UN-backed military operation in eastern Congo likely to cause widespread suffering for thousands of civilians

“By any yardstick the DRC has been a humanitarian disaster, and one the world has ignored.”
Marcel Stoessel
Head of Oxfam in DR Congo
Published: 13 May 2009

The Congo government’s UN-backed military plans against rebels in South Kivu are likely to lead to civilian deaths and widespread suffering, international agency Oxfam said today. The warning comes as MONUC – the UN-led peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo – prepares to support the Congolese army (FARDC) in a new offensive against the FDLR militia.

While the agency recognizes that a solution is needed to halt appalling levels of human rights abuses committed by armed rebels, the answer cannot be action that knowingly increases levels of human suffering.

Marcel Stoessel, head of Oxfam in DRC, said:

“Four months ago an offensive against the FDLR set in train a spiral of violence against civilians which has forced 250,000 to flee their homes and caused untold death and suffering that continues to this day. By any yardstick it has been a humanitarian disaster, and one the world has ignored. The UN force’s top priority in Congo must be to protect the lives of innocent civilians. The UN needs to be aware of the full implications of continuing to support military action in the present circumstances.“

Oxfam said any military action should ensure that risks to civilians are kept to an absolute minimum and, in accordance with international humanitarian law. The agency also called for appropriate sanctions for any violations of international humanitarian law. For too long, human rights abuses, including by government soldiers, have gone largely unpunished.

The aid agency urged the UN to set out and stand by clear preconditions, based on rigorous observance of international humanitarian law, for MONUC support to any military action by the FARDC. It also called for greater emphasis on non-military efforts to disarm rebel groups, which present less risk to civilians but so far have not been given sufficient priority.

The previous joint offensive against the FDLR in North Kivu, launched in January 2009, has already created immense suffering for thousands of civilians. An estimated 250,000 people are still unable to return to their homes. Villagers have reported that thousands of homes have been burned to the ground in reprisal attacks mainly by the FDLR. Rape and looting by all sides, including government forces, has also been reported. According to recent reports, 100,000 people have already fled their homes in South Kivu, even before the new offensive has started. Aid agencies are planning for the possible displacement of a further 400,000 people in South Kivu.

Oxfam had to expand its programs in North Kivu after the first offensive, bringing life-saving assistance to at least a further 85,000 people, in addition to those that it was helping already. Oxfam has also opened a new rapid response office in Bukavu, South Kivu, to be prepared for possible humanitarian fallout there. The international agency urged all major donor countries to give sufficient attention to the humanitarian crisis, which has been raging since January.

Oxfam is helping to support more than 500,000 people affected by the conflict.

Notes to Editors

1. Broadcast quality video from Lubero, North Kivu is available from Oxfam’s media unit in Oxford. Contact Rebecca Wynn on + 44 (0) 1865 472530 /+ 44 (0) 7769 887139, rwynn@oxfam.org.uk

2. On January 20, the Rwandan and Congolese army, and the CNDP militia, began a joint offensive to disarm the FDLR rebel group by force. The Rwandan army left eastern DR Congo at the end of February this year, but the offensive continues in North Kivu, and is spreading to South Kivu.

3. In late 2008, over 250,000 people were displaced in fighting between the Congolese government and CNDP rebel group.

4.  Oxfam is running an emergency appeal for the DRC and helping to support more than 500,000 people affected by the conflict.  Donations can be made via these Oxfam websites: Oxfam America, Oxfam Great Britain, Oxfam Germany, Intermon Oxfam (Spain).