26 November 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE ON DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO HUMANITARIAN SITUATION


While the decision by the Security Council to increase the number of troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was welcome, the mandate would have to put the protection of civilians at the forefront of the agenda, five representatives of humanitarian agencies with a presence in that country said at a Headquarters press conference today.


Moderating today’s event was Steve Crawshaw, the United Nations Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch.  Taking part were Charles Mampasu, Goma Emergency Humanitarian Coordinator for Oxfam; Sue Mbaya, Director of Advocacy for the Africa Region of World Vision; Carina Tertsakian, Democratic Republic Team Leader of Global Witness; and Georgette Gagnon, Acting Executive Director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.


The participants had briefed the Security Council on Tuesday and, in his opening statement, Oxfam’s Mr. Mampasu said the message to the Council had been to convey the need for rapidly setting up a force capable of protecting the human rights of the civilian population in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic.  The basic problem was that all the belligerents were receiving support, not just from Rwanda, but from companies engaged in mining the country’s considerable natural resources, which were primarily in the form of minerals.  The Congolese Army was largely ineffectual.  In fact, because of impunity all the way up the chain of command, the Congolese army was one of the greatest violators of human rights in the country.


Georgette Gagnon of Human Rights Watch said that, in addition to the 3,000 additional troops the Council had authorized, the Council should be addressing the urgent need to immediately improve the humanitarian situation.  The low-level fighting, skirmishes and disappearances, in and around Goma, combined with the hunger, lack of health care and the subjection of women and girls to sexual violence, added up to the most horrific treatment of the civilian population.  The Congolese armed forces were looting, pillaging and raping, instead of protecting civilians, as were pro-Government militias, splinter groups and factions, and, of course, Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP rebel forces.


She said impunity was the major reason for the horrific situation.  Violators of civil rights at the most heinous levels, people like Nkunda, were using force to get themselves into negotiating positions.  They were building themselves positions of political legitimacy and they were doing so on the backs of a suffering population.  The Council must not only mandate an immediate “bridging” force to assist the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), it must end all support or collaboration with the army units headed by officers against whom there were allegations of war crimes and violations against civilians.  The Council must also review MONUC’s mandate from the perspective of its obviously problematic support of the army, when the forces themselves were committing the abuses.


Sue Mbaya of World Vision said the MONUC mandate review came at a time when evidence showed that the protection of civilians had not been at the centre of the mandate, to date.  The rate of rape and sexual violence had increased significantly, as 90 per cent of the population had become displaced in the eastern part of the country.  Up to 25 per cent of the displaced had been separated from their children, which had great implications for the children’s vulnerability, particularly that of girls.  The Council needed to call not only for an immediate ceasefire, but also address the root cause of the violence, which was the question of resources.


The question of resources, she added, brought into question the ability and the capacity of the Government to have oversight over a huge country with an infrastructure that was not very well developed.  From the humanitarian perspective, MONUC must immediately be given a mandate that required it to protect by any means, even while the additional 3,000 troop and police was being organized.  Perhaps MONUC troops would have to establish patrol areas near where children and women gathered, or carried out activities.


Carina Tertsakian of Global Witness said the situation in the Democratic Republic had received a lot of international attention from the political angle, but the economic dimension of the conflict had not received enough attention.  Her organization had documented how exploitation of resources had fuelled the war.  It was widely known that the provinces of North and South Kivu were rich in natural resources, including those used in the electronics industry.  The main warring parties had been plundering those resources since the war started.


She said a field study carried out by her group in July and August had exposed the involvement of all warring parties in a very lucrative trading network that allowed for the purchase of other materials, including weapons, of course.  That trading system had become an end in itself, by now.  There was no reason for putting down guns.  The Congolese army was involved in the business, with the soldiers themselves, at times, doing the digging.  The operation did not involve just a few random soldiers.  It was a well-organized operation with money channelled up the chain of command to senior high-level commanders.


A three-prong approach to dealing with the problem should be adopted, she said.  First, at the diplomatic level, parties in negotiations must put economics on the table, rather than continue avoiding it, with the claim that the element was too sensitive or controversial to bring in.  Second, MONUC must be given the mandate and means by which to oversee the management of natural resources, perhaps by establishing control posts near mines.  And third, the global economic actors must take measures to ensure they did not support the unlawful lucrative business, by tracking the source of their supplies and not buying from the illicit market sector in the Democratic Republic.


In response to a question, she stressed that it was the responsibility of multinational corporations to know the sources of supplies purchased by their companies.  In instances where regulations were lax, Governments would have to step in with new legislation.


In response to another question, she said a recent agreement entered into by the Democratic Republic and China was flawed by lack of transparency.  The agreement concerned the provision of assistance by China for the development of the Democratic Republic’s infrastructure, in exchange for mineral rights.  She said the agreement had come out of nowhere and no one knew its terms.  The Government of the Democratic Republic was giving away the country’s natural resources without anyone knowing its value.


Summarizing organizational positions and priorities as presented to the Council, Oxfam’s Mr. Mampasu said he had told the Council it should emphasize the need for both MONUC and the bridging forces to protect civilians.  Ms. Gagnon of Human Rights Watch said she had stressed the need to make the MONUC mandate be a strong statement about not tolerating impunity, and that there should be no support for those in the army who had committed human rights abuses.


Ms. Mbaya of World Vision said she had stressed the need to ensure the safety of women and children, so as to curb the sharp increase in both sexual violence and in recruitment of children into fighting forces.  She had suggested that the Council find wording to treat gender-based violence as a war crime.  Another possibility was the drafting of a non-amnesty law, one that would make offences such as gender-based violence and child recruitment not pardonable.


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For information media • not an official record