Q & A with Albrecht Conze, deputy political director of MONUC

Although based in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Albrecht Conze, the deputy political director of the UN Mission in the DRC, known as MONUC, is currently in Bunia, the main town in the violent northeastern province of Ituri, where he is the acting political director in MONUC's Ituri office. Conze, a former German diplomat, granted IRIN an interview on Thursday in Bunia, detailing MONUC's activities in Ituri since the resurgence of militia activity since January. We bring you excerpts of that interview:

QUESTION: What has changed in MONUC's strategy, especially after the killing of nine peacekeepers in February?

ANSWER: We have not changed our strategy. Even before the nine Bangladeshi servicemen were murdered, MONUC's Ituri Brigade had stepped up its military pressure on the armed groups. But their death has certainly raised the awareness of our troops.

Q: How hopeful are you that all militia groups will surrender their weapons by the 1 April deadline given to them by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, William Swing?

A: We see some encouraging signs. Only on Thursday, seven lieutenants of the UPC-L [Le Union des patriotes congolais-Lubanga] close to commander Bosco Taganda surrendered to MONUC voluntarily. They came to Bunia by themselves and are now temporarily held in MONUC's custody before further action will be determined.

Q: What will happen if after April some militias do not surrender?

A: Many of them will have joined the DDR [disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration] process by the 1st of April. Those who will not have joined the process within the next two weeks will be considered outlaws and prosecuted for banditry and other crimes by the Congolese authorities and, as long as their power is not sufficiently established in Ituri, forcefully disarmed by MONUC.

Q: MONUC has always been reluctant to engage the militias directly. Has this changed?

A: The situation has changed dramatically since January. A wave of new IDPs [internally displaced persons] fled from the militia, seeking protection from MONUC. While we had only one IDP camp in Ituri early this year, next to Bunia airport, we now have four more with an estimated 60,000 more displaced. MONUC, therefore, had to react and step up its military pressure. At the same time, the militias needed to understand the message that the DDR programme offered to them since September 2004 was too serious to be neglected further.

Q: Some observers say that the FNI [Front des nationalistes et integrationniste] and the UPC [Union des patriotes congolais], the two main militia groups fighting in Ituri, need to be militarily broken. What is your opinion on this?

A: If they decide to give up voluntarily, they need not to be broken. If they decide to continue with their banditry, MONUC will fully apply its mandate under Chapter Seven [which gives it authority to use all necessary force]. So far, there are no signs that the UPC and FNI can be convinced by political means.

Q: Would this mean a full-scale assault or war?

A: That's would be a military decision but a full-scale war would not be something to pursue within a peacekeeping mandate.

Q: Might MONUC not kill civilians in the process?

A: MONUC cannot have a position different from the general standards of international law. There has never been a war where civilians did not get killed. But MONUC takes every precaution to warn civilians in time whenever our soldiers launch an operation. We have unfortunately had cases where militias have used women and children as human shields. Our contingents' commanders are well aware of the risk such situations may entail. Warning civilians may not work if they are used as human shields, and then the [MONUC] commander has to make a decision.

Q: MONUC is cooperating closely with the new integrated Congolese army, the FARDC. Is this not difficult considering the totally different military cultures?

A: The FARDC is a young army and only just beginning to make its first footprints. The international community is assisting to the extent possible and some countries have trained or are about to train integrated elements of the FARDC. The first experience in Ituri is encouraging. They are quickly assuming their responsibilities. We trust that the transitional government will ensure regular payment of their salaries and continued attention to their needs.

Q: The disarmament and reintegration process allows for former militias to join the new integrated Congolese army - does this not cause problems?

A: The integrated forces of the new Congolese army - and there are not many yet, are former soldiers of the three belligerent parties of the two Congolese wars. In order to overcome partition within the armed forces, all units of the new FARDC need to be integrated, this means that they all have to consist of elements from all former belligerents.

Q: Even if they committed crimes?

A: These issues must be separated. Crimes must be prosecuted by the appropriate authorities observing due process and if soldiers are found guilty of war crimes, the Congolese authorities will have to take appropriate action.

Q: Human rights groups have complained there is impunity. What do you say about this?

A: One must understand that the DRC for many years now has been close to a failed state. In such circumstances, we always face a high degree of impunity. This is scandalous, but cannot be remedied in a short time. The transitional government has agreed to investigations of the ICC [International Criminal Court] of some cases of crimes against humanity committed in Ituri - in particular in 2003.

Q: It looks as if low ranking militias are punished and the high-ranking members are promoted to generals, why is this so?

A: I do not believe that promotion to general can shield someone from prosecution as a war criminal either within the DRC or [before] the ICC.

Q: Is there a danger that once the generals are prosecuted they could take up arms again?

A: The danger is there because Ituri is rich and will continue to attract those who are eager to exploit its soil illegally, but the danger can be controlled if state authority is further strengthened in Ituri in all parts of the administration. [And] if the FARDC and the Congolese national police continue to take control over Ituri gradually, and if MONUC stays here as long as it is needed.

Q: Realistically, how long can MONUC stay in Ituri?

A: MONUC's mandate is now focused on establishing security, preparing elections and guaranteeing post-election stability. It is for the [UN] Security Council to determine how long this mission should last to support the emerging democratic Congo. Should the international community downgrade its work for the DRC too early, all our efforts would have been in vain. And if it stays too long, the Congolese will, for a long time, be unable to take full charge of their destiny.

Q: Is there not a danger that the IDP camps will remain for a long time, particularly now with the rainy season starting?

A: I spoke to village elders in Camp Tche today. They want two things: to go home and to go home in security. Once MONUC has neutralised the militia responsible for [their] displacement, I am confident they will leave the camp and return to their fields. But this may be only true if security can be established quickly. It will certainly not take years. We have now many reasons to assume that we will be able to neutralise the militias in a rather short time.