UN warned of risks in backing Congo army ops: memo

Lawyers warned the UN in April of the risks of backing military assults in which Congolese soldiers are now accused of massacring hundreds of civilians, internal U.N. documents showed.

UN warned of risks in backing Congo army ops: memo

Lawyers warned the United Nations in April of the risks of backing military operations in which Congolese soldiers are now accused of massacring hundreds of civilians, internal U.N. documents showed on Friday.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, has backed government forces in a nine-month operation against Rwandan Hutu rebels in Congo's east. The world body says they are bolstering stability by supporting the operation but aid agencies argue the level of abuse and civilian casualties mean U.N support for operations should end.

In an internal memo, seen by Reuters on Friday, the United Nations' Office of Legal Affairs wrote to peace-keeping chief Alain Le Roy soon after the offensive began outlining the strict conditions under which MONUC could back the anti-rebel drive.

"MONUC cannot participate in any form of joint operation with (army) units, or support an operation by those units, if there are substantial grounds for believing there to be a real risk of them violating international humanitarian law, human rights law or refugee law," the memo said.

Rights activists say Congo's ill-disciplined army, cobbled together from former rebels, militia groups and government loyalists, is one of the country's worst human rights abusers. The United Nations has documented wide-ranging abuses committed by government forces since the offensive began in March.

The Congolese army denies the scale of the alleged abuses and says it is working to improve its system of accountability.

Abuse accusations

Last month, the United Nations suspended its logistical and operational support for a Congolese army brigade it accused of killing at least 62 civilians.

But New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has documented the deaths of 500 civilians since the offensive began, says this is not enough as cooperation has continued with other units, some of whom are still committing abuses.

"The withdrawal of support to some army units by MONUC was a step in the right direction, but that suspension of support has not resulted in a change in behaviour by the army as a whole," HRW's Congo researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg told Reuters.

The U.N. legal memo called on the peacekeeping mission to continually reassess its collaboration with the army units and "if the violations are widespread or serious, must cease its participation in the operation as a whole".

MONUC officials have acknowledged that serious abuses by the army have occurred, but argue that the situation would be even worse without their involvement.

"The advice we've received is about absolute principles that must be respected absolutely," Kevin Kennedy, MONUC's head of communications, told Reuters on Friday.

"We're making a good faith effort to adhere to that advice and to translate those principles into real action on the ground," he said.

The mounting criticism of the supporting role of MONUC, which helped ensure security for successful 2006 polls after a five-year war, has raised questions over the mission's future.

In a report this week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proposed extending MONUC's mandate for just six months, instead of the usual year, while the Security Council draws up a new strategy that could include a military drawdown.

Reuters
Last Mod: 11 Aralık 2009, 20:20
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