Does the U.N. Have the Guts to Take Out the Last Rwandan Rebels?
Rebel group could call the U.N.’s bluff
It’s one of these make-or-break moments in international politics that receives little attention, but could have enormous consequences for thousands of people.
On Jan. 2, 2015, the U.N.’s six-month ultimatum for the Rwandan rebel group FDLR will run out. Now, halfway to the deadline, the U.N. Security Council is getting nervous.
The council “noted with deep concern that, since that date, no further voluntary surrenders of members of the FDLR have happened and the FDLR have failed to deliver on their public promise to voluntarily demobilize,” according to a recent press statement.
“Only substantial progress towards […] full demobilization could justify any further reprieve from military action against the FDLR.”
The U.N. is essentially threatening to drop the hammer on the FDLR, which for 20 years has waged an increasingly unsuccessful insurgency against the Rwandan government from its bases in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A successor of the forces responsible for the Rwandan genocide, the FDLR also committed grave human rights abuses in eastern Congo, but was also at times an important ally of the Congolese government against Rwandan intervention and proxy forces.
The U.N.’s threat is politically necessary—and also a highly risky bluff. Necessary because, since 2013, the U.N.’s peacekeeping mission MONUSCO has made it a priority to either disarm rebel groups peacefully … or force them to quit.
This was only possible because of the deployment of the Force Intervention Brigade, an African-led contingent that was willing to risk an aggressive stance and offensive action against rebels.
Less public—but no less important—was the tacit approval of the Congolese and Rwandan governments, both of which accepted that the U.N. would target some of their allies.
The first to go in late 2013 was the Rwandan proxy group M23, until then the most powerful rebel force in eastern Congo. The joint FIB-Congolese army operation that brought down M23 was an impressive show of force, but also heightened Rwandan expectations that the same fate would soon befall the FDLR.
And this is where the risk comes in. “For the FDLR, it is about bare survival,” says Christoph Vogel, a researcher who studies armed groups in Congo.
The FDLR has little hope of winning in an open conflict with U.N. forces. But surrendering unconditionally, as the U.N. demands, probably isn’t terribly appealing to the group. Some of the FDLR’s leaders could end up in front of a war crimes tribunal.
Faced with these choices, the FDLR has chosen to carefully engage with the U.N., playing for time. Early on in the demobilization period, 200 FDLR fighters turned up at U.N. camps to turn over their weapons. But Vogel says that these fighters were mostly those too old or unmotivated to be of much use to the group—and also brought primarily outdated weapons with them.
As the U.N. has noted, no additional fighters have arrived at the U.N. camps. And those who have turned themselves in have resisted being relocated to locations outside the group’s area of influence.
“The FDLR’s strategy was mostly geared towards having a public relations success,” Vogel argues. Before considering further demobilization, the group says it wants guarantees that the Rwandan government will negotiate with it.
This, says Vogel, “is completely unrealistic.”
“I was told by FDLR officers that further groups are prepared for demobilization, but until there are further guarantees from the international community, there will be nothing more than preparations.”
The FDLR is responsible for some of the worst war crimes in Congo’s not exactly peaceful recent history—to say nothing of the presence of individual génocidaires in its ranks. Special treatment is politically impossible for both the U.N. and the Rwandan government.
But with very little to lose, the FDLR would likely risk going down in a fight, if the alternative is dissolving itself voluntarily.
For MONUSCO, this is a huge dilemma. Where M23 almost behaved like a conventional military force, the FDLR has perfected guerrilla warfare. “The FDLR is far too intelligent to engage in open combat,” Vogel explains.
The U.N. conceived of the FIB first and foremost as an anti-M23 force, without the logistical resources and strength to fight small groups of highly mobile fighters while simultaneously securing large swathes of remote countryside.
The U.N. could ask the Congolese army to pick up the slack, but these forces might be reluctant to help. For the Congolese government, fighting the FDLR is a low priority.
Of course, not attacking the FDLR—provided it doesn’t disarm by January—would rob the U.N. of all credibility and might even lead to a renewed interest on the part of the Rwandan government in establishing its own proxy forces in eastern Congo, essentially rolling back all the security improvements since 2013.
The U.N. has maneuvered itself into a corner. It might have to fight its way out.