Critical Analysis: Conflict Between M23 Rebels and the Congolese Army in Goma – How Must the International Community Respond?

M23 rebels have claimed control of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. (DW)
M23 rebels have claimed control of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. (DW)

Congo’s M23 rebels, a group comprised mostly of Tutsi defectors from the Congolese army, launched an uprising in Congo in the spring of 2012.  They have since been advancing in eastern Congo against the weak Congolese army.  On November 20th, the rebels invaded Goma, an eastern border city that had been thought a safe haven for refugees prior to the invasion.  Although the rebels reportedly left the city ten days later under international pressure, it is widely believed they are still present, hiding in civilian clothing.  Now residents of Goma, including already displaced refugees, are caught between the rebels and Congolese army forces.  No shots have been fired over the last two weeks, but anticipation of violence looms.

The presence of both M23 and government soldiers in Goma places most city residents in a near impossible situation.  According to UNICEF, “more than 130,000 people have been displaced in and around Goma [since the 19th of November] and are currently living either with host families or in camps and spontaneous sites, or in public buildings.”  Many of these people arrived in Goma to flee M23, while others arrived fleeing the Congolese army.  Now, rebels and soldiers alike are stealing water and supplies donated for humanitarian needs, “many schools have been looted, destroyed or occupied by internally displaced persons or armed forces,” and there are gruesome reports of soldiers kidnapping and raping local women.

The stated purpose of M23 is not entirely clear. Some claim the rebels initially left the Congolese army because they were mistreated, not paid, and going hungry.  Others believe their revolt stemmed from Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s threat in January to submit M23’s leader, General Bosco Ntaganda, to the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.  While three suspected warlords in Congo are currently being tried by the ICC, General Ntaganda remains a leader of M23 and outside ICC custody.  Now, M23 and the Congolese government are in negotiations, with the reported goal of developing a power-sharing deal over Goma. The deal remains uncertain, however, because “M23 insists on administrative control of Goma . . . [while the] Congolese government refuses.”  This has led many refugees to seek help from the international community.

International humanitarian aid has been coming to Congo, and Goma in particular, from international NGO’s and organizations.  “In November 2012, UNICEF and its NGO partners Norwegian Refugee Council and Solidarité International supplied over 20,000 displaced households with 15 tonnes of soap and with 10-litre jerry cans in an effort to reduce the spread of water-borne diseases, including cholera. The World Food Programme provided a three-day ration of food to each household.”  UNICEF is also mobilizing funds to allow refugee children the opportunity to continue their education.

As for the United Nations, UN forces patrol camps in Goma. However, the UN presence has thus far been ineffective; as evidenced by their failure to defend the city during the rebels’ November invasion. The United Nations did impose new sanctions on M23 leaders on December 31st that will freeze their assets and bar them from travel, but the effects of such sanctions have yet to be determined.

The events in Goma do not raise the question of whether the international community should act to protect the residents – the United Nations’ “responsibility to protect” initiative established in 2005 was partly set forth to prevent the type of war crimes and crimes against humanity that are currently taking place in the Congo.  Rather, the question is exactly what actions the international community, by way of the United Nations, can and should take. Thus far, military intervention has arguably been ineffective. The possibility of now allowing the people of Goma to be governed under power shared by these two factions seems irresponsible at best, and more likely reprehensible.

Frank Lawson is a 4LE and Board Member on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy