Many people were taken aback when the rebel group M23 managed to capture the strategically vital city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on 20 November. They were even more surprised a week later when, despite its apparent capacity to maintain control of the city, M23 agreed to withdraw. During the takeover, M23 is alleged to have committed serious human rights abuses including killing civilians,1 but its decision to pull out of Goma provides an opening for the international community to encourage M23 to stop perpetrating violence against civilians.
M23, a rebel offshoot group formed in early 2012, has been hinting in recent months that its goals now go beyond its status within the army, and are aimed at broader political goals through talks with the DRC government. It also claimed to be in favor of – and indeed, fighting for – the protection of civilians, whilst at the same time committing widespread abuses. I argued earlier that NGOs such as ICRC or Geneva Call could take advantage of these statements to engage with M23 to raise the group’s awareness of international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights and to encourage it to adopt protection of civilians principles into its strategies and tactics.
Since the takeover in November, M23’s political demands have become more explicit: it has called for decentralization2 and even the resignation of Congolese President Joseph Kabila.3 M23’s decision to withdraw from Goma ties into its political aspirations and may signal an even greater opportunity for engagement by NGOs to encourage the group to stop committing violence against civilians.
After M23 took control of Goma, the Ugandan Defense Minister mediated an agreement between the rebels and the DRC government. The International Conference of the Great Lakes Region then issued a communiqué with a list of demands for M23 to comply with, including its withdrawal from Goma. M23’s departure was delayed several days, and reports indicated that it did not withdraw the full 20 kilometers out of Goma demanded in the communiqué, but it did at last complete its withdrawal from Goma on 1 December.
The withdrawal was strategically advantageous to M23 in a number of ways. It showed that M23 was capable of (more or less) complying with the terms of an internationally-mediated agreement. It also showed that the group was cohesive and well-disciplined enough to enforce the decision on all of its fighters for a relatively well-coordinated withdrawal. And in return for its compliance with the withdrawal agreement, M23 finally won the opportunity to enter into the long sought-after political talks with the DRC government.
M23 could capitalize on this strategic victory by engaging with humanitarian or human rights NGOs on civilian protection and following through by stopping its abuses against civilians. This would benefit it in two ways. First, it would add weight to M23’s recent messages criticizing President Kabila’s administration for its abuses. Second, it would strengthen the perception that it has strong command and control over their fighters – a perception that was weakened by reports of looting and killing by M23 fighters in Goma. Together, these would improve M23’s chances of being treated by the DRC government as a serious political actor.
M23’s withdrawal from Goma may provide a strong opportunity for NGOs to engage with and raise M23’s awareness of IHL, human rights law, and the consequences of non-compliance. If humanitarian or human rights NGOs can strike now while the iron is hot, they may be able to influence M23’s behavior and reduce the violence committed against civilians in the DRC should the conflict drag on.
1“UN alleges rapes in DR Congo unrest,” Al Jazeera, last modified 8 December 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/12/201212810233130975.html.
2Jason Stearns, “Interview with Bertrand Bisimwa, M23 Spokesperson,” Congo Siasa, last modified 1 December 2012, http://congosiasa.blogspot.com/2012/12/interview-with-bertrand-bisimwa-m23.html.
3Melanie Gouby, “Congo Rebel Group Demands President’s Resignation,” AP, last modified 13 December 2012, http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/A/AF_CONGO_FIGHTING.
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti