Rebel leader’s arrest just one step in fight against impunity in DRC

The recent arrest in Europe of a senior Rwandan militia leader is a welcome step in the fight against impunity in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) but real progress in the protection of civilians depends on the apprehension of commanders on the ground, according to analysts.

Acting on a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC), French police arrested Callixte Mbarushimana, vice-president of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), on 11 October in Paris. He stands charged of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in DRC in 2009.

Almost two million people are internally displaced in eastern DRC’s Kivu provinces, in large part due to the activities of the FDLR.

International and local human rights groups applauded Mbarushimana’s arrest which comes after a long and controversial military campaign to stamp out the Hutu-dominated group that formed in DRC after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

But they suggest impact on the ground - where a brutal campaign of murder and rape allegedly committed by FDLR soldiers has blighted the lives of civilians - will be minimal.

“It is clear from the latest military operations that the FDLR is weakened, and the arrest of individuals in Europe just weakens them even further,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“But will it stop them attacking civilians? I fear not. I think that we’ve seen in the past that it doesn’t have an immediate impact on behaviour on the ground, because there has been this division between the political movement [in Europe] and the military leadership in the field.”

Mbarushimana took over the FDLR’s political wing following the November 2009 arrests of FDLR President Ignace Murwanashyaka and his deputy Straton Musoni in Germany. They remain in German custody charged, under the principle of universal jurisdiction, with bearing command responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by FDLR troops eastern DRC.

ICC allegations

The ICC alleges that Mbarushimana planned a series of crimes from his base in France with the intention of creating a humanitarian catastrophe, then extorting concessions of political power from the international community.

Photo: Olivier Nyirubugara/IRIN
ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo said the latest arrest could help demobilize the FDLR

“After 16 years of continuous violence, this could be an opportunity to finally demobilize the group,” said ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo in a press release. “Their leaders are gone.”

But not everyone is convinced that FDLR will give up their fight so easily. Fidel Bafilemba, the eastern DRC field researcher for the Enough Project, says the soldiers on the ground care little for international warrants for European leaders. “Why should this [latest] arrest make a difference that the arrest of Ignace Murwanashyaka didn't make?” he said.

In fact, one of the most shocking incidents in DRC’s recent history occurred long after Murwanashyaka and Musoni were taken into custody - the rape of hundreds of women near Walikale in August, allegedly by FDLR soldiers and their Congolese Mayi-Mayi allies.

Many recent atrocities attributed to the FDLR have come in apparent response to the military campaigns against them by the Rwandan and DRC armies assisted by the UN peace-keeping force in DRC, known as MONUSCO (formerly MONUC).

“What I fear with FDLR is that they have shown when under military pressure they attack Congolese civilians,” said Van Woudenberg. “The recent rapes in Walikale are a prime example of the FDLR and their Mayi Mayi allies punishing Congolese people for their perceived support for these military operations against them.”

Independent DRC analyst Jason Stearns describes the military approach to date as clumsy and says it has worsened the humanitarian catastrophe in the east. He is also unconvinced that targeting Europe-based FDLR will stamp out the rebels.

“We should crack down on the diaspora, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that in the larger scheme of things it’s not going to be by any stretch of the imagination the key factor in dealing with the FDLR,” said Stearns, the former head of the UN Group of Experts on Congo. “There are other much more important issues to deal with than the diaspora.”

He believes that MONUSCO and others should be reaching out to the commanders on the ground who were not involved in the Rwandan genocide - many of whom are tired of life in the forest and the constant military pressure. “There has been relatively little outreach to them,” he said.

“We need to find out who the genocidaires [those who took part in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide] are in the FDLR, but we just don’t know. It’s hard to engage in this outreach to commanders if you are operating with this lack of information.”

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Stearns proposes third country exile for FDLR members found not to be involved in violations of international law and who do not want to return to Rwanda.

“Powerful signal”

International Crisis Group’s central Africa senior analyst, Guillaume Lacaille, agrees that military offensives alone will not end the violence and that FDLR military leaders in the field should be given the opportunity to relocate, but within the DRC.

“Those who accept to leave the FDLR could be relocated in a western province of the Congo in exchange for disarmament, rather than accept immediate repatriation to Rwanda,” he said.

Lacaille, however, insists the arrest of Mbarushimana and the others is also an important part of the process of bringing peace to eastern DRC.

“It sends a powerful signal that directing from Europe a criminal group operating in Congo will have serious consequences,” he said. “In the past, leaders of armed groups were led to believe that they could operate safely from comfortable Western capitals. The ICC and the governments of Germany and France demonstrated clearly that it is not possible any more.”

Enough’s Bafilemba also sees the new ICC case as a positive step towards ending impunity in DRC, but expects more from the court. That means warrants for crimes committed by all sides in the conflict including the national army which this week came under pressure from Margot Wallstrom, the UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict, who accused its soldiers of murdering and raping villagers in Walikale.

Van Woudenberg, meanwhile, is calling on the Rwandan government to do its part in ending the violence.

“As long as the political space in Rwanda is not opened up to the Hutu, the problem of the FDLR will continue,” she said. The lasting solution to this problem of Hutu and their political space is Rwanda and Rwanda will need to open this political space.”

Rwandan President Paul Kagame responded to this oft-voiced view in his 6 October swearing-in speech that followed his 93 percent landslide victory in an August election:

“…That there is no political space … what do you mean? The political space is well and fully occupied by the people of this country. And if the people of this country has spoken in such numbers and freely, who are you to question anything they have said? Where do you come from? From Mars?”