The M23 rebel movement seized control of North Kivu’s capital city Goma on Tuesday, following days of intense fighting with the Congolese Army. As rebels threaten to advance to Kinshasa, the nation’s capital, regional leaders and the international community must act decisively to avert a further escalation of the conflict and attend to emergency humanitarian assistance to displaced civilians.
Fighting erupted last week as M23 rebels engaged Congolese troops backed by MONUSCO, the United Nations (UN) stabilization force in an offensive to capture Goma that broke a shaky three month ceasefire. International Crisis Group asserts that Uganda’s closure of its border with DRC, the UN and United States’ decision to impose sanction on its leadership, and the Congolese government’s reluctance to engage in negotiation prompted M23 to follow through on its threat to attack Goma and eventually capture it with relative ease. Civilian casualties are yet to be confirmed; however, the fighting has displaced nearly 1 million people, including the 60,000 uprooted recently, since April with the population at risk of grave human rights abuses, including summary executions, sexual and gender-based violence and large scale recruitment and use of child soldiers.
The international community has responded through strong condemnation from the Security Council. In a resolution adopted unanimously yesterday, the Council demanded cessation of any further advances by the M23 and an end to any and all outside support to the M23 but did not mention Rwanda and Uganda, accused by the UN Group of Experts of providing weapons, soldiers, and military guidance to the rebels, charges strenuously denied by both governments. The Council intends to review MONUSCO’s mandate, consider additional targeted sanctions against the leadership of the M23 and those providing external support, who are acting in violation of the sanctions regime and the arms embargo imposed by the Council in relation to the DRC. Human Rights Watch urged U.S. government to publicly support sanctions against Rwandan officials backing the M23.
Meanwhile, Congolese President Joseph Kabila held emergency talks with his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame and mediated by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. The International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) communiqué condemned the M23 rebel movement for violation of the ceasefire, called upon all parties to immediately stop and urged the international community to support regional initiative on aimed at resolving the crisis in eastern DRC, including the establishment of a neutral international force to engage with the M23 and other armed groups.
In the aftermath of Goma’s capture, M23 has set its sight towards South Kivu’s capital Bukavu and “liberate” the country as thousands of Congolese soldiers and policemen defected and joined the rebel movement. The situation on the ground is reminiscent of events leading up to the second Congo war, which claimed at least 5 million lives. We can expect the international community to issue renewed calls for sanctions on M23 and its external support but without constructive regional dialogue this approach may further deteriorate the situation on the ground. Humanitarian aid for the internally displaced and an establishment of a ceasefire should be prioritized immediately.