Press Conference by Humanitarian Affairs Head on Recent Trip to Democratic Republic of Congo

13 February 2009

Press Conference by Humanitarian Affairs Head on Recent Trip to Democratic Republic of Congo

13 February 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

press conference by humanitarian affairs head on recent trip

to Democratic Republic of Congo

John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the humanitarian situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo was very serious ‑- with 250,000 newly displaced people in North Kivu ‑- following six months of conflict between the Government and rebel Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) forces, led by Laurent Nkunda.

Speaking at a Headquarters briefing about his recent mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mr. Holmes added that some 1.4 million people had been displaced throughout the country.

Despite that dire backdrop, he said a new dynamic was at play, with the arrest of Mr. Nkunda in Rwanda, the integration of CNDP rebels into the Congolese forces, and the parallel military operation led by Rwandan and Congolese armed forces against the Forces démocratiques de liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) rebels, who had been in the Kivus since 1994.  Success of such efforts would result in the disappearance of a major rebel movement and removal of an underlying cause of conflict, the FDLR, which would allow resources to pursue other armed groups.

During his mission, Mr. Holmes visited North Kivu and Goma, as well as Orientale province in the north-east, where a military operation had been ongoing against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).  At the Kibati camp north of Goma, he said people hoped to return home as soon as possible, but were not convinced that security conditions would allow for that yet, due to the presence of CNDP rebels, and ongoing fighting between the FDLR and Rwandan and Congolese forces.  Many would need help in their return home, as they had lost everything, including their houses, during their displacement.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was running a transit centre in Goma for Rwandan civilian refugees who were being assisted in their return home.  The numbers of Rwandan refugees returning had increased sharply in the last few weeks, in the wake of the military operation in North and South Kivu.  There were several hundred per week crossing back into Rwanda and being looked after by UNHCR on the other side, an “encouraging development”.

There were also particular concerns that either the fighting itself, or any events following its cessation, if the FDLR was still present, could provoke new risks for civilians of displacement, or revenge attacks.  Fears on that front had not yet been realized, but the risks were significant, which was why he had recalled the need to protect civilians from harm and respect international humanitarian law.

In Orientale province, he said he had visited the towns of Dungu and Daruma in Haut Uele district, and that the situation was new and worrying, as the LRA had been hiding there.  A joint military operation against the LRA was ongoing by the Ugandan and Congolese armed forces, and some elements from armed forces in South Sudan.  An unfortunate result of that operation had been a series of extremely brutal and deadly attacks by the LRA against villages in the area.  Some 12,000 civilians around Daruma had been displaced, and some 350 to 360 deaths had been recorded.  He estimated that, since Christmas, there had been 900 deaths in that area caused by LRA brutality.

Given that, his Office was trying to step up the humanitarian assistance operation in that area, he continued.  “This is an extremely large area ‑- very remote with very, very poor infrastructure and difficult terrain,” he said.  Getting the assistance to Daruma and other towns, such as Faraje, was a huge challenge, particularly for heavy and expensive items like food.

With his visit, he intended, in part, to encourage the World Food Programme, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and non-governmental organizations to step up that operation, as well as to encourage the United Nations Mission and the Congolese armed forces to provide a secure environment for food convoys.  “That is a major challenge, but there is an urgent need to address it,” he said, noting that an estimated 150,000 people had been displaced by the LRA attacks.  He had also discussed extending MONUC’s presence in the area, especially in Dongu.

Taking questions, first on suggestions that the military operation against the LRA had been bungled, he clarified that he was not a military expert and would not comment on that operation, which was ongoing.  The LRA had split into several groups, making it hard to track them.  There was hope that some of the rebel leaders would surrender.  In sum, he said the operation’s goal ‑- to get rid of the LRA ‑- was “entirely laudable” and he hoped that would happen.

Taking a query on a Human Rights Watch report that detailed rape attacks by the FDLR, he said he had seen the report this morning, but was not able to confirm the information contained in it.  While there had been reports of minor incidents during his visit, there had been nothing on the scale described in the report.  He hoped the report was not true, but, if it was, he hoped to do everything to protect civilians.

As to the United Nations’ ability to know whether such events were taking place, he responded that the Organization normally had quite good information.  The United Nations Mission was not present everywhere, but it was in 41 locations, including areas where the FDLR had been located ‑- and to some extent still were ‑- such as Rutshuru, despite the stretch that those efforts represented for the Mission.

Fielding a query on a Médecins Sans Frontières report that United Nations peacekeepers had stayed at their base during an attack by the LRA that killed 900 people, he said the wording of that report was “exaggerated” and it would have been better to denounce the LRA, rather than the United Nations.  The issue in the north‑east was the same in other areas of the east.  The Mission, while in one sense a large force, was also a small force, compared to the size of the area.  It had only 250 to 300 troops in that area ‑- at the airport ‑- many of whom were engineers, not soldiers.

The criticism was unreasonable and unjustified ‑- and the expectations that the United Nations Mission could protect all civilians were unrealistic, he continued.  At the same time, he said it could do more to protect civilians, particularly by expanding its presence beyond the airbase.

When asked whether the integration of militias into the army posed a problem, he said this was an ongoing process.  The intention had always been to either integrate illegal armed groups into existing armed forces, or to give those groups an alternative:  disarmament and reintegration into society.  That was a perfectly good way to handle the situation.

There were problems, in that the current leader of the CNDP had been indicted by the International Criminal Court, and the United Nations Mission had made it clear that it would not participate in any initiative in which he was involved.  Others in the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) and elsewhere had been part of the sexual violence, and he had used his visit to make clear at every level that such impunity must end.  The problem of sexual violence had not gone away, and the incidence of rape had, if anything, increased because of the violence in the last six months.

Asked if there were plans to replicate the model of the Panzi Hospital, or to shore it up financially to the point it could perform 50 to 100 operations per day, Mr. Holmes said he had visited that hospital 18 months ago.  On his recent trip, he had visited a hospital in Goma, which dealt particularly with problems such as fistula, resulting from sexual violence and general obstetric complications.  He urged supporting those hospitals.

How realistic the prospects were for expansion, he did not know, but that was part of the comprehensive strategy in place to tackle sexual violence, he said.  Addressing that issue encompassed the problem of impunity, and must encourage the establishment of better judicial institutions, removal of those responsible from the armed forces, and promotion of a culture in which such activity was regarded as totally unacceptable.

As for an idea to empower the International Criminal Court by creating a force that would arrest people on whom warrants had been issued, he responded that the issue of impunity had to be tackled, particularly in relation to sexual violence.  Creating a special force to arrest people raised questions of sovereignty.  The best way forward would be to provide indigenous institutions ‑- judges, police forces and armed forces ‑- which could do that work with the help of the global community, rather than create international institutions that had no local basis or buy-in.  “This is a long business of construction,” he said.  “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.