The United States has abandoned an initiative to authorize a U.N. peacekeeping mission to monitor and report on human rights abuses in Western Sahara in the face of intensive resistance from Morocco, which exercises military control over the former Spanish colony.
Last week, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, pushed for a broader mandate for the U.N. peacekeeping mission to monitor and report on rights abuses in Western Sahara and in Tindouf, Algeria, where more than 100,000 Sahrawi refugees live in a cluster of desert encampments.
The initial move -- which was applauded by human rights advocates -- encountered intense resistance from Morocco. Last week, Rabat protested the U.S. action by cancelling joint U.S.-Moroccan military exercises. The Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, also objected to the U.S. move in a letter to the White House. Morocco made clear that they would not allow the human rights monitors into Western Sahara.
The former Spanish possession is Africa's only remaining non-self-governing territory, with some 500,000 people in a sparsely populated desert expanse the size of Britain. Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco and Mauritania in 1975, when the Spanish withdrew. Mauritania ultimately abandoned its claim, and Morocco claimed their share of the territory in 1979. Morocco -- aided by France's diplomacy -- has fiercely and successfully resisted efforts by the Polisario Front, which enjoys diplomatic support from Algeria, to claim independence.
The Algerian-backed Polisario rebels fought Moroccan troops until 1991, when a U.N. brokered ceasefire called for a referendum that would allow Saharans the ability to vote on an independence referendum. But Morocco has never allowed such a vote to occur, and now insists that Western Sahara remain as an autonomous part of Morocco. Morocco, however, has been unable to convince any other government to recognize its claim to Western Sahara.
For years, the government in Rabay has successfully blocked a raft of initiative by states, including Britain, to grant the U.N. mission a role in monitoring human rights abuses.
Last week, Rice surprised her counterparts in the so-called Friends of Western Sahara group -- which includes the governments of the United States, France, Britain, Spain and Russia -- by indicating that Washington would press for authorization of U.N. human rights monitors in a Security Council resolution renewing the U.N. peacekeeping mission's mandate for another year. But the proposal faced resistance in the U.N. Security Council from Morocco, the council's lone Arab government, and other key powers like France, China, and Russia.
Earlier this week, the United States dropped the proposal. The council is now set to vote tomorrow on a resolution that would renew the peacekeeping mandate, but without human rights monitors. Instead, the resolution offers far softer language stressing the importance of human rights, and encouraging key players to promote human rights and develop "independent and credible measures" to ensure those rights are respected.
Senior Security Council diplomats said that the United States had underestimated the depth of Moroccan opposition. They also complained that the U.S. delegation had failed to adequately consult with its key partners, including Britain, France, and Spain, before pressing ahead with the initiative.
However, one U.N. diplomat defending the U.S. position countered: "Not only did the U.S. coordinate with its allies and partners in the same timeframe as they typically do, but the positions of some important members of the Friends Groups had softened considerably on human rights."
Ahmad Boukhari, the U.N. representative of the Polisario Front, said that a stronger U.S. push could have resulted in a tougher resolution, but that he considered it a "moral victory" that the United States even put the matter on the table. Asked why the initiative was dropped, he said, "There were some difficulties whose nature is unknown to me."
The Moroccan mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.
Human rights advocates, meanwhile, expressed disappointment at the U.S. reversal. "The U.S. starting position was right on target, and had it prevailed would likely have contributed to an improvement of human rights conditions both in Western Sahara and in the refugee camps around Tindouf, in Algeria," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. "Sadly the U.S. neither stuck to its guns or secured a compromise allowing enhanced human rights monitoring. Moroccan intransigence and the lack of vocal support by allies such as the UK did not help."
Britain, he noted, had previously supported the U.N. human rights mission in the past "and should have done so vocally again this year."
A spokeswoman for the British mission to the United Nations, Iona Thomas, said: "The United Kingdom strongly supports the upholding of human rights in Western Sahara. We welcome that the resolution, if adopted, will emphasize the importance of improving the human rights situation in Western Sahara and Tindouf camps."
The United States move followed a report earlier this month by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who urged "further international engagement" with the human rights situation in Western Sahara and Tindouf. "Given ongoing reports of human rights violations the need for independent, impartial, comprehensive and sustained monitoring of the human right situations in both Western Sahara and the camps becomes ever more pressing."
The U.N. Security Council has been pressing Morocco to accept greater scrutiny of its human rights record. Last year, Rabat agreed to allow periodic visits by independent U.N. human rights experts, and experts from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"From the outset, our aim has been a renewal of MINURSO's mandate that is consistent with our goal of bringing about a peaceful, sustainable, and mutually agreed solution to the conflict whereby the human rights of all individuals are respected," said Payton Knopf, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. "As the secretary general underscored in his recent report on Western Sahara, human rights remains a serious issue that deserves the council's attention."
"The draft resolution contains additional language this year encouraging enhanced efforts and further progress on human rights," he added. "Human rights in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps will continue to have the full attention of the U.N. Security Council and the United States, and we will be monitoring progress closely over the coming year."
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Uganda has threatened to withdraw from U.S.- and U.N.-backed regional efforts to hunt down Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, and to restore peace in Somalia, if the world body fails to clear it of charges of supporting an armed mutiny in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The threat, which was contained in a Ugandan letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and to 15 members of the U.N. Security Council, follows last month's leak of a report by an independent U.N. Group of Experts alleging that Rwanda and Uganda are sponsoring a military mutiny in eastern Congo.
President Yoweri Museveni's special envoy, Ruhakana Rugunda, Lt. General Katumba Wamala, the commander of Ugandan land forces, and other senior officials, traveled to New York last week to underscore Kampala's anger over the panel's findings. In his meeting with U.N. officials and diplomats, Rugunda expressed "disappointment and grave concern about the false accusations against Uganda" contained in the Group of Experts report, according to a Ugandan statement.
"The government expressed that it was unacceptable to malign Uganda's contribution to regional peace and security by alleging that it supports the M23 Group," read the statement. "The government informed that Uganda's withdrawal from regional peace, including Somalia, CAR, etc. would become inevitable unless the UN corrects the false accusations made against Uganda."
The Security Council panel, known as the Group of Experts, alleged that "senior government of Uganda (GOU) officials have ... provided support to M23 in the form of direct troops reinforcements in DRC territory, munitions deliveries, technical assistance, joint planning, political advise, and facilitation of external relations," according to the confidential report, which was reviewed by Turtle Bay.
"Units of the Ugandan People's Defense Forces (UPDF) and the Rwandan Defence Forces (RDF) jointly supported M23 in a series of attacks on July 12 to take over the major towns of Rutushuru territory" as well as a Rwandan military base.
The M23 movement was founded by Laurent Nkunda, a former Congolese general who led a rebellion against his former comrades in eastern Congo. But the mutiny was commanded by Bosco Ntaganda, a former Congolese rebel and accused war criminal who appointed a general of the Congolese army (known as the FARDC), in 2005 as part of a peace deal and Col. Sultani Makenga, another defector, who is likely to face U.N. sanctions for his role in the mutiny. But the supreme leader of the M23, the panel alleged, is James Kabarebe, Rwanda's defense minister, a charge the Rwandan government has denied.
The Group of Experts accused the rebel movement of extensive human rights abuses, including the forced recruitment of hundreds of young boys and girls into the movement, and the "extra-judicial executions of dozens of recruits and prisoners of war."
In August and September, Colonel Makenga ordered a notorious Congolese militia group, Raia Mutomboki, "to carry out brutal ethnically motivated attacks, burning over 800 homes and killings hundreds of civilians from Congolese communities" in eastern Congo, according to the experts' report.
The group of experts has recommended that the U.N. Security Council sanctions committed call on Uganda and Rwanda to "cease" violations of the arms embargo and to submit regular reports on what measures they are taking "to halt the activities of the M23." It also calls on member states to review and consider future military assistance to Rwanda and Uganda."
Security Council diplomats are unwilling, for now, to single out Rwanda and Uganda for condemnation in the council. Any effort to pressure Kigali to halt its alleged support for the M23 will be complicated by Rwanda's recent election to the U.N. Security Council, where it will begin serving a two-year term on January 1.
The expert group first accused Rwanda of sponsoring the M23 back in June, prompting the United States, Britain, and other European governments to freeze military assistance and other aid.
But council diplomats have shown less enthusiasm for taking on Uganda, which provides a vital logistic base for U.N. peacekeepers in Congo, and which is leading diplomatic efforts to end the violence in eastern Congo. They also note that Uganda stands accused of playing a far less central role in backing the M23 than Rwanda.
Throughout the week, senior council diplomats and U.N. officials have sought to keep the Ugandan letter secret, and downplayed the gravity of Kampala's threat, saying that the country's 6,500 troops serving in a U.N.-backed African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia have not been formally ordered back to the barracks. They hope that they can gradually convince the Ugandans to back down.
Some officials say they suspect that Uganda simply needs to blow off steam and that they will recognize that it is not in their long-term interest to withdraw from regional peace efforts, which have boosted their political standing in the region. Earlier this week, Secretary General Ban reached out to President Museveni to convince him to cool down. But the issue is not likely to disappear. The Group of Experts is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee on Monday. And diplomatic sources say they will present new evidence of alleged Rwandan and Uganda support for the mutiny.
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The Rwandan government played a pivotal role in the creation of an armed anti-government mutiny in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and then supplied the so-called M23 mutineers with weapons, ammunitions, and young Rwandan recruits, according to a confidential report by a U.N. Group of Experts.
The U.N. panel claimed in a 44-page report, which has been distributed to Security Council members but not made public, that Rwanda's role in the mutiny constituted a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions banning the supply of weapons to armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In anticipation of the report's release, Rwanda's Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo denied at a press conference at U.N. headquarters Monday that top Rwandan officials have backed the mutineers, insisting that top Rwandan military officials had in fact urged the mutineers to put down their arms and resolve their difference with the Congolese army through talks. "Of course, Rwanda's top army leadership in no way would be involved in destroying the peace they have been working very hard to build," she said.
The report's release has been delayed for weeks amid allegations by the Congolese government that the United States had sought to block publication of report that could prove damaging to a close ally. But the United States and other council member ultimately agreed to the release of the report after the experts had a chance to brief the Rwandan government on its findings. The final report is expected to be made public later this week. But Turtle Bay, which obtained a leaked copy, is posting excerpts from the report:
Since the outset of its current mandate, the Group [of Experts] has gathered evidence of arms embargo and sanctions regime violations committed by the Rwandan Government. These violations consist of the provision of material and financial support to armed groups operation in the eastern DRC, including the recently established M23, in contravention of paragraph 1 of Security Council resolution 1807. The arms embargo and sanctions regimes violations include the following:
*Direct assistance in the creation of M23 through the transport of weapons and soldiers through Rwandan territory;
*Recruitment of Rwandan youth and demobilized ex-combatants as well as Congolese refugees for M23;
*Provision of weapons and ammunition to M23;
*Mobilization and lobbying of Congolese political and financial leaders for the benefit of M23;
*Direct Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF) interventions into Congolese territory to reinforce M23;
*Support to several other armed groups as well as FARDC mutinies in the eastern Congo;
*Violation of the assets freeze and travel ban through supporting sanctioned individuals.
Over the course of its investigation since late 2011, the Group has found substantial evidence attesting to support from Rwandan officials to armed groups operating in the eastern DRC. Initially the RDF [Rwandan Defense Forces] appeared to establish these alliances to facilitate a wave of targeted assassinations against key FDLR [The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the armed remnants of Rwanda's former genocidal government] officers, thus significantly weakening the rebel movement (see paragraphs 37 & 38 of interim report). However, these activities quickly extended to support for a series of post electoral mutinies within the FARDC [The Congolese Armed Forces] and eventually included the direct facilitation, through the use of Rwandan territory, of the creation of the M23 rebellion. The latter is comprised of ex-CNDP officers integrated into the Congolese army (FARDC) in January 2009. Since M23 established itself in strategic positions along the Rwandan border in May 2012, the Group has gathered overwhelming evidence demonstrating that senior RDF officers, in their official capacities, have been backstopping the rebels through providing weapons, military supplies, and new recruits.
In turn, M23 continues to solidify alliances with many other armed groups and mutineer movements, including those previously benefiting from RDF support. This has created enormous security challenges, extending from Ituri district in the north to Fizi territory in the south, for the already overstretched Congolese Army(FARDC). Through such arms embargo violations, Rwandan officials have also been in contravention of the sanctions regime's travel ban and assets freeze measures, by including three designated individuals amongst their direct allies.
In an attempt to solve the crisis which this Rwandan support to armed groups had exacerbated, the governments of the DRC and Rwanda have held a series of high-level bilateral meetings since early April 2012. During these discussions, Rwandan officials have insisted on impunity for their armed group and mutineer allies, including ex-CNDP General Bosco Ntaganda, and the deployment of additional RDF units to the Kivus to conduct large-scale operations against the FDLR. The latter request has been repeatedly made despite the fact that: a) the RDF halted its unilateral initiatives to weaken the FDLR in late February; b) RDF Special Forces have already been deployed officially in Rutshuru territory for over a year; c) RDF operational units are periodically reinforcing the M23 on the battlefield against the Congolese army; d) M23 is directly and indirectly allied with several FDLR splinter groups; and e) the RDF is remobilizing previously repatriated FDLR to boost the ranks of M23.
* * *
Elevated Standards of Evidence:
In light of the serious nature of these findings, the group has adopted elevated methodological standards. Since early April 2012, the Group has interviewed over 80 deserters of FARDC mutinies and Congolese armed groups, including from M23. Amongst the latter, the Group has interviewed 31 Rwandan nationals. Furthermore, the group has also photographed weapons and military equipment found in arms caches and on the battlefield, as well as obtained official documents and intercepts of radio communication. The Group has also consulted dozens of senior Congolese military commanders and intelligence officials as well as political and community leaders with intricate knowledge of development between DRC and Rwanda. Moreover, the Group has communicated regularly with several active participants of the ex-CNDP mutiny, the M23 rebellion, and other armed groups. Finally, while the Group's standard methodology requires a minimum of three sources, assessed to be credible and independent of one another, it has raised this to five sources when naming specific individuals involved in these case of arms embargo and sanctions violations.
* * *
Rwandan Support to M23:
Since the earliest stage of its inception, the Group documented a systematic pattern of military and political support provided to the M23 rebellion by Rwandan authorities. Upon taking control over the strategic position of Runyoni, along the Rwandan border with DRC, M23 officers opened two supply routes going from Runyoni to Kinigi or Njerima in Rwanda, which RDF officers used to deliver such support as troops, recruits, and weapons. The Group also found evidence that Rwandan officials mobilized ex-CNDP cadres and officers, North Kivu politicians, business leaders and youth in support of M23.
* * *
Direct Rwandan assistance in creation of M23 through Rwandan territory:
Colonel Sultani Makenga deserted the FARDC in order to create the M23 rebellion using Rwandan territory and benefiting directly from RDF facilitation (See paragraph 104 of interim report). On 4 May, Makenga crossed the border from Goma into Gisenyi, Rwanda, and waited for his soldiers to join him from Goma and Bukavu. Intelligence sources, M23 collaborators and local politicians confirmed for the Group that RDF Western Division commander, General Emmanuel Ruvusha, welcomed Makenga upon his arrival to Gisenyi. The same source indicated that Ruvusha subsequently held a series of coordination meetings with other RDF officers in Gisenyi and Ruhengeri over the following days with Makenga.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.