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GoE report – why knowing the facts isn’t enough

In early August, the UN Group of Experts (GoE) on DRC, a group of independent investigators tasked with monitoring the implementation of the sanctions regime for the Security Council, submitted a monthly situation update, based on a field investigation conducted between April 2021 and July 2022. The report, which is supposed to be confidential, has been leaked and is now available online. Among other things, it outlines the scope of Rwandan military support to the March 23 Movement (M23). The report also mentions collaboration by the DRC’s armed forces (FARDC) with armed groups, stating that the explosion last April in the Katindo military camp in Goma was a kamikaze attack “most likely” perpetrated by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). 

For the most part, this information was already known to the general public. About three weeks after the high-profile leak, the potential consequences of the report in the political sphere (sanctions, public statements by members of the international community, admissions of responsibility by the Rwandan and Congolese governments) are still pending. The indirect impacts of this information remain a matter of speculation. What consequences can truly be expected from this report? 

Context and Potential Impact of the Report

In a climate of mutual accusations of aggression between the Rwandan and Congolese governments, including accusations of cross-border bombing, this report is important because it is an independent investigation. The privileged access to UN intelligence and the independence of its authors theoretically strengthen its credibility, although methodologies employed by the group have been criticized in the past.

Second, the report could be important because of its intended audience: the UN Security Council. This body, which is responsible for peace and security, has the power to take measures such as targeted sanctions, based on the information it receives. Will the evidence presented be sufficient for public pressure to push countries to pursue the embargo option? 

Finally, this report could be used as a diplomatic lever in the discussions on the positions to  be taken to try to resolve the conflicts in eastern DRC. So far, however, there is noticeable diplomatic inertia, while awaiting new developments on the front, which can be explained in part by the political interests which characterise these same countries’ relations with Rwanda. 

Timeline of Events

The report details the escalation of tensions between Rwanda and the DRC during the period in question, including the presence of Rwandan soldiers on Congolese soil, allegations of bombing by both sides between May and June, and key offensives and the actors involved in them. 

According to official Rwandan communications, the rockets fired from the DRC date from May 23. UN experts report that on the same day, rockets partially destroyed a school in Katale in Rutshuru territory and were “most likely” fired from an M23-held position. On 23, 24, and 25 May, bombings apparently originating from the Rwandan border hit the RN2 road at Kibumba as the Rwandan Defence Force (RDF) attacked this position of the 3408th FARDC regiment. Two days later, the M23 briefly took the strategic town of Rumangabo before abandoning it. 

According to the Rwandan government, rockets fired from Congo again hit Rwanda on June 10, two days before the M23 took Bunagana, supported by the RDF, which, according to UN investigators, also used Ugandan territory to launch the attack. 

The Rwandan government’s central argument on the causes of cross-border tensions in recent months are these bombings from the DRC into Rwanda and the continued threat of the FDLR, said to be supported by the FARDC in a coalition with other armed groups in the region. However, according to the report, Rwandan troops were on Congolese soil before these bombings, indicating that Rwanda’s support for the M23 predates the rocket attacks and the formation of a coalition of groups against the M23 and RDF.

  1. M23 Targets Civilians and Rwanda Offers Military Support to M23

Since November 2021, there has been an upsurge in M23 activities. The group, which had been considered a minor threat since it was militarily defeated in 2013, has resumed its attacks and expanded its area of operation, particularly thanks to military and logistical support from the Rwandan army, which the report mentions. 

The GoE report confirms what organizations such as Human Rights Watch had already revealed in July: the M23 has targeted civilians, the FARDC, and MONUSCO peacekeepers. While the M23 presents itself as a group defending the Congolese Tutsi community, and initially claimed to want to negotiate and then respond to the FARDC’s attacks on it, its fighters have committed attacks against civilians—including children—in violation of international humanitarian law.

Second, the report describes the expansion of the group’s territory of operation, and their ability to wage simultaneous attacks on multiple fronts. This change is indicative of the M23’s rise to power—it can be understood as a symptom of their strong negotiating position or as a consequence of the support they receive from the RDF. At the same time, this rise in power is a reminder of the weakness of the FARDC, supported by MONUSCO, in combating this group.

Finally, the report takes stock of a change in equipment: the M23 rebels were photographed wearing Kevlar helmets and new uniforms similar to those of the Rwandan army: purchases and deliveries of arms and equipment are traceable, and could constitute a set of verifiable clues. By providing military support to the M23 through the supply of military equipment, Rwanda may have violated the UN arms embargo on armed groups in the DRC, renewed in June 2022. On the other hand, by arming the M23, Rwanda could make it difficult to effectively distinguish between its own troops and those of the M23. Finally, even in the scenario of a dissolution of the M23 threat through negotiation or surrender, the report recalls that new weapons are circulating in the region, which will complicate any peace process. 

With regard to the presence of the RDF on Congolese territory, the two soldiers arrested on Congolese territory on 28 March testified that they had been recruited in Rwanda, transferred to Kisoro and trained in an M23 training camp at Mount Sabinyo. On May 24 and 28, two columns of 1,000 and 500 soldiers respectively, in RDF uniforms, were filmed and photographed in Kibumba and Buhumba. The photos (of columns of soldiers) in the annex to the report, which the Kivu Security Tracker (KST) was able to consult, corroborate the testimonies of more than 15 people recorded by the report authors. On the day Bunagana was taken, a similar column of 200 men in RDF uniforms was identified. 

On July 3, an arrival of soldiers carrying rocket launchers was reported in Chanzu. There, RDF soldiers operated alone or with the M23 to attack FDLR positions and, since March 2022, FARDC positions. They kidnapped civilians on June 2, forcing them to lead them to one of the FDLR camps. 
Based on the evidence put forward by the UN investigators, the RDF appears to have provided direct and substantial support to the M23 military operations for the capture of Rumangabo on May 25 and the capture of Bunagana on June 13. The combination of these factors means that what was once a conflict between the M23 and the FARDC with indirect support from Rwanda might now be described as a crime of aggression: the Rwandan army attacking the Congolese army on Congolese soil. This is all the more striking given the past collaboration between the RDF and the FARDC.

  1. Cooperation Between FARDC and Armed Groups

The report mentions ad hoc joint operations between the FARDC and a coalition of armed groups that was formed at a meeting in Pinga on May 8 and 9. The coalition is made up of the main armed groups operating in North Kivu (APCLS, CMC, NDC-R, and Nyatura). The groups have agreed on a temporary truce among themselves and have committed themselves to fighting the M23 together, mobilizing up to 600 fighters. Although the FDLR is not officially listed as a member of the coalition, the GoE was informed that at least two FDLR colonels were present at the meeting in Pinga. Photos in the annexes to the report show at least one FARDC commander present during these discussions, posing for photos alongside militia members. In strategic battles against the M23, the operations of this coalition are carried out in the presence of, or in consultation with, the regular army. In Rumangabo, on the day of the counter-attack—a retaking of the military base widely attributed to the coalition—the GoE reported testimonies that between 150 and 200 FDLR elements were visible in the vicinity of the battlefield. Until today, areas between the last positions held by FARDC and M23 are being defended by this coalition of armed groups.
On the one hand, these new (temporary) alliances have a short- and medium-term impact on the operations of armed groups in the “petit Nord”: in the immediate aftermath, KST data for May, June, and July show a decrease in intra-coalition violence in Rutshuru, Masisi, and Walikale. At the same time, groups that forge spontaneous alliances to fight against a common enemy gain weapons, experience, and legitimacy (in an area where the M23 is largely unpopular), and are more difficult to disband in the future. This raises the question of the consequences for the territories of Rutshuru and Masisi (and to a lesser extent Walikale and Lubero) after the M23 conflict, and the reshuffling of alliances. The current version of the P-DDRCS excludes the possibility of members of armed groups being integrated directly into the army. However, should they continue to offer significant support against the M23, it is conceivable that the government could reverse its categorical refusal to reintegrate these fighters into the FARDC.

  1. Terrorist Attack at Katindo Camp in Goma

On April 7, an explosion at the Katindo military camp killed six people and injured sixteen others. Initially, the explosion was attributed to a grenade, set off following mishandling by a soldier. The UN report (based on medical and forensic reports) notes that one of the female victims had marks on her body from an improvised explosive device (IED) carried by a person. Three secondary sources—one diplomatic, one intelligence and one community member—corroborated this version of events and indicated that this woman had never been seen in the camp. 
New doubts and questions arise from this reading. If the information is sufficient to index the ADF as the perpetrators of this explosion, and several sources within the government had followed this lead, why did they not communicate about it afterwards? Why did the Islamic State, which resumed claiming responsibility for ADF attacks in April 2022, not claim responsibility for this one? Finally, if the ADF really has a network of collaborators in Goma, why was this isolated attack in April not followed up? Can we expect further attacks in Goma?

Still Awaiting Consequences

One might have imagined that this report would have changed the diplomatic stance of donor countries and/or those involved in the peace process in the DRC. One of the main purposes of the GoE’s reports is to inform the Security Council’s decisions on sanctions. This requires identifying specific individuals and bodies rather than states. Certain officers are named in the report and in theory, support for the M23 through arms purchases can be traced back to individuals; the violation of the Congo arms embargo could be a point of departure on this issue. Given the historical experience with these kinds of reports, experts contacted by KST remain skeptical about the likelihood of any sanctions being taken by the Security Council.

This can be explained in part by the fact that the Rwandan government enjoys diplomatic support from several countries in the Security Council, namely France and the UK. The latter recently signed an agreement to relocate asylum seekers to Rwanda, which it describes as a “safe haven,” something human rights activists question. France, meanwhile, is in the process of normalizing relations with Rwanda and supports the latter in its engagement against terrorists in Mozambique, where the French group Total has considerable economic interests. The European Union, on the other hand, could impose sanctions as a political body, which it has so far refrained from doing because of conflicting information (Congo accusing Rwanda of support to M23 which Rwanda categorically denies). For the time being, the publication of independent third-party information has not made it change its position. 

The international community could take into account the conclusions of this report and put pressure on the Rwandan government to end its support for the M23. However, public statements made by officials such as US secretary of state Antony Blinken do not point in this direction, instead making an equivalence between the M23 and the FDLR. Some diplomatic sources contacted by Ebuteli/Congo Research Group  said they were waiting for developments on the ground: refraining from taking a public position until the next major attacks. In that sense, the leaked report could serve as an indirect deterrent to Kigali’s support for the M23: a new large-scale attack, visibly supported by the RDF, might have too high a political cost. 

At the same time, this report sheds light on evidence for claims rejected by the parties to the conflict: the Rwandan government denied providing any support to the M23, MONUSCO had claimed not to possess any evidence of Rwandan involvement (at the time the evidence in the report was partly submitted by them), and the Congolese government denied working with the FDLR while not rejecting possible isolated initiatives by some FARDC officers, of which the president appeared to disapprove. 

By welcoming the report, does the DRC not tacitly accept all of its conclusions, including those that incriminate its own army? Although the Rwandan government has rejected the “unofficial” report, their public position on the M23 includes rhetoric about their right to fight the threat of FDLR, suggesting that they might lay the groundwork for an eventual change in tone, and switch to justifying their support to M23 using the argument of the defense of their territorial integrity. In the meantime, how likely is it that political negotiations between Rwanda and the DRC (which many international actors have called for) will be effective if the report does not lead to a confession and a clear agreement on the facts?  

The publication of this report and the discussion around it in the public sphere is a reminder that the M23 continues to act as a spark for deep tensions between the two neighbouring countries. This should raise the question of defeat scenarios: whether they are defeated militarily (this will require Rwanda to end its support, which the leaked report may encourage), or through negotiations (which are certainly already taking place but face the issue of integrating fighters into the FARDC). In any case, serious disposition should be taken to avoid repeating the scenario of ten years ago – pushing back the M23 without addressing the underlying issue of its leadership, support and combatants.

In the context of the deployment of a regional force of the East African Community (EAC), the information presented in the report also raises questions about the reshaping of regional alliances. This is the case for Uganda’s involvement in supporting the M23, which the report touches upon. Uganda’s army, the Ugandan Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF), is officially engaged in joint military operations against the ADF further north. Why would the Ugandan army, which had foiled the capture of Bunagana in March alongside the FARDC, have facilitated the capture of the border town in June by letting the M23 and let the RDF use its territory to enter DRC? Could the report be used as an argument by the DRC government in cooling relations with Kampala? In this diplomatic impasse, SADC seems to be the only one to take a more direct stance: on August 17, during the SADC meeting, Felix Tshisekedi turned to the countries of this community to denounce the “cowardly and barbaric” aggression by Rwanda.

Finally, in a context of popular demonstrations and growing nationalist sentiment, the public position of a body like MONUSCO is becoming more difficult. Broadly, Congolese public opinion did not appreciate the fact that MONUSCO did not make its information on Rwandan support to the M23 public, nor the words of the head of MONUSCO who seemed to admit that the blue helmets are not in a position to fight the M23, which “behaves like a regular army, with substantial means.” Anti-MONUSCO sentiments are fuelled, in part, by the perception that the international community, of which MONUSCO is an extension, offers Rwanda unconditional support, while failing to step up militarily to fight a foreign-backed group targeting Congolese civilians. At a time when the population is reinforcing its demand for the departure of the UN mission, the latter’s privileged position on the ground would give it the opportunity to at least play its role of observer. 

As such, this report is a case study for an unpleasant reality: even when third-party information on the conflict is available and openly discussed, it does not seem, on its own, able to influence political decision-making.

By Eliora Henzler, Coordinator of the Kivu Security Tracker (KST), a project of the Congo Research Group (CRG) and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

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