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Rethinking the International Response to the Congo Conflict

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As violence continues after the latest rebellion in eastern Congo - which over the last three months has killed hundreds of civilians and displaced around 400,000 - it is necessary to reassess the international response to these events.

The UN Group of Experts report in June, which accused Rwanda of supporting the mutiny of M23 rebels from the Congolese army, sparked international condemnation of the Rwandan government. Driven by the evidence in the report as well as fierce criticism by human rights groups and media commentators, the governments of the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden delayed or withdrew aid packages to Rwanda. While there is little doubt that Rwanda - not for the first time - has interfered dangerously in Congolese affairs, we need to cast a critical eye over both the UN report and the use of foreign aid as a tool for changing Rwanda's regional policy.

That loyal supporters of Rwandan President Paul Kagame's government, such as the US and the UK, have responded so strongly to the UN report highlights the power of the Group of Experts to influence international diplomacy. The report, however, is far from the watertight analysis that some diplomats and commentators have assumed. The dearth of comprehensive information on political and military affairs in central Africa means that many foreign actors rely too heavily on this particular UN group and often fail to sufficiently scrutinise its findings.

In the case of the June report, donors have responded to what is explicitly an interim analysis by the Group of Experts. UN protocol dictates that such findings are released mid-year, leaving time for responses from the relevant regional governments and peer review by commentators, before the final, revised report is submitted at the year's end. In this instance, the donors have shifted their policies on Rwanda - which denies any involvement in Congo - before the UN's evidence has been adequately assessed.

While the Rwandan government's detailed response to the report, released two weeks ago, contains many questionable claims, it also raises some compelling points that warrant attention. To take one example, the Group of Experts erroneously claimed that Rwanda trained some M23 fighters at the Kanombe army barracks in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, when those barracks comprise only a military hospital and a cemetery. This error suggests that the Group of Experts conducted rapid evidence-gathering in a confined region of eastern Congo and spent little time researching within Rwanda. This geographical limitation has implications for other key aspects of the report.

The recent case of the alleged Congolese rebel leader, Callixte Mbarushimana, at the International Criminal Court (ICC) criticised the methodologies employed by a range of international observer groups in eastern Congo, including the UN Group of Experts. A key reason that the ICC found Mbarushimana not guilty was that the evidence gathered by the Group of Experts, Human Rights Watch and others, upon which the ICC prosecution built its case, did not withstand the forensic scrutiny of the courtroom. This highlights the need for slow, careful assessment of the methods and conclusions of all observer groups working in this region. The latest Group of Experts report reads like a final legal judgment - and has been treated as such in many quarters - rather than a separate piece of evidence that requires critical evaluation.

Not only have international donors reacted too hastily, without sufficiently assessing the UN findings, but their decision to use aid as a bargaining chip with the Rwandan government is also highly problematic. Even if we agree that Rwanda's intervention in Congo exacerbates a volatile situation, decreasing aid to Rwanda will not solve the problem of endemic violence and deprivation in Congo. Furthermore, it risks damaging a still fragile social and economic situation in Rwanda.

One major problem with the UN report and the international reaction to it is the insistence that Rwanda is primarily responsible for current instability in eastern Congo. This view neglects the role played by Congolese President Joseph Kabila in generating the M23 mutiny. One key motivator for the rebellion was that Kabila reneged on deals with these same rebels in 2009, before they were integrated into the Congolese army, that they would not be scattered away from their homelands in North and South Kivu - which Kabila threatened to do earlier this year - and that they would be paid adequate salaries. Kabila's bad faith on these counts has undermined the 2009 peace agreement between Congo, Rwanda and a range of rebel groups, which improved the security situation in eastern Congo.

More broadly, the singular focus on Rwanda ignores Kabila's failure to control his armed forces, which are responsible for as many attacks on Congolese civilians as the litany of rebel groups operating in the eastern provinces, as well as his tendency to use inflammatory ethnic rhetoric against supposed 'Rwandans' living in Congo, as seen during the 2006 and 2011 presidential campaigns. Simply removing Rwandan influence from eastern Congo will not address these fundamental causes of conflict and Kabila's role in fomenting tensions for his own political gain.

Finally, withdrawing aid from Rwanda could have dire consequences for a country still addressing the complex legacies of the 1994 genocide. Donor contributions represent around 48% of the Rwandan national budget, the vast majority of which is spent on education, health and poverty alleviation. Most observers agree that Rwanda has recorded extraordinary successes in these domains since the genocide because of its effective use of international aid and its low levels of corruption. These major socio-economic achievements have been the bedrock of the peace and stability that Rwanda has enjoyed over the last 18 years. The positive impact of aid in Rwanda poses a major dilemma for donors, who have few levers of influence over Kagame's government other than the delay or withdrawal of budgetary support. The danger, however, in using aid in this way is that ultimately it will be the Rwandan population that suffers from any reduction in social and economic services. Withholding aid will do little to address systemic problems in Congo and will undermine substantial gains in Rwanda. This risks causing major instability within Rwanda and the region as a whole.