Human Rights Watch published on Sunday a report on massacres it says were committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Oriental Province, in the Northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), between December 14th and 17th of 2009.
Human Rights Watch says that the LRA killed at least 321 civilians and abducted 250 others, including at least 80 children.
According to Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, “The four-day rampage demonstrates that the LRA remains a serious threat to civilians and is not a spent force, as the Ugandan and Congolese governments claim.”
This report does indeed call into question assertions made by the Congolese and Ugandan authorities that their military operations against the LRA have substantially weakened the rebel group, and that only residual pockets of fighters, not exceeding more than 200 rebels in total and scattered in the region that includes the Central African Republic and Southern Sudan, continue to pause problem.
The Ugandan army responded with skepticism to the report. “I doubt these numbers,” Lieutenant-Colonel Felix Kulayigye, spokesman for the Ugandan army, told the AFP on Monday. He added, “Considering the population in the region and the number of LRA fighters, I doubt they have had time to kill 300 people and kidnap another 250.”
In reading the report, one quickly realizes that behind the reported facts lies a plea for MONUC to remain the DRC.
The Security Council must respond to a request by Congolese authorities for the United Nations to completely withdraw its peacekeeping force, known as MONUC, from the DRC by June 2011. Based on ongoing discussions, the peacekeepers should start withdrawing from parts of western, central and southern DRC by June 2010.
The release of this report only a few weeks before the Security Council responds is no coincidence. Almost all Human Rights Watch reports on the situation in the DRC have been published at a critical time to influence public opinion.
According to Anneke Van Woundenberg, “The people of northeastern Congo are in desperate need of more protection, not less.” She added, “The UN Security Council should stop any drawdown of MONUC peacekeeping troops from areas where the LRA threatens to kill and abduct civilians.”
MONUC has been in the DRC since 1999. It is the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world with more than 18,000 peacekeepers. Its annual budget has grown to more than 1 billion U.S. dollars.
Although MONUC’s peacekeepers provide logistical support to the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC), and assist in protecting civilians, they are not engaged in direct combat against the LRA or the rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
Alan Doss, the Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations in the DRC, and head of MONUC, told the Security Council in October 2009 that “operations by the Congolese Army, known as FARDC, in North Kivu, South Kivu and Orientale provinces have significantly eroded the capacities of the Hutu rebel Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR) and Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).”
The LRA is one of the most brutal rebel groups in Africa. Nobody doubts its ability, even diminished, to commit atrocities against civilians. Thousands of civilians have died at the hands of these terrorists for decades in Uganda, Congo, the Central African Republic and southern Sudan.
Their atrocities against the Congolese people are often reported in the local and international press, and by humanitarian agencies and UN agencies operating in the region.
What is surprising in this case is that Human Rights Watch says that these killings went unreported for months and that its report is ” the first detailed documentation of the Makombo massacre and other atrocities by the LRA in Congo in 2009 and early 2010. ”
The fact that MONUC currently has 1,000 peacekeeping troops in Orientale Province, and apparently did not know about a massacre of such magnitude, while a few researchers from Human Rights Watch were able to document it in a few days, calls into question the effectiveness of MONUC and its ability to perform its primary mandate of protecting civilians.