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COVID-19 exacerbating tensions in Democratic Republic of Congo’s coalition government, compounding humanitarian woes, Stabilization Mission Head warns Security Council

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SC/14228

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced an additional layer of complexity and concern to the existing issues facing the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including serious tensions within the governing coalition, ongoing humanitarian crises and more violence in the east of the country, the Head of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) told the Security Council during a 25 June videoconference meeting*.

Leila Zerrougui, introducing the Secretary-General’s latest report on the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (document S/2020/554), asked Council members for their continued support for MONUSCO and the wider United Nations presence in the country, as they consider a possible phased withdrawal of the Mission after its current mandate expires on 20 December.

She said that the coalition Government — comprising President Félix Tshisekedi’s Cap pour le Changement and former President Joseph Kabila’s Front commun pour le Congo — is understandably focused on the novel coronavirus outbreak. With help from MONUSCO, the authorities have taken several measures to limit the spread of the virus and ease its socioeconomic impact. “This necessary work has nonetheless slowed the pace of the Government’s programme and reform agenda,” she said, speaking just hours after Kinshasa announced the end of a 23‑month Ebola outbreak in the east that claimed 2,287 lives. She believed that the political leadership understands that keeping the coalition intact is fundamental for overcoming a wide array of governance, security and socioeconomic challenges. She emphasized that she will spare no effort, through her good offices, to remind interlocutors that progress depends on the readiness of all actions to put aside partisanship to avoid a political crisis that could have major consequences on the country’s stability.

Meanwhile, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to be torn by violence caused by armed groups and intercommunity conflict as political turmoil and the pandemic impact the Government’s ability to respond, she said. In parts of Ituri Province, which borders on South Sudan and Uganda, attacks by assailants associated with the Walendu community have led Hema and Alur youth to form self‑defence groups, sparking fears of a further ethnicization of tensions. Reports of incursions by elements of the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces are also raising concerns. In North Kivu, presumed members of the Allied Democratic Forces ambushed a MONUSCO convoy on 22 June, leaving an Indonesian peacekeeper dead and another wounded. In the hauts plateaux of South Kivu, intercommunity conflicts have degenerated, she said, condemning attacks on displaced populations and the use of hate speech. Meanwhile, in Tanganyika Province, more than 100 civilians have been killed in clashes between Twa and Bantu in recent months, she added.

In response, MONUSCO is taking a comprehensive approach that includes troop deployments in hotspot areas to protect civilians and large-scale logistical support to Government forces, known as the Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC). The security forces need the international community’s full support to improve their logistical, training and operational capacities, she said, adding that security sector reform must remain a Government priority. She went on to explain that MONUSCO and the United Nations country team are supporting the Government’s reconciliation work in post-conflict areas. For example, the Mission is looking to enhance cooperation with the World Bank and others to assist economic development and social cohesion in the southern Kasai provinces. Implementation of such transition programming is crucial for ensuring an environment that would enable a responsible, sustainable exit for MONUSCO, she said, underscoring the role that the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are playing, as well.

“The good collaboration with the Presidency, Government and other authorities greatly facilitates MONUSCO’s work to accompany the country on its path towards long‑term stabilization,” she said, emphasizing that the opportunity for long-term progress can pave the way for the Mission’s withdrawal in the coming years. While COVID-19 restrictions and increased violence in the east have hampered efforts to hold a structured dialogue with the Government as requested by the Council, the Mission is pursuing its internal planning and hopes to build on its constructive relationship with Kinshasa to develop a joint strategy “as soon as the context becomes more conducive”. In that sense, she asked the Council to continue to support for the Mission and the full range of United Nations activities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including help to curb the spread of the coronavirus and to respond to the many humanitarian emergencies still facing the population.

Jamal Usseni Jamael, Managing Director of the non-governmental organization Save Act Mine, described the context in which the illicit mining of natural resources takes place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the eastern part of the country, which is rich in gold deposits, important — and largely informal — artisanal mining activities have gone on for decades. There is also significant illicit cross-border gold trafficking between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its neighbours, including Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, United Republic of Tanzania and Kenya.

Since 1996, he said, that eastern zone has experienced several wars, including the so-called "liberation" wars led by the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo and other groups, and with support from Rwanda and Uganda. A semblance of peace emerged before being disrupted once again between 2004 and 2013, when groups including the 23 March Movement (M23) became active. Other ruthless militias in the area, including the Mai Mai and the Raia Mutomboki, have also raped and beheaded women and children, justifying their actions with identity-based claims and seeking to gain territorial control over mine-rich areas. Their strategy has also included using local and foreign economic actors to conduct business between the occupied areas and the armed group's sponsor countries, as well as collecting taxes from local mine operators.

He recalled that, in an effort to end those armed conflicts, the Council adopted resolution 1952 (2010) and the United States reinforced it through laws requiring companies listed on the stock exchange to exercise due diligence on their mineral supply chains. The International Conference on the Great Lakes Region launched the Regional Initiative for Natural Resources to combat the illicit trade in minerals in the region. At the national level, the Democratic Republic of the Congo launched a process of qualifying and validating mining sites, focused on the traceability of minerals. Meanwhile, the European Union drafted a regulation on minerals from conflict or high-risk zones, which is expected to come into force in 2021.

He said that, while those synergistic actions have had a largely positive impact on the trade in stanniferous minerals — coltan, tin and tungsten — they have not reduced the trade in gold, which remains a secure source of funding for armed groups. Approximately 29 per cent of gold mines in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo are under the direct control of local and foreign armed groups, and even mines that are not under such control feed illicit trafficking networks to East African countries. He outlined several important illicit trade routes, noting that, in the country’s extreme north-east, gold produced in the Bafwasende, Buta and Ituri Provinces flows to Kampala and Nairobi. Gold produced in the Baraka corridor finds its way to Dar‑es‑Salaam.

Against that backdrop, he said the solution lies in implementing responsible supply chains that respect due diligence and the traceability of gold. Among other things, that will require political will, an improvement in the context of the gold trade and a change in the volume-to-value ratio of gold which facilitates smuggling. Noting that the export of large quantities of gold from Uganda, Rwanda and other regional countries violates resolution 1952 (2010), Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD) rules and the region’s mineral certification scheme, he said peace in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo will remain elusive as long as armed groups continue to exploit the region’s gold.

He called for a holistic approach including lowering taxes for artisanal gold at the national level; activating justice mechanisms against national and foreign gold traffickers; engaging the Central Bank of the Congo in the purchase of artisanal gold; and establishing responsible supply chains. Mine geophysical footprint analysis can be integrated into the region’s origin certification scheme. Meanwhile, at the international level, he called for a sanctions mechanism against illicit gold traffickers in the eastern part of the country. “Gold can be traded in other ways, without shedding innocent blood,” he concluded.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers emphasized the importance of staying the course and assisting the Democratic Republic of the Congo, its coalition Government and its people on its long path to security and stability. They also discussed benchmarks for MONUSCO’s eventual departure and expressed condolences for the Indonesian “blue helmet” killed in North Kivu on 22 June.

South Africa’s representative, speaking also on behalf of Tunisia, Niger and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, agreed with the Secretary-General that dialogue is the only way to resolve differences in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He underscored the centrality of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework as a long-term solution for stability in the east of the country and the wider region. Emphasizing MONUSCO’s role in stabilizing the east, he said that the Council should continue to support the Force Intervention Brigade as it addresses threats to civilians. Condemning all attacks on civilians and MONUSCO, he called for the Mission to be more responsive in fulfilling its protection-of-civilians mandate. For their part, the international community and partners should provide Democratic Republic of the Congo the resources to strengthen its institutions and advance security sector reform and the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process. On the humanitarian situation, he called for sustained international support to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and Ebola, as well as flexible financial arrangements to bolster development efforts in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

He went on to underline the importance of strong and effective regional relations and cooperation, including efforts by SADC to help the Democratic Republic of the Congo achieve sustainable peace. He also commended the Office of the Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region for its efforts alongside MONUSCO towards a regional strategy to address the illegal exploitation of natural resources, which remains a major source of revenue for armed groups in the east. “It is our considered view that any drawdown of MONUSCO should be based on the positive evolution of the situation on the ground for the handover of MONUSCO tasks to the [Democratic Republic of the Congo] Government,” he added.

The Russian Federation’s representative said that it is regrettable that despite the coronavirus, violence in the eastern provinces is continuing, with the Allied Democratic Forces and other armed groups refusing to heed the Secretary‑General’s call for a global ceasefire. The situation in Ituri clearly demonstrates the need to broaden support to disenfranchised combatants through appropriate disarmament, demobilization and reintegration mechanisms. For its part, the ruling coalition must continue to resolve differences through dialogue. For the future of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, everyone needs to support the Kabila-Tshisekedi tandem. On MONUSCO’s future, he said that decisions on an exit strategy should take into account the situation on the ground while also carefully considering the priorities of Kinshasa, regional States and troop-contributing countries. He went on to urge MONUSCO peacekeepers to privilege military reconnaissance and to exercise more caution while using other forms of intelligence, especially those which rely on special methods for obtaining information.

The representative of Estonia said peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo remains elusive despite the country’s stable political situation. Commending MONUSCO for its quick reaction to recent clashes, he also welcomed steadily improving cooperation between the Mission and the national armed forces. He also praised progress on disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, expressing hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will not impede those initiatives. Also raising concerns about the country’s human rights situation, including cases of sexual and gender-based violence, he said the fact that many were perpetrated by Congolese security forces remains a significant problem. Accountability, stronger rule of law and effective justice institutions are critical components of addressing the root causes of conflict, he said.

Viet Nam’s representative, condemning a recent deadly attack on MONUSCO, stressed: “This incident […] shows how volatile the security situation still is in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” Welcoming Government efforts to maintain a favourable political climate and improve regional relations, he nevertheless voiced concern that continued violence is hampering the core protection‑of‑civilians mandate. He advocated for a comprehensive approach, including dialogue and mediation, efforts to strengthen State authority and regional cooperation. It is also crucial to eliminate the threats posed by armed groups and settle the issues of illicit natural resource exploitation and trafficking. Tackling the root causes of instability — including those that fuel intercommunal conflicts — demands more efforts to improve people’s lives. Given the current situation, he called for “the most prudent and comprehensive set of benchmarks” for MONUSCO’s exit strategy in order to avoid a relapse of conflict.

Indonesia’s representative said that the blue helmet killed on 22 June was his country’s first attack-related casualty since it first participated in United Nations peacekeeping missions in 1957. The ambushed convoy was on its way to build a bridge near Beni, thus helping to better the lives of the Congolese people. “To be able to carry its mandate of protecting civilians, MONUSCO needs to first protect itself,” he said, adding that it is time to look seriously at increasing the professional, performance, funding and capacity of peacekeeping efforts. He called on all partners, including neighbouring States and regional organizations, to use the momentum created by last year’s peaceful transfer of power by strengthening their support and assistance to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Humanitarian assistance must also be increased, he added, noting that COVID-19 is complicating efforts to address the country’s many challenges.

The Dominican Republic’s representative said that the pandemic is affecting efforts to strengthen regional unity and to peacefully resolve a border dispute between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia. He condemned recent attacks in the east and called for strengthening MONUSCO’s intelligence systems and the capacity of Government forces. The United Nations must also keep working with the Government on a strategy to end conflict-related sexual violence and abominable abuses against children. He drew attention to the humanitarian crisis, emphasizing that deadly floods and disease are adding to the vulnerability of the 25.6 million people in need of assistance and the 5.5 million who are internally displaced. He commended the arrest of Trésor Mputu Kankonde in connection with the 2017 murder of the two United Nations experts, Zaida Catalán and Michael Sharp, and asked that the contracts of other experts assigned to the Follow-on Mechanism be extended by six months, as they have the knowledge and experience to complete its work and bring all perpetrators to justice.

Germany’s representative voiced concern about the deteriorating situation in the east and increasing activities by armed groups, as well as the high number of human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence. “Although the number of such violations committed by State security actors has decreased, the overall high numbers of human rights violations remain alarming.” He urged all armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to adhere to the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire. He emphasized that MONUSCO remains essential in supporting the country and encouraged the Mission to further enhance its abilities to implement the recommendations of Lieutenant General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz relating to the protection of civilians. On MONUSCO’s reconfiguration, he said that benchmarks for its drawdown must be realistic. In developing those benchmarks, national ownership must be ensured. He went on to say that, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government must keep on the reform path, including fighting the illicit trafficking of minerals. “The population needs a perspective: strong democratic institutions, strengthening the rule of law, the fight against impunity and against corruption are key in achieving sustainable peace, stability and development,” he said.

Belgium’s representative, citing the Secretary-General’s report, noted that 25.6 million people require humanitarian assistance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and that 5.5 million people are internally displaced. The humanitarian crisis is compounded by measles and cholera epidemics that have claimed more victims than Ebola and COVID-19 combined. The 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan and the new national COVID-19 Multisectoral Humanitarian Response Plan must be fully supported, he said, adding that Belgium and its European Union partners are taking the lead in that regard. With MONUSCO’s exit benchmarks are due by 20 October, the Mission and the Force Intervention Brigade must have the means and political will to fulfil their respective tasks. The development of MONUSCO’s progressive exit strategy should go hand in hand with adequate attention to counter the root causes of conflict, including the illegal exploitation of gold, coltan and other natural resources, he said, adding that a new United Nations regional strategy for the Great Lakes is an opportunity for further discussion on the topic.

The representative of France, Council President for June, spoke in her national capacity, saying that MONUSCO is helping Democratic Republic of the Congo face its many challenges. However, long-term stability depends on the country’s ability to develop its own capacity to bring security and stability to its citizens. Progress is being made on corruption and reconciliation, and in those regions entering a post-conflict phase, the focus must be put on State-building and development, with the Congolese authorities taking over from MONUSCO to address the root causes of conflict. In Ituri, the re-emergence of a 20-year-old conflict illustrates the long-term risks of failing to address structural causes. She called for decisive action by the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other countries in the region to address the illicit exploitation and export of natural resources. She went on to say that work on a joint road map for MONUSCO’s exit should be completed as soon as possible. In the meantime, improving MONUSCO’s performance remains crucial, together with swift progress to reform the Foreign Intervention Brigade.

The representatives of China, United States, United Kingdom and Democratic Republic of the Congo also participated in the meeting.

Following the meeting, the Council, unanimously adopting resolution 2528 (2020) under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, renewed the sanctions regime imposed on the Democratic Republic of the Congo for one year, while extending for 13 months the mandate of a Group of Experts tasked with assisting in the oversight of those measures. (See Press Release SC/14229.)

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*Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.