de facto monopoly” on exports of artisanal from DRC, even as Minister of Mines Antoinette N’Samba Kalambayi allegedly rejected the deal, but caved under pressure from President Felix Tshisekedi. It also calls for more transparency from AuricHub, the Abu Dhabi-based refinery that refines the exported gold.

“While the Group of Experts does not have clear evidence of illegal activities being conducted by AuricHub in Democratic Republic of the Congo,” the report says “it notes that the refinery has not yet undergone any United Arab Emirates or internationally recognised responsible sourcing audits.”

In another blow to DRC, the report notes that the presence of armed groups and the subsequent suspension of all traceability activities have compromised the tin, tantalum and tungsten supply chains in Eastern Congo. With tensions between DRC and Rwanda heightening controls at the border, neighbouring Burundi is emerging as a growing player in the smuggling of gold and other minerals, with Burundian uniformed personnel allegedly involved.

“The Group of Experts recommends that the government of Burundi investigate and prosecute, as appropriate, entities and individuals …  involved in fraudulently exporting gold from Democratic Republic of the Congo to Burundi.”

Finally, the report notes the role of US diaspora groups in fuelling the conflict, particularly the Tutsi-linked Banyamulenge community, which supports the M23-allied Twirwaneho group in South Kivu. The New Jersey-based Mahoro Peace Association for example is estimated to have funnelled more than $1m into the region since 2020.

In its report., the Group of Experts recommends that the Mahoro Peace Association “clarify the nature of its relationship with Twirwaneho … and develop a comprehensive mechanism for tracking funds sent to Democratic Republic of the Congo and the region”.

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