KAMPALA, Uganda – On March 23, 2009 the Congolese government signed a peace agreement that integrated surrendered rebels accused of human rights violations into the National Army. Most of those rebels were dissatisfied with how the government was meeting the terms of that peace accord and defected from the army beginning in January 2012, eventually forming the March 23 Movement, or M23. M23 then launched a rebellion in the spring of 2012 that only recently ended when Congolese and United Nations security forces pushed the rebel group out of the country this November.
Fleeing M23 forces split between Rwanda and Uganda, with the main force and their leader, Sultani Makenga, surrendering to the Ugandan government. Rebels in Rwanda have already given themselves up to the International Criminal Court, but Ugandan officials will not hand over the 1,700 surrendered combatants there to either the U.N. or the DRC government until a peace accord has been reached. Ugandan officials say the M23 rebels are not prisoners, despite the human rights violations the group has committed and Makenga being wanted for war crimes.
The U.N. has documented cases of sexual assault, torture, forced labor, forced recruitment and summary execution linked to M23. Many of the victims of these crimes were children, as illustrated by UNICEF which documented 47 cases of children maimed or killed and provided medical and psychosocial support to 6,522 children who were affected by sexual violence. These atrocities and others were a driving force in the U.N.’s direct involvement in the conflict.
As of August 31, 2.6 million people were internally displaced as a result of the conflict. It is little wonder none of the M23 fighters are being offered amnesty as part of the peace negotiations. This sticking point has led to a breakdown in talks that United States envoy Russ Feingold said “has been worked out in great detail.” M23 defectors originally wanted reintegration into the army and amnesty, but these conditions are what led to conflict in the first place. The Congolese government reportedly is unwilling meet the rebels directly now, only speaking to arbiters, making it so that the defeated group has little purchase in the negotiations.
Seemingly, the only advantage they have is that the talks are being arbitrated by Uganda. Uganda and Rwanda supported the M23 rebellion according to analysts and the U.N., though both governments officially deny it. However, the comfortable treatment and shelter the war criminals have received from Uganda seems to verify these accusations.
It is unlikely, though, that the rebels will avoid prosecution, but even so, the end of M23 and its insurrection will not necessarily spell peace for the region. Many other armed groups still exist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and racial and political tensions between Hutus, Tutsis and those traditionally native to the Kivu province will ensure further conflict. Moreover, M23 is not the only group said to have received foreign support in arms and training. As it stands, a mutual peace accord could provide the Congolese government a framework for peacefully dealing with the next M23.