Why the Congo Experts Need More Scrutiny

While the M23 rebels - who mutinied from the Congolese army last May - remain within striking distance of the key border town of Goma, the regional and international diplomatic wrangling goes on. Fractious peace talks between the rebel leaders and the Congolese government in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, will resume on 4 January.

Central Africa attracted more international attention in 2012 than all the years combined since the Congo wars of the late 1990s. While the M23 rebels - who mutinied from the Congolese army last May - remain within striking distance of the key border town of Goma, the regional and international diplomatic wrangling goes on. Fractious peace talks between the rebel leaders and the Congolese government in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, will resume on 4 January.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council and the US and UK governments have debated sanctions against the rebels and their backers, the withdrawal of international aid to Rwanda, which is accused of supporting M23, the need for a more robust UN peacekeeping mission to protect Congolese civilians and the possible naming of a UN special envoy for the Great Lakes region.

Amid the sound and the fury, however, worrying trends have emerged in the ways that external actors have responded to this latest episode of violence in Congo. In particular, the widespread adoption of the UN Group of Experts (GoE) analysis of M23 by the international media and many policymakers raises critical questions about how we understand and address conflict.

The issue here isn't whether we should agree with the GoE that Rwanda and Uganda are responsible for creating and directing M23 but rather the rushed and generally uncritical way in which the findings of one particular source have so fundamentally shaped public perceptions and international policy. Despite the complexity of violence in this region, there has been limited public deliberation of the GoE's findings, which in many quarters have been treated as gospel truth. This sets a troubling precedent for the analysis of this and other conflict-affected regions in the future.

With this in mind, we should examine the broader context in which the GoE has released its reports as well as the Group's specific methods and conclusions. These issues highlight the need for a more nuanced dissection of the GoE's evidence.

The Wider Picture

There are numerous reasons why the GoE findings on M23 have been so widely accepted, not all of which concern the M23 situation or the Great Lakes region. Key M23-related issues have been magnified, simplified or distorted in order to fit other narratives and agendas. The vociferous debates around M23 quickly morphed into denunciations of Rwanda's various armed interventions in Congo since 1996, as well as Rwanda's domestic human rights record and accusations of authoritarianism at home. Human rights organisations have raised these concerns for many years but international criticism of Rwanda has increased markedly since the volatile 2010 presidential election and the release soon after of a UN mapping report that accused Rwanda of committing serious crimes in Congo between 1993 and 2003.

The GoE reports on M23 therefore provided a pretext to denounce Rwanda for a catalogue of recent as well as historical violations. While it is legitimate to criticise Rwanda's armed interventions in Congo over the last 16 years, the GoE reports have entrenched the view that M23 represents simply the latest in a series of rebel movements being directed and supported by senior Rwandan officials. That the GoE reports provide more systematic evidence on Rwanda's role in creating, rather than directing, M23 has largely been overlooked because of many commentators' desire to fit this latest rebellion into a wider historical pattern.

The GoE findings have also been widely accepted because they resonate with extraneous domestic debates within donor countries. Even before the emergence of M23, the UK government was having to justify its foreign aid policy in the wake of severe austerity cuts. The British press continues to rail against aid to developing countries when so many Britons are seeing their public services and welfare benefits slashed. The GoE's findings of Rwandan complicity in backing M23 fuelled the media furore and heaped pressure on the UK government to withdraw aid to Rwanda.

Meanwhile, the M23 script has been shaped by a cast of British and American political luminaries - David Cameron, Tony Blair, Andrew Mitchell, Bill Clinton, Susan Rice - who have had significant dealings with Rwanda and are lightning rods for criticism on a host of political issues. In the UK, the GoE reports quickly became part of the stew of controversy around Mitchell, the former International Development Secretary, who resigned from Cabinet after allegedly abusing police officers outside Downing Street but not before he had reinstated a previously withheld aid package to Rwanda. At the same time across the Atlantic, the GoE findings became a political weapon against Rice - like Mitchell, pilloried as an unwavering friend of Rwanda - during her ultimately aborted bid to become the next US Secretary of State. Amid these domestic spats, the GoE reports gained unexpected political salience and a momentum that militated against close scrutiny of their methods and findings.

Issues for Debate in the Experts' Reports

It is now worth highlighting some elements from five relevant documents - the 27 June, 15 and 27 November 2012 GoE reports, the Rwandan government's rebuttal to the June GoE analysis and the evidence by the GoE coordinator, Steve Hege, to the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs on 11 December 2012 - that warrant greater debate. Together these may not undermine the view that Rwanda and Uganda are ultimately responsible for creating and supporting M23. The main point here is that a systematic analysis of the situation should have included these issues for the sake of a more informed media and policy response - and to set a higher standard for future evidence-gathering.

Four issues, in particular, deserve further examination.

First, the GoE reports rely too heavily on Congolese government sources who are far from impartial on questions of Rwandan involvement on their territory. Annex 2 to the 15 November GoE report states, "The Group prioritizes testimonies from current and former members of armed groups, local witnesses of specific events, and security services principally from the DRC." The last category constitutes the overwhelming majority of sources cited in the three GoE reports. When the Rwandan government raised concerns over this issue following the June report, the GoE dismissed it, stating in Annex 3 on 15 November that it would be impossible for the dozens of Congolese political and military officials interviewed to mount a "conspiracy" of information against Rwanda. This reply, however, avoids the core contention, which is not whether large numbers of Congolese officials could coordinate their answers to GoE researchers but rather that the GoE preferenced the views of informants who clearly had a vested interest in the issues at hand. A conspiracy on the scale posited by the GoE would not have been necessary for this approach to still skew its findings.

Second, exacerbating this first problem, the GoE conducted minimal research inside Rwanda. This resulted primarily from a lack of cooperation by the Rwandan government, which generally has not helped its cause when dealing with the GoE over the last year. Regardless, the geographical limitation of the GoE's work constrained evidence-gathering and fact-checking on the Rwandan side. In turn, this resulted in various errors that raise wider questions about the reliability of the GoE's sources.

To take one example, the June report by the GoE states incorrectly that Rwanda trained some M23 fighters at the Kanombe military camp in the Rwandan capital, Kigali - a key claim in showing the extent of Rwandan involvement in the M23 rebellion - when that site comprises only a military hospital and a cemetery. After the Rwandan government identified this mistake in its rebuttal to the June report, the GoE admitted on 15 November that its original claim was based on an interview with a single source. However, it went on to state that a visit by the GoE to Kanombe in July showed that the camp could be used for training M23 because it contains "parade fields" and "wooded areas". Besides, the GoE added, "'training' for experienced RDF soldiers usually consists of briefings and preparations of small groups, to be carried out in any military facility."

The GoE's response here is unsatisfactory: it does not acknowledge that its original claim was based on faulty and unverified evidence and instead maintains that M23 "training" could take place at Kanombe but on grounds entirely different from those stated in the initial report. No one familiar with the site - which is located beside the international airport and has never previously been used for military training - would accept this latter claim. More generally, the Kanombe example highlights the weakness of the GoE's analysis of dynamics inside Rwanda.

Third, while the GoE claims that it has adopted "elevated methodological standards" due to the gravity of its allegations against Rwanda, those standards are highly variable across its 2012 reports. While some GoE claims are supported by a range of corroborated sources, others - such as the Kanombe example above - are based on single interviews or, in some cases, on telephone conversations overheard by third parties. A consistent trend in the GoE's attempt to show substantial Rwandan support for M23 has been to trace back to Kigali weapons found on the battlefield in eastern Congo. The most common GoE method to substantiate such claims has been to show that the weapons in question have never been formally registered in the Congolese army's stocks. This approach, however, does not prove that the weapons emanated from Rwanda when the region is awash with weapons acquired from numerous international sources over several decades.

Perhaps the most concerning issue relating to methodology, though, is the range of claims made by Hege - soon after he left his position as coordinator of the GoE - during his testimony to the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The second half of Hege's evidence outlines Rwanda's regional motivations for backing M23, which amounts to amplifying a longstanding Great Lakes myth about Rwanda's desire for the secession of eastern Congo and the creation of an autonomous Rwandan-controlled state. The basis for Hege's statements is a jumbled collection of conversations with unidentified Rwandan officials whom he claims told him personally, long before the creation of M23, that this was Rwanda's primary objective in the region. It is impossible to verify this type of anecdotal evidence. More importantly, Hege does not explain why Rwandan officials would admit such expansionist intentions to a senior member of a UN investigative body. Important questions should therefore be asked about the basis of such statements, as well as the impact of repeating highly divisive narratives about Rwanda's interest in the "balkanization" of Congo.

Finally, there should be closer inspection of the GoE's response to the Rwandan government's rebuttal of its claims, which is contained in Annex 3 to the GoE's 15 November report. In substantive terms, the GoE does not acknowledge specific errors in any of its reports and instead claims that any identified mistakes do not undermine the broader case being made regarding Rwanda's support for M23. This approach is concerning because it suggests a lack of openness and responsiveness to external critique.

In terms of tone, the GoE response to Rwanda's rebuttal is strident and dismissive in a way unbecoming of an official UN document. The GoE reply begins in a barbed fashion:

The [Government of Rwanda's] rebuttal seeks to distort the conclusions of the Group's investigations so as to portray them as if they "hinge on" specific minor details. However, the Group purposefully stated that it had gathered "overwhelming evidence" demonstrating that the [Government of Rwanda] had directly violated the United Nations arms embargo and sanctions regime.

Certainly Rwanda has not helped matters by adopting a consistently belligerent stance toward the GoE. Rwanda has also mounted a campaign of character assassination against Hege and other members of the GoE, which has weakened its critique of their findings. Nonetheless, as an impartial international body, the GoE should have adopted a more measured tone in its reply to Rwanda. Coupled with the practice of leaking its reports weeks before Rwanda could respond fully to any accusations, this has increased Rwanda's intransigence and stymied efforts at meaningful diplomacy to resolve the current conflict.

These issues underscore the need to scrutinise more closely the methods and findings of analysts working on the Great Lakes. This is particularly the case when a source such as the GoE is so influential in shaping international media and policy responses. The GoE could not have imagined the enormous impact its 2012 reports would have, especially on decisions about foreign aid and sanctions in central Africa. That those reports were not examined more critically, though, has clouded reactions to the current conflict and established concerning precedents for analysing this region in the future.

Before You Go