Why the mainstream international take on the #Kampala talks may not be the best one

Necessary lessons from history

I’m usually a good reader of Jason Stearn’s analysis on DRC, and tend to agree with most of his opinions on a subject he masters so well. Reading his last post[1] on the importance of signing the Kampala agreement/declaration however left me with more questions than convictions, and a strong will to react to it. While reading Jason’s post triggered these thoughts, they also cover the mainstream international position on the Kampala talks, as Mary Robinson, Martin Kobler seem to share Jason’s opinion.

The mainstream international position

Jason’s post resumes the main justifications for the mainstream international position on the Kampala talks using the following arguments:

–       There could be around 2,500 M23 rebels “at large”, their faith needs to be dealt with else they could become a threat again. A peace deal could provide adequate conditions for their return to DRC

–       A Peace deal would exclude amnesty from top leadership and prevent Kinshasa from granting such later.

–       It would allow main regional actors like DRC, Rwanda and Uganda to move along leaving M23 behind and concentrating on other burning issues such as the FDLR/ADF questions and regional integration. Museveni wouldn’t lose face in the process, as his chairmanship of the Kampala talks would put an end to the rebellion.

These are very valid points when placed in “regular” contexts, as they are ones of “realpolitik” versus taking decisions based on purely legalistic grounds. They however become much weaker when read through the glasses of recent Congolese history.

Brief overview of what history should teach us

A very short resume of this reading from historic perspectives is that the Congolese conflict has different layers of root causes at local, national and regional levels. The Regional level ones have been pursued since 20 years due to repetitive cycles of destabilization in the Kivus followed by consistent and constant impunity for both their direct authors and their supporters.

1. The 1998 “RCD” war

The RCD[2] war is commonly known to mainly – I insist on the mainly and not exclusively- be a foreign predatory expedition in a land and resource-wise rich country trying to get away from the grip of its demanding neighbors[3], the later not being happy about it[4]. Yet, for the sake of regional peace, the main perpetrators got away with it untouched.

The RCD turned into a political party with its leader becoming Vice-President by the grace of the good-willed international community during the Sun City agreements[5]. Already back in the days, those agreements were signed with the “proxies”, but not with the supporters as Rwanda and Uganda were not party to the treaty. Peace with those countries was signed bilaterally at later stages, without them ever facing any responsibility for their regional destabilization efforts.

Already in those days, the signed agreements were baffled. While part of the RCD effectively recycled in a political movement, it also made sure to keep a functional armed wing on the ground, with the refusal of Laurent Nkunda to integrate the FARDC as General and the creation of the CNDP[6]. Nonetheless, the RCD continued to be recognized as a political party and was allowed to participate to the 2006 elections – which it lost by a landslide-. At international level also, signed deals were not respected as Uganda still hasn’t paid a dime of the 10 billion USD fine it was sentenced to by the International Court of Justice in 2005[7]. Impunity at all fronts.

2. The 2004 Bukavu invasion by Jules Mutebutse and Laurent Nkunda

The Bukavu invasion is yet another shocking example of how impunity and carelessness for international engagements prevail in the region since decades without anyone having a say on it. After days of door-by-door looting and raping in Bukavu[8], Jules Mutebutse and his men simply crossed the border into Rwanda through the official checkpoint, and were granted asylum in a blatant abuse of the 1951 Geneva Convention and its article 1F, which has a clear wording and defines the very notion of Refugee:

F. The provisions of this Convention shall not apply to any person with respect to whom there are serious reasons for considering that:

(a) he has committed a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity, as defined in the international instruments drawn up to make provision in respect of such crimes;

(b) he has committed a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge prior to his admission to that country as a refugee;

(c) he has been guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations[9].

No voice in the international community, not even the UNHCR, moved a finger to denounce this and look for the proper implementation of what the world’s legislators solemnly signed on 60 years ago. Bukavu was invaded, people were killed, women raped, then the world “moved on” when Mutebutse went to Rwanda[10], de facto putting an end to “his” problem.

3. The 2004 Gatumba massacre

The same can be said about the Gatumba massacre[11] that shortly followed. This time, the International Community was prompt to condemn it in the strongest words. Yet, after a few weeks of public outcry, again, voices turned silent and pressure vanished, as if it were better “to forget and move on”. Mounting evidences suggest that some of the current FARDC top leadership was directly involved in the massacres. The same FARDC the UN is fully backing up today. Impunity prevailed, and we “moved on”.

4. The 2008 Kiwanja massacre and Nkunda case in 2009

History repeated itself yet another time in 2009, in the person of Laurent Nkunda. The warlord is accused of committing severe atrocities including crimes against humanity. He is the main suspect in the Kiwanja massacre[12], where more than 150 unarmed souls were wasted in cold blood in an intimidation and submission strategy used by the CNDP. Yet, in 2009, as we had to “forget about the CNDP and move on”, Nkunda was granted a very confortable “house arrest” he still enjoys in Rwanda while his men, some of them like Makenga and Ntaganda already war criminals, were integrated in the FARDC army at top leadership positions. Impunity prevailed at all levels, following a “deal” to which Rwanda wasn’t directly a signatory party, just like proposed today in Kampala[13].

Kobler, Robinson and Stearns position: a taste of “deja-vu” with poor guarantees offered

As worded, the mainstream international community proposal seems to suggest repeating the same mistakes again. If I understand well:

–       The Kampala deal would enable the reintegration of most remaining rebels (like in 2009)

–       Museveni and Kagame not only wouldn’t have to lose face, they wouldn’t even be mentioned and thereby wouldn’t pledge to anything, like previous times (like in 1998, 2004, 2009)

–       Kabila would lose face, like previous times (even though this would be largely deserved as he is as much of a threat to regional stability as is the M23 rebellion)

–       The only difference would be that impunity would not be extendable to M23 top leadership. It’s worth noting that such a restriction would not guarantee this leadership would face justice, as this would depend on the good will of Uganda and Rwanda, something they have a poor history of when it comes to judiciary cooperation with DRC.

But do we really want all this? The last assumption in Stearns post is that regional leaders are waiting to put M23 behind and move on to other agendas. I would be the first one to welcome this, but what indicator points in that direction today? I suppose not the current rhetoric read in the press, particularly coming from the Ugandan authorities. Or is it the continuous denial of any support and responsibility, and therefore will to change, from any concerned party, from DRC to Uganda? Or… I fail to propose something else, as I don’t see one indicator pointing on that direction. And history shows a different prospect under Kampala.

A few remarks on the “impunity” rhetoric used these days

I highly welcomed the strong focus placed by the international community on the necessity to end the cycles of impunity in order to bring durable peace to the Great Lakes Region. It however remains a mystery how the defenders of this position manage to “naturally” restrict the necessity to the proxies, the M23 rebellion, and not to leaders who today openly support them.

Is the Kenyan position suggesting that Heads of State in exercise should not be troubled by judiciary cases already accepted and implemented by the international community at large? I am amazed by the successive and regular violations to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugee, the Addis PSCF and other main Human Rights or International Relations instruments that are made publically and daily by Heads of States supposed to guarantee their implementation, in total carelessness from the IC. And by the current suggestion that, once more, just “letting go and moving on” is the best thing to do.

What a better way forward offering more guarantees could be

I am of course not suggesting that the rebellion cycle could end by magic with no political process at all. But for things to have different outcomes than previous times, we need to use different processes. There probably isn’t a “perfect solution”, particularly as regional leaders, with their non transparent management and communication on the crisis, make it very difficult to anticipate possible reactions to each option. Yet, in my eyes, one of many ways to have a more viable and somehow guaranteed political process than the current Kampala one would be as follows.

All concerned actors should sit at the discussion table and make firm commitments for peace and regional cooperation at judiciary, security and economic levels, under the chairmanship of an elder who’s neutrality and attachment to peace suffers no question. This should include, at minimum, representatives of DRC, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and South Africa.

To be stronger and more meaningful than the Addis PSCF, this commitment should include a strict roadmap with attached verification mechanisms made of neutral (as in non EAC or SADC or anti-ICC coalition) countries member of the African Union.

A revamped MONUSCO should be given a regional mandate to monitor –and if necessary enforce- the implementation of the agreement’s military component, including the disarmament of the remaining rebel groups, with a mandate to operate on both sides of borders – this to better protect all sides from cross-border rebel attacks.

Last, the international community should strongly support all signatory members in their efforts for regional integration, in order to change the current military confrontation cycles into a healthier economic competition, or even, why not, cooperation.

Again, I am not claiming this is the best or miracle solution. But I believe it’s one that takes more consideration of history, and places more chances on its side. It’s also one that would be far more challenging to make all parties agree on; but if there is one last lesson from history I would hope for everyone to share, it’s that there is no easy solution to the DRC conflict.

The Kampala way

Addendum: in the “lessons from history” part, I forgot to add a point 5. on the “surrender” of Pasteur Runiga and his men to Rwanda a few months ago, and their following refugee status violating the 1951 Geneva Convention the exact same way as for Mutebutse. Please do take it into consideration in the argumentation.


[4] Contrary to the 1996 war, which at least could be diplomatically justified by the rebel FDLR turning the refugee camps in remote bases to launch kill-and-go attacks on Rwandan civilians and Tutsi Congolese.

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