After the Fall of Goma: The M23 Conflict's Western Front

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Rwanda will join the UN Security Council at a time when regional stability is deteriorating -- and the actions of the country's government are being called into question.

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Congolese displaced by the M23 conflict gather to receive food relief on October 22, 2012. (James Akena/Reuters)

While much of the world was fixated on other, perhaps more familiar conflicts, one of the longest-running and most worrying humanitarian and security situations in Africa took a turn for the worse. On November 18, the M23 rebel movement advanced to the outskirts of Goma, the largest city in the war-torn North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The rebels routed the Congolese military and demanded negotiations with the government as they sat only a couple of kilometers outside Goma, before taking the city on Tuesday. Refugees living around Goma, already displaced by eight months of hostilities between M23 and the government, have had to flee the rebels for a second time. And there are reports that the Congolese and Rwandan militaries are now trading fire.

For cynical observers, this current crisis in the eastern DRC is a dreary reversion to form. In April 2012, a group of soldiers and officers based in the country's restive east, and led by International Criminal Court indicteeand then-army general Bosco Ntaganda defected from the Congolese military. Ntaganda had once been the commander of a Rwandan-backed insurgency against the DRC's government. Throughout the 2000s, Rwanda embraced proxy militants as a counter-balance to DRC-based Hutu militias attempting to overthrow the largely Tutsi government of President Paul Kagame. This policy also became a means of projecting hard power and protecting Rwandan economic interests in a resource-rich area.

Rwanda's ethnic conflicts -- and Kagame's political and military ambitions -- have spilled into the neighboring DRC for the two decades since Rwanda's devastating anti-Tutsi genocide in 1994, feeding a nearly continuous state of war. Nkunda and his followers were brought into the DRC's military as part of a peace agreement finalized on March 23, 2009. But that agreement has broken down, and fighting in the eastern Congo, aftershocks of a series of conflicts that have killed nearly 3 million people since 1996, goes on.

This past weekend's escalation notwithstanding, the latest development in the M23 crisis might be taking place thousands of miles away from its front lines. On October 18, Rwanda was elected to a two-year term on the United Nations Security Council, achieving a long-sought after goal for Kagame's government (UNSC seats are decided by a General Assembly vote and apportioned by continent; because it was the only African nation to stand for a Security Council seat this time around, Rwanda essentially ran unopposed). The election could hardly have come at a more opportune time for Rwanda. In June, a U.N. Group of Experts report<, prepared by a UNSC-approved panel that investigates possible violations of an arms embargo against the DRC, detailed how elements of the Rwandan government were actively aiding the rebellion in the country's east.

Even before Rwanda's election, the U.S. and the international community had to weigh their commitment to stabilizing the DRC against other interests.

The group's next report, scheduled to be released in late November, will be even more damning. A copy of the reportleaked online last week, and the document is unsparing and specific in its accusations of Rwandan ties to M23. "Rwandan officials exercise overall command and strategic planning for M23," the report reads, before stating that the Rwandan defense minister and military chief of staff, along with a high-ranking general and defense secretary, have "provided strategic advice and [overseen] logistic support," "played an instrumental role in sustaining M23's political activities," and "[managed] military ground support to M23." (see page 9). The executive summary flatly states, "M23's de facto chain of command includes General Bosco Ntaganda and culminates with the Rwandan minister of defense, General James Kabarabe." (see page 2).

"It says Rwanda not only backs M23, but is now in command of M23," said Jason Stearns, a former member of the Group of Experts and author ofDancing in the Glory of Monsters, a history of the modern DRC's conflicts (I spoke to Stearns before the report leaked, but afterReuters reported on the document's content). "It's a qualitative difference."

* * *

Even before Rwanda's election, the U.S. and the international community had to weigh their commitment to stabilizing the DRC against other interests.

In the months after the June report, many of Rwanda's closest international partners had an unusually harsh reaction to evidence that the country was still fomenting unrest in the DRC. The E.U.and Great Britain suspended some of their aid to the country. The United States, which will provide $213 million in aid to the Rwandan government next year, was strident in its criticism of Kagame's government. The U.S. even suspended $200,000 in military aid -- a small amount, but hugely symbolic, in light of the close strategic and economic partnership the two governments have forged since the 1994 genocide. Rwanda's western allies stopped short of pushing for sanctions, or otherwise attempting to diplomatically or economically isolate Kagame's government. But they still made it clear that Kigali's behavior would have to change -- that it wouldn't be able to meddle in one of the world's most desperate political and humanitarian environments without its external relations suffering as a result. There were early signs that Kagame had gotten the message: On July 15, the Rwandan and Congolese governments agreed in principle to the deployment of a multinational force along their border, and there was a "de facto cease-fire" in place until this past weekend. The upcoming GoE report, and the M23 offensive, make any short-term progress seem like a stalling tactic. Rwanda's involvement in M23 hasn't decreased since the controversies of the past summer. It's actually deepened.

With a Security Council seat, the Rwandan government will have direct influence over the bodies empowered to investigate and sanction countries and individuals who stoke conflict in the DRC. "Decisions in the sanctions committee are taken by consensus," Stearns explained. "This in theory means Rwanda could block a member from being appointed to the GoE. It would in theory at least be able to block certain people from being put forward for sanctions." With the upcoming GoE report, there is a strong case to be made that members of the Rwandan government should be sanctioned. With a UNSC seat, that government has basically been empowered to police itself, even as the M23 conflict intensifies.

More powerful members of the UNSC -- especially donors with economic and political leverage over Rwanda, like Britain or the United States -- could always convince the Rwandan government to play a less obstructionist role on the council. But that could jeopardize Rwandan support on issues like Syria or the Iranian nuclear program.

Rwandan UNSC membership could also place the U.S. in a particularly awkward position. According to the U.S. mission to the U.N., the U.S. provides 27% of the $1.4 billion budget (over $378 million) for MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping force in the Eastern Congo and the largest UN peacekeeper deployment in the world. The U.S. has been a crucial supporter of DRC president Joseph Kabila, whose government is the target of the M23 rebellion -- Stearns said that if U.S.-financed World Bank loans are taken into account, U.S. support for the DRC totals over $1 billion a year.

Rwanda could use its position on the UNSC to water down the Sanctions Committee and insulate itself from any further backlash related to M23.

But even before Rwanda's UNSC election, the U.S. and the international community had to weigh their commitment to stabilizing the DRC against other regional interests: for instance, Rwanda is a troop contributor to the U.N. mission in Darfur, and Uganda -- another country thenext GoE report accuses of supporting M23 -- provides the bulk of the AU peacekeeping force in Somalia, another focus of the UN's efforts and attention. Despite the humanitarian toll that the M23 conflict has already taken, and despite the resources and diplomatic capital the US has dedicated to the eastern DRC, M23 remains an obscure issue, the sort of matter that policymakers aren't likely to prioritize ahead of Somalia, Syria or Iran. "You can imagine a situation where the U.S. would look the other way when it comes to decisions or votes in the UNSC, in exchange for Rwanda backing them in other issues of global importance," said Stearns.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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