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The human cost of cuts to the peacekeeping mission in Congo

Wed, 10 Jan 2018 12:58:51 +0000

Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo took a turn for the worse in 2017 and the New Year is unlikely to bring much relief to Congolese civilians. Political repression in the last two weeks resulted in at least eight civilian deaths and over 100 arrests, while conflict and rights abuses continue across much of the troubled country, especially in the volatile east. With the administration of US President Donald Trump focused on reducing the price tag for both peacekeeping and the United Nations, American and UN officials will need to understand how these budget cuts are affecting the ability of peacekeepers to protect civilians. The peacekeeping operation in Congo, known as MONUSCO, was the first to face cuts in 2017 and provides valuable lessons that should be learned before further cuts are considered. The month of December exemplified the escalating insecurity in the country. It began with the most deadly attack on peacekeepers since the MONUSCO mission was first deployed in 1999. The assault on a base in Beni left 14 UN soldiers dead, one missing, and many more seriously injured. Analysts believe it was perpetrated by the Alliance of Democratic Forces – one of dozens of rebel groups operating in eastern Congo. Find our comprehensive coverage: Crumbling Congo – the making of a humanitarian emergency In the following weeks, Congolese security forces and rebel groups subjected civilians to hundreds of human rights violations. The abuses included killings, abductions, sexual violence, displacement, and extortion. 2017 closed with the Congolese government violently repressing protests against President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down by the end of the year as agreed in negotiations between the government and opposition in December 2016. Despite the growing threats to Congolese civilians throughout 2017, MONUSCO’s troop levels were reduced in March and its budget cut by eight percent in June. These cuts were largely driven by the US administration’s goal of shrinking peacekeeping costs and consequently US financial contributions. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has branded the cuts to MONUSCO and other peacekeeping operations as an attempt to promote efficiency. However, unless the United States and the UN learn lessons from the last round of budget cuts, saved US dollars could mean more civilian lives lost in Congo. Detailing the problems A report from the Center for Civilians in Conflict released today details how the short timeline in which MONUSCO was required to downsize was problematic. In order to reduce troop levels last March, MONUSCO rushed the closure of five bases in North Kivu Province. The condensed timeline resulted in a lack of adequate consultation between MONUSCO’s military leadership and the mission’s civilian personnel, who carry out critical activities to protect civilians, such as monitoring human rights violations, resolving local conflict through dialogue, supporting community self-protection strategies, and convincing armed actors to demobilise. Coordination helps ensure that the UN mission’s military component can provide the security that civilian personnel need to access conflict-affected areas. MONUSCO’s withdrawal from some areas has raised concerns that violence against civilians will increase in the resulting security vacuum. In the time allowed, MONUSCO was unable to put in place many of the mitigating measures they had identified to protect civilians ahead of the closures, such as implementing training to strengthen local security forces and building the capacity of civil society groups to carry out protection activities. The mission is now working to take some of these steps retroactively. With fewer bases and less field presence, MONUSCO adopted a new protection strategy that relies on mobility rather than a static field presence to protect civilians. The strategy, called “protection through projection”, depends on short-term field visits carried out by the mission’s civilian and military staff to areas where MONUSCO bases have clo[...]

Ten humanitarian crises to look out for in 2018

Tue, 05 Dec 2017 14:09:06 +0000

From the Rohingya to South Sudan, hurricanes to famine, 2017 was full of disasters and crises. But 2018 is shaping up to be even worse. Here’s why. The UN has appealed for record levels of funding to help those whose lives have been torn apart, but the gap between the funding needs and the funding available continues to grow. And what makes the outlook especially bad for 2018 is that the political will needed to resolve conflicts, welcome refugees, and address climate change also appears to be waning. What a difference a year, a new US president, and a German election make. Here’s our insider take on 10 crises that will shape the humanitarian agenda in 2018 (See 2017’s list here): IRIN’s editors sketch out the gloomy-looking horizon for next year Ten humanitarian crises to look out for in 2018 AFP_Yemeni_air_raid_000_lr1oi1.jpg Feature Migration Conflict Health GENEVA IRIN Africa West Africa Cameroon East Africa DRC Central African Republic South Sudan Americas Venezuela Colombia Asia Bangladesh Afghanistan Myanmar Global Middle East and North Africa Libya Syria Yemen Syria’s sieges and displacement As Syria heads towards seven years of war and Western governments quietly drop their demands for political transition, it has become increasingly clear that President Bashar al-Assad will stay in power, at least in some capacity.   But that doesn’t mean the violence or suffering is over: pockets of resistance are still being starved into submission and being denied aid – nearly three million Syrians still live in areas the UN defines as besieged or “hard to reach” (see: eastern Ghouta right now), while chemical weapons are deployed to horrifying effect.   There’s talk of reconstruction where the fighting has fizzled out, be it in areas brought under the government’s control or in cities like Raqqa, which is now controlled by Kurdish forces but has a mixed population that is beginning to come home, to utter destruction.   Investors are lining up for a slice of the rebuilding pie. But an average of 6,550 Syrians were displaced by violence each day in 2017. So what of the 6.1 million and counting displaced inside Syria – many sheltering in tents or unfinished buildings and facing another long winter – not to mention the 5.5 million refugees abroad? Will they have a say in how Syria is rebuilt? With reconstruction already a major bone of contention in peace talks and the EU planning to get involved in 2018, how this plays out is important and worth watching. Congo unravels You know the situation is bad when people start fleeing their homes, and it doesn’t get much worse than the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Here, violence in its eastern provinces has triggered the world’s worst displacement crisis – for a second year in a row. More than 1.7 million people abandoned their farms and villages this year, on top of 922,000 in 2016. The provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, Kasai, and Tanganyika are the worst affected and the epicentres of unrest in the country.   New alliances of armed groups have emerged to take on a demoralised government army and challenge President Joseph Kabila in distant Kinshasa. He refused to step down and hold elections in 2016 when his constitutionally mandated two-term limit expired – and the political ambition of some of these groups is to topple him. These rebellions are a new addition to the regular lawlessness of armed groups and conflict entrepreneurs that have stalked the region for years. It is a confusing cast of characters, in which the army also plays a freelance role and, as IRIN reported this month, as an instigator of some of the rights abuses that are forcing civilians to flee.   As we enter 2018, more than 13 million people require humanitarian assistance and protection – that’s close to six million more people than at the start of 2017. Over three million [...]

Rebellion fears grow in eastern Congo

Tue, 31 Oct 2017 16:05:53 +0000

While attention has focused on the raging conflict and humanitarian crisis in Kasai in the southern Democratic Republic of Congo, armed opposition groups in the east of the country have stepped up attacks and are threatening to wage all-out war. Tension and frustration are mounting across Congo as President Joseph Kabila clings to power well after his second and supposedly final term in office expired last year. Eastern Congo was the main theatre of two devastating civil wars, fought in 1996-1997 and then from 1998 to 2003. It still plays host to dozens of small, armed groups, many of them local “self-defence” militias known as Mai-Mai. But recent months have seen the emergence of at least two new insurgencies that claim to have increasingly broad support in their shared aim of toppling Kabila. South Kivu In June, the National People’s Coalition for the Sovereignty of Congo (CNSPC), led by former national army ally William Yakutumba, began taking on army positions in South Kivu Province. In late September, it attacked the lakeside town of Uvira, using heavy weapons and speedboats, before being beaten back by UN peacekeepers. Yakutumba has publicly boasted of having 10,000 fighters under his command. While the true number is impossible to establish, analysts suggest it could be fewer than 1,000. In late September, top army General Didier Etumba described CNSPC as a “flash in the pan” and said: “We’re going to put it out.” But Delphin Ntanyoma Rukumbuzi, a conflict reseracher and Congo expert at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University, told IRIN that Yakutumba’s force drove the national army out of a fairly large area and resisted counter-attacks, although it is unclear where it is now. “He has disappeared into thin air with his weapons and fighters, which also raises questions about his plans for the near future,” he said. “Anything is possible, but I think he will need more military tactics, as well as human, financial, and political resources to overthrow the Kabila regime.” For Rukumbuzi, youths recruited by CNSPC are also more likely to be motivated by chronic marginalisation and historic inter-ethnic rivalries than by any preoccupation with who is in power in distant Kinshasa. Noting that South Kivu is also home to a range of other armed groups, Rukumbuzi warned: “It is a volatile situation that could set this Great Lakes region alight if it is not contained.” North Kivu In neighbouring North Kivu, another group, calling itself the National Movement of Revolutionaries (MNR), has been attacking villages and towns since June. MNR spokesman John Mahangaiko Apipawe told IRIN the group had been set up in 2015 and spent the next two years discreetly organising and planning its actions. “At the outset, we couldn’t give out information about our operations for fear of being stillborn. If, today, we are in a position to claim certain actions, it is because we are already strong,” he said. Speaking on the UN’s Radio Okapi in July, North Kivu Governor Julien Pulaku said recent attacks appeared to be beyond the capabilities of local Mai-Mai groups and that a new rebellion was emerging. When the Mai-Mai launch attacks, “they only resist the army’s firepower for 30 or 40 minutes. What we are seeing today is that the alleged Mai-Mai are resisting for one or two or three hours and plan attacks on three, four, or five locations within a month. This suggests a supply of munitions and heavy weapons.” However, government spokesman Lambert Mende told IRIN the attacks claimed by MNR are the work of bandits. “They are only there to loot people and our natural resources. That’s why we take this opportunity to warn them. Whatever their demands, whatever their origins, whatever internal or external support they have, there is no more time for negotiation,” said Mende. “Just as we defeated the M23 [rebels in 2013], we will also meet them with arms. Our forces are there for that. Those guilty of crimes will find themselves up against their na[...]

"People are dying every day" – CAR refugees fleeing war suffer in Congo

Mon, 30 Oct 2017 08:15:02 +0000

The camps of ramshackle mud-brick shelters line the banks of the River Ubangi in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Inside, refugees from Central African Republic are suffering: from heat, from hunger, from disease. At a registration centre in Lembo, a small village in Congo’s Nord-Ubangi province, Esther Youkov’s son was the latest victim. Just one and a half years old, he fell sick with malaria last week. First came the vomiting, then the diarrhoea, then the fever. Youkov approached a local clinic for medicine but couldn’t afford the treatment. Her son died shortly after midnight on the morning she spoke to IRIN. His name was Jean Akalozo. “He died because I am a refugee,” Youkov whispered, struggling for words just a few hours after the funeral. “Here, we have nothing.” After four years of conflict, refugees are once again pouring across CAR’s borders. In five months, 64,000 have fled from towns and villages in southeast CAR to isolated river communities in neighbouring Congo. They are fleeing a country reaching levels of violence not seen since 2013 and 2014, when a coalition of largely Muslim rebel groups called the Séléka took power in a coup, triggering a backlash from a network of Christian self-defence militias called anti-balaka. “The crisis right now has reached the same level as before,” said Balkissa Ide Siddo, Central Africa researcher for Amnesty International. The latest fighting has its roots in the splintering of the Séléka coalition. It began when the group’s leader, Michel Djotodia, stepped down as president and its fighters left CAR’s capital, Bangui, in January 2014. It escalated in late 2016 when a coalition led by one ex-Séléka faction – the Popular Front for the Renaissance of the Central African Republic, or FPRC, began fighting another: the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic, a predominantly Fulani rebel group that refused to join the coalition.                                             The revenge of Ali Darassa Both sides have since committed atrocities against civilians, but in Nord-Ubangi most refugees have fled attacks by the latter, the UPC. Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN Fabrice Nzongba stares across the river to the village of Mobaye, where his son was killed                                                                                     Louis Ndagbia, 58, was sitting outside his house early in the morning on 17 May when UPC fighters arrived in the village of Yama Makimbou. A bullet fizzed past his chest and hit his neighbour, Dieudonne Balekouzou, in the side. He died instantly. In nearby Mobaye, Alexis Panda also fled on 17 May when UPC combatants stormed his village, burned down houses and executed fleeing civilians. He said he saw roughly 100 bodies scattered on the ground that day, and lost two members of his family: his younger brother, Saturnnain Ndagbia, and his cousin, Gaby Agbada. Now “there is nobody left in Mobaye to mourn the bodies,” he said. The conflict spread to southeast CAR after the UN’s peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, negotiated the removal of the UPC and its leader, Ali Darassa, from its headquarters in Bambari. The idea was to create an “armed group-free zone” in CAR’s second largest city. Dislodged from its stronghold, the UPC reorganised in the southeast, an area with no MINUSCA presence that had also been recently vacated by American and Ugandan troops deployed on a mission against Uganda’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). “MINUSCA should have made sure that wherever Darassa went after Bambari the population was safe,” said Siddo. “As far as I'm aware, no measures were taken.” As the UPC moved south it was pursued by the FPRC, working alongside anti-balaka groups it once fought against. A pattern of reprisal killings emerged where coal[...]

Congo, chemical weapons, and sex work in crisis settings: The Cheat Sheet

Fri, 27 Oct 2017 16:13:12 +0000

Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:   The worst kind of club   The Democratic Republic of Congo has joined a club no country wants to join: It has been named a "Level 3" emergency by the international relief community. The "L3" designation is meant to galvanise a more ambitious and urgent response from the UN, NGOs, and donors. An OCHA spokesperson confirmed the decision to IRIN, saying the measure will last for an initial six months and is focused on the situation in the greater Kasai region, as well as Tanganyika and South Kivu, where conflict and displacement have soared this year. OCHA says only 30 percent of this year's humanitarian appeal was funded – a 10-year low. Informed sources say a new UN humanitarian coordinator, Canadian Kim Bolduc, will be deployed. Decisions to declare an L3 come from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which includes the major UN agencies and international NGO groups. Congo is the fourth current L3 response. The others are for operations in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Previous L3s have at one time been declared for Central African Republic, the Philippines and South Sudan.    How to negotiate with armed groups   Staying in similar territory, what do members of armed groups really think of humanitarian workers? It’s an important question when it comes to safety and operational effectiveness, so the International NGO Safety Organisation asked groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. They concluded that the gunmen generally wanted to appear respectful of International Humanitarian Law. But while the presence of aid workers was generally welcomed, there were some sharp criticisms of the humanitarian response. These were based on the supposed incompetence of the NGOs, a perception of skewed recruitment practices, corruption, and the failure to consult with local people leading to poor programming. There was also suspicion of “political behaviour” by some NGOs, including spying. Recommendations by INSO based on the study included: keep talking to the armed groups; keep that messaging consistent; avoid establishing too-personal links that could be misconstrued as bias; don’t ignore the rank-and-file; and be transparent by managing breeches of humanitarian and operational principles rather than ignoring them. The study was conducted in 2014, but only released this week.   Last act for UN chemical weapons probe?   The results are in: A UN investigative panel announced Thursday that the Syrian government’s air force was responsible for an April sarin gas attack that killed dozens in the village of Khan Sheikhoun. This should not come as a surprise – evidence, including a declassified US intelligence report, pointed in that direction early on, although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the whole thing a “fabrication” and Russia said it was caused by a bomb on the ground. The US responded with a cruise missile strike on a Syrian military base, in what appeared to be a return of the chemical weapons “red line”. But this investigation may be the last for the panel (full name: Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism), at least in its current form. Just days before the results were announced, Russia, saying it was waiting to see the panel’s Khan Sheikhoun findings, used its Security Council veto to stop a one-year extension of the body’s mandate. The council has until 17 November to renew the JIM, and Russia’s ambassador to the UN has said: “we will return to [the issue].” What that means for independent investigations of a conflict rife with wrongdoing remains to be seen.   No “end to radicalisation”   After five months of fierce clashes demolished parts of the city and raised questions over a new breed of Islamist insurgency, officials [...]