International Order & Conflict

Turning Talk into Action: Encouraging M23 to Uphold Human Rights

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“If this goes on, we are considering taking Goma and rescuing the population… we are going to protect them. We are going to prevent those crimes against civilians.” — Vianney Kazarama, spokesperson for M23, October 1, 2012.

In July, after the armed group M23 withdrew from towns it had captured in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of its leaders made a surprising statement – he said that M23 was leaving those towns “to MONUSCO [the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in DRC] and the police to secure the civilian population.” This statement and similar ones by M23 using protection of civilians language should be viewed with skepticism, but they could also present an opportunity to curb violence as armed groups jockey for power in eastern DRC.

Though officially a post-conflict environment since the end of the Second Congo War in 2003, parts of DRC continue to experience serious and frequent violence. The eastern part of the country suffers from abuses inflicted by state authorities such as the army and the police, as well as by a variety of non-state armed groups. 

M23 has been one of the most recent and destabilizing of these armed groups. It is predominantly composed of former members of the rebel group CNDP, which was integrated into the Congolese army under the terms of a peace treaty signed with the DRC government on March 23, 2009, the date from which M23 derives its name. These former CNDP members defected from the army between March and May of this year. Like the CNDP before it, M23’s members are mainly of Tutsi ethnicity. Its size is estimated at around 1,500 members, many hundreds of them thought to be forcibly recruited from DRC and from Rwanda. The government of Rwanda has allegedly given the group substantial support, including weapons, training, and joint planning, and may have been involved in its creation.

M23’s original stated goal was fairly straightforward – the enforcement of the terms of the 2009 peace treaty, which included standards of treatment for former CNDP members. It is doubtful whether this was ever the true motivation for the rebellion, but regardless, the move toward talking about the protection of civilians suggests other goals for M23: a broader attempt to gain credibility with the local civilian population, to present itself as a representative of the general population, and to take a stand against the government, its army and the abuses attributed to them. Improved credibility could in turn improve M23’s standing in discussions with the government.

Given that M23 is itself accused of horrific human rights abuses including killings, rapes, and the forced recruitment of adults and children, its use of protection of civilians language must be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, M23’s attempts to improve its image provide a new opportunity for action by the international community. The DRC government has insisted repeatedly that it will not engage in talks with M23. A third party state actor is unlikely to mediate and could further inflame tensions. But international humanitarian or human rights organizations may be able to intervene where others cannot.

Organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva Call, Human Rights Watch, and the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue have a history of engaging with non-state armed actors to try to influence their behavior in a variety of ways. These actions have included training non-state armed actors in human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL) compliance, facilitating actions by regional organizations, securing both informal statements and formal declarations by non-state armed actors of intent to comply with IHL, and encouraging the integration of IHL into the actors’ military doctrines. Humanitarian organizations could explore some of these avenues with M23 to encourage them to live up to their protection responsibilities. For the humanitarian and human rights communities, this would be a potentially valuable method of reducing violence against civilians.

M23’s structure presents certain challenges for those attempting to engage with them. According to a recently leaked UN Panel of Experts report, Bosco Ntaganda controls M23’s activities on the ground, Sultani Makenga controls coordination with allied groups, and both receive direct military orders from Rwandan government personnel on instructions from Rwandan Defense Minister General James Kabarebe. Ideally, humanitarians would ensure buy-in by engaging with M23’s highest-level leaders, but the Rwandan government continues to deny any involvement with M23 and so is extremely unlikely to engage. In addition, Ntaganda – who is wanted for arrest by the ICC – may be suspicious of negotiating with any international representative, while humanitarian and human rights actors may themselves be reluctant to engage with an accused war criminal. Moreover, M23’s ultimate goals are still not known, and so external actors will have difficulty devising the best strategies for negotiation. Nevertheless, non-governmental organizations could still have success in facilitating a statement of commitment to release and not to recruit child soldiers; training high-level M23 personnel on principles of civilian protection; or encouraging M23 to produce military doctrine that incorporates IHL.

For the humanitarian and human rights communities, engaging with non-state armed actors is a difficult business with uncertain outcomes, and one that carries the risk of appearing to support the armed actors’ aims. Despite these challenges, the opening provided by M23’s recent statements about the protection of civilians may allow external actors the opportunity to train M23 and encourage commitments to comply with international human rights and humanitarian law, potentially leading to reduced violence against civilians in DRC.


“Le M23 menace de prendre Goma,” L’Avenir, October 2, 2012, accessed on October 2, 2012,

AFP, “RDC: les mutins se sont retirés de la localité de Rutshuru,” L’Express, July 9, 2012, accessed October 2, 2012,

Photo credit: UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti.

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