7 November 2008 Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today called for urgent measures to contain the crisis in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), stressing to a United Nations-backed summit in Nairobi that neither the vast African nation nor the surrounding region can afford to be dragged back into conflict.
Fighting in the province of North Kivu between Government forces (FARDC) and the National Congress in Defence of the People (known as the CNDP), a militia led by former general Laurent Nkunda, has displaced as many as 252,000 Congolese in recent months.
Today’s summit, hosted by the African Union, brings together DRC President Joseph Kabila and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, which borders North Kivu, as well as the leaders of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and South Africa.
“Before anything else, we must take urgent measures to contain the present crisis created by the upsurge of fighting in eastern DRC,” Mr. Ban told the leaders.
“Neither the DRC, nor Rwanda, nor the rest of the Central Africa region can afford to be dragged back into conflict. The international community cannot allow this to occur.”
Mr. Ban, in a statement issued yesterday, had voiced deep concern at fresh fighting in North Kivu and urged all armed groups to get behind efforts to broker a political solution to the current crisis.
At today’s meeting, he stressed the need to deal with the “armed group challenge,” pointing out that the grave consequences of foreign armed groups in the DRC are felt not only by the Congolese people, but also continue to weigh heavily across the region.
“For far too long, peace and security in your region has been threatened by armed groups, domestic and foreign, present on the soil of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They have been operating from there with impunity, aggravating strains between your countries and between your peoples.”
In seeking a political solution, he said “our urgent task is to turn the Nairobi and Goma principles into concrete steps on the ground,” referring to previous agreements which provided for a ceasefire, the disengagement of troops and the disarmament of armed groups.
“We need to end the conflict in the east, and prevent it from spilling over into the wider sub-region. We need to restore the authority of the State, and consolidate the stability that has been achieved in the rest of the country,” he added.
“As leaders of Africa, you have a historic responsibility – this is a critical moment for the Great Lakes region, and for Africa as a whole. We must put the cycle of violence behind us. We must build a shared future of stability, peace, development and human rights for all citizens of your countries,” the Secretary-General stated.
Before the start of the summit, Mr. Ban held a number of bilateral meetings, including with Mr. Kabila, Mr. Kagame, President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, who is also the Chair of the AU, and Jean Ping, Chairperson of the AU Commission.
Joining the Secretary-General at those meetings was his newly-appointed Special Envoy and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who is tasked with working with leaders in the region and the broader international community to end the crisis.
Even as the leaders gathered in the Kenyan capital for today’s talks, there are reports of heavy clashes between FARDC and CNDP in Kibati, which is about nine kilometres north of Goma, leading to thousands of new internally displaced persons (IDPs). There is increasing concern about the safety of some 65,000 IDPs living in Kibati camps.
The 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in the DRC, known as MONUC, also reported that a counter-attack last night landed the Congolese army the upper hand in Nyanzale, which had yesterday fallen to rebels loyal to Mr. Nkunda, who have now retreated to the town’s outskirts.
MONUC has been stretched to the limit in recent weeks trying to carry out its mandate to protect civilians amid the violence. The mission has been reinforcing its troops in North Kivu, where it currently has 5,000 peacekeepers.
Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, Edmond Mulet, told a news conference in New York that, as of the end of today, MONUC will have 1,000 combat troops in Goma, where the ceasefire seems to be holding and which has a swelling population of between 700,000 and 1 million.
“We are very concerned that the situation may deteriorate further,” he added. In that regard, he stressed that it is crucial that the Security Council consider “without delay” the Secretary-General’s request for 3,000 additional troops to boost MONUC’s strength on the ground.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that the total number of displaced in North Kivu since September is now estimated to be 252,000 people. This is in addition to the existing 800,000 IDPs from previous hostilities.
UN agencies and their non-governmental organization (NGO) partners have stepped up distributions of relief items, including food, water, health supplies and shelter equipment. Aid agencies on the ground have also noted that all schools in the combat zone are closed, with some reportedly occupied by IDPs.
With more cases of cholera reported at IDP camps, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is increasing the availability of clean water and of water purification tablets, as well as installing more latrines. Diarrhoea and measles among children are among the major concerns right now. The agency is launching a vaccination campaign today for some 13,000 children at the Kibati camps, and hopes to reach 73,000 children in the coming days.
Meanwhile, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy has urged the parties to halt fighting and take all necessary measures to protect civilians, including children.
“Children are increasingly victimized and traumatized by the recurrent hostilities in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo,” said Ms. Coomaraswamy, who raised specific concerns about the systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and child soldiering.
“Widespread recruitment of children by the troops of Laurent Nkunda and the Mayi Mayi continues. Forcing them to participate in the hostilities is a war crime,” she underlined.
In addition, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Francis Deng, has been closely following the situation in eastern DRC within the context of his responsibilities.
Noting the tragic history of loss of life in the region over at least the past 15 years, including on the basis of ethnicity, the Special Adviser has been especially alarmed by the escalation of violence in the past few weeks.
He noted that the intention to destroy an ethnic population group, in whole or in part, is a grave crime under international criminal law – one which the international community, including Member States in the region and beyond, has an obligation to prevent and to punish when it does occur.
He emphasized that the belligerents in eastern DRC must refrain from actions that might encourage genocide and that they, and any actors who provide material support, will be held accountable if they fail to do so.
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