M23 surrender alone won't end Congo war: 7 thoughts from US envoy

Former Sen. Russ Feingold, now State Department envoy to Africa's Great Lakes region, spoke candidly to reporters after Congolese Tutsi rebel group M23 laid down arms this week. 

Joseph Kay/AP
A truck carries passengers and cargo along the road from Rutshuru to Goma, eastern Congo, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013. Within the area recently recaptured by the national army, civilians were enjoying the newly found freedom of movement and the absence of the road taxes formerly levied by the M23. But in this mineral-rich region wracked with violence for nearly two decades by a myriad of armed groups, though, the government’s declared victory over M23 brings only cautious optimism.

The surrender of a top M23 rebel commander and 1,700 of his troops raises hope for the end of a brutal, complex, and little-noticed war in East Congo that has displaced 800,000 people.

In the past 10 days, The Christian Science Monitor's guest blogger Jason Stearns has foreshadowed these developments here and here. Yet the stand-down of Congolese Tutsi rebel group M23's is only one part of ending the war, according to US special envoy Russ Feingold, who gave reporters a lengthy briefing Wednesday from London.

M23's departure from the field is not yet complete, says Amb. Feingold, who calls for face-to-face meetings between African Great Lakes leaders from Uganda, Congo, and Rwanda, and from the African Union, to end the 20-year fracas. Without the gravity of such unprecedented talks, the effort to end a conflict so riven with rival groups and ethnic tensions, will not “get at the root causes," he said.

[To skip directly to a selection of Feingold's comments, click here.] 

M23 was formed two years ago by Tutsi ethnic rebel defectors in the Congo military who said that Congolese leaders had failed to honor a peace deal, including amnesty and pay, dating to March 23, 2009. Rwanda officially denies supporting the M23 Congo Tutsis, but most diplomats assume such support exists. US pressure in the past year is believed to have slowed or stopped that support, Feingold stated implicitly.

Two separate negotiations on East Congo are underway. One, the Framework Agreement, is international. The other, initiated in Uganda, is called the Kampala Process. Diplomats from the United Nations, the US, the African Union, and other diplomats from the so-called Great Lakes region of sub-Saharan Africa have gotten involved in both talks due to the worsening humanitarian crisis this summer.

M23 is seen as the stumbling block to progress in both talks because the war cannot end if M23 remains in the field, Feingold says, so their stand-down this week is historic. 

For more information and context, here are choice selections from the Feingold briefing on the East Congo situation, including US views on Rwanda, next steps, and questions about war crimes: 

Feingold's opening comments: 

Some five to six million people have died in the course of 20 years of this conflict. There is unspeakable violence, sexual violence against women and children, children being conscripted into the military, and there continues to be something like dozens of – as many as 40 to 45, perhaps – armed illegal groups in eastern Congo. So it’s one of the greatest crises in the world, but it’s easy for people to confuse what’s really happening in terms of the attempt to try to turn this around. 

In response to a question about the significance of the M23 surrender: 

The Kampala talks preceded and were not directly related to the framework, but it was our judgment as special envoys that it would be extremely important to resolve the M23 issue to get on to those root causes. In other words, if [M23] was still actively, with its military capacity at the time, causing war in eastern Congo, it would be extremely hard to get the parties to sit down and talk about the broader context. So that’s why we put so much focus on trying to get what we hope is the resolution, conclusion of the talks, and the disbandment of the M23. But it is only a series of talks that have to do with M23 and its rebellion. It does not go to the root cause of the problem.

 In response to a question about the next step: 

The next step is to get the parties in the region, hopefully with the help of the African Union and others, to agree on actual talks and an agenda for talks – mediated talks, I would hope – under African leadership. The items on that agenda are not just the M23 but are...How can refugees be returned? ... Where do you return them to? The question is, have you resolved and given protection for ethnic tensions, Rwandaphone populations that live in eastern Congo, land tenure issues, and others?

In so doing, you have to be careful to not get into matters that are purely or largely matters within the context of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There needs to be some sensitivity to those issues that are properly within the sphere of that government and our work with them, and then some issues are international and some are regional. 

In response to a question about the relations between the US and Rwanda, which is believed to support M23: 

The United States has chosen this year to be firm with regard to our concern that there is a credible body of reporting that Rwanda has given support to the M23, at least in the past. Rwanda is a friend and an ally, and we have a lot of admiration for what they’ve accomplished; but any such support for the M23, of course, is inconsistent with our views, with international law, and in particular, Rwanda’s own position as a signatory to the framework.

So we have been candid with our friend. We have, in some cases, put sanctions because of a concern – concerns about, for example, the support – the recruitment or assistance in terms of children soldiers for the M23 and involvement of Rwanda, in that. If it turns out that Rwanda is no longer involved in such activities, if it turns out that their role here has been a positive one and there is much that they have done during this process to be positive, with President Kagame issuing a statement that he wanted these talks concluded – if that bears out ...then we would certainly review whether it’s appropriate to continue these sanctions. 

In response to a question about how to treat war crimes and whether an amnesty will be given:

There is ...an important step that has to be taken, which is the passing of a national amnesty law by the Congolese government. That amnesty law will not provide amnesty for war crimes or crimes against humanity for people who have committed those crimes. It will only – if this agreement goes through the way I hope it will and believe it will -- provide amnesty for the sort of the rank-and-file members of M23 for purposes of having been part of a rebellion. In other words, they’re forgiven for having started or been involved in a rebellion as long as they pledge individually to not rebel again. And if they do rebel again or participate in rebellion, they lose their amnesty, but no amnesty for the type of people who have committed crimes against humanity and international crime.

So that’s a major distinction between this and the 2009 agreement. Actually the March 23 – M23 agreement in 2009 that did give that kind of amnesty to people who committed major crimes. In fact, they allowed them to come back into the Congolese military. That is not happening in this case if this agreement goes through the way I believe it will go through, and certainly, the international community and the United States would not support such an agreement. I also believe that the Congolese Government would never sign such an agreement this time.
So there has to be accountability. There’s no impunity in this, this time. 

 In response to a question about whether the main culprits have been identified and how justice might be served: 

Whether it be crimes of rape or crimes of conscripting child soldiers or any of the sort of acts – there’s plenty of information out there, and the ability to indict individuals, some of whom have already been indicted by Congolese justice system.

There’s plenty of information to identify, and we have a very good sense of the people who would be subject to that kind of a process.So, yes, there has to be accountability. The accountability would be most likely through the Congolese justice system, and that is going to need some help.

One of the ideas ... is a piece of legislation currently pending before the Congolese parliament for what’s called mixed courts.... It's a model that’s been used ... in other places, where a court is composed of some Congolese judges but also international judges with experience in these sorts of things, probably from other African countries, so to sort of upgrade and improve the quality of the process so there can be appropriate indictments and prosecution and punishment. This will be one of our very top priorities, for the special envoys and for the Congolese Government, so that this has a very different face than what happened with – on the previous two occasions, where this – an agreement was made but it essentially just set up a system where this would happen again. The goal here is to make sure this can’t happen again.

In response to a question about the importance of an overall settlement based on face-to-face negotiations: 

In the end, if the African leaders do not want such talks, they won’t happen. There’s nothing in the framework itself that mandates that that particular process occurs. It’s my belief as a special envoy that, without that, this is not likely to be a successful effort at getting at the root causes. They’re too complex to simply do by sort of a shuttle diplomacy approach. 

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