On October 1, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador and the president's presumptive nominee to be the next U.S. secretary of state, met at the French mission here in New York with top diplomats from Britain and France, where they discussed the crisis in eastern Congo, a sliver of territory along the Rwandan border, where mutineers were preparing a final offensive to seize the regional capital of Goma.
France's U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, pressed Rice and Britain's U.N. envoy, Mark Lyall Grant, to apply greater political pressure on the mutineers' chief sponsor, Rwanda, a close American ally, that stands accused by a U.N. panel of sponsoring, arming, and commanding the insurgent M23 forces. The French argued that threats of sanctions were needed urgently to pressure Kigali to halt its support for the M23 and prevent them from gobbling up more Congolese territory.
But Rice pushed back, reasoning that any move to sanction Rwandan leader Paul Kagame would backfire, and it would be better to work with him to find a long-term solution to the region's troubles than punish him. "Gerard, it's eastern Congo. If it were not the M23 killing people it would be some other armed groups," she said, according to one of three U.N.-based sources who detailed the exchange. The U.S. mission declined to comment on the meeting, which was confidential.
The tense exchange reflected the role the United States has played in minimizing Rwanda's exposure to a more punitive approach by the Security Council. Since last summer, the United States has used its influence at the United Nations to delay the publication of a report denouncing Rwanda's support for the M23, to buy time for a Security Council resolution condemning foreign support for the rebellion, and opposing any direct references to Rwanda in U.N statements and resolutions on the crisis.
U.S. officials say they have delivered stern messages to top Rwandan officials in private to halt their support for the M23, and last summer they have frozen some military aid to the Rwandan army, citing the government's support for the mutineers. Rice, they say, is deeply conscious of the horrors wrought by the M23, but that she and other top American officials are pursuing a strategy in New York aimed at minimizing the chances of undercutting regional efforts, involving President Kagame, Uganda President Yoweri Musevini, and Congolese President Joseph Kabila, to bring about a durable peace.
"We want to see an end to the current military offensive. We want to see an end to the occupation of Goma," U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Johnnie Carson told reporters in Washington last week, before the rebels began a partial retreat from Goma. "We want to see the three presidents working together to deal with the most immediate crisis and to develop and put in place architecture that will deal ... with the long term issues that affect the region."
Carson also challenged suggestions that Rice, a long time friend of President Kagame, was freelancing on Rwanda. "I too have known President Kagame for many years," he said. "There is not a shadow of a distance between myself and Ambassador Rice on the issues related to the Great Lakes crisis. We are all engaged in delicate diplomacy to get this done, but that diplomacy is carried out in close harmony and in unison."
In the end, American diplomacy did little to stop the M23's war aims. On November 17, the M23 mutineers, allegedly backed by Rwanda and Uganda, launched a major offensive against the Congolese army in eastern Congo. Within three days, the M23 had vanquished the ragged Congolese army, whose forces fled, and marched on the regional capital of Goma, triggering limited resistance from the U.N. peacekeeping forces, which initially clashed with the rebels before announcing it had no mandate to continue the fight if the Congolese army refused to resist the rebellion.
With M23 in control of Goma, the 15-nation Security Council on November 20 adopted a resolution that "strongly" condemned the M23's conduct -- including summary executions, sexual- and gender-based violence, and large-scale recruitment of child soldiers -- and voiced "deep concern" at reports of external support for the mutineers. But at the insistence of the United States, the resolution stopped short of naming Rwanda.
Rwanda has been a close ally of the United States since 1994, when extremist forces linked to the country's then French-backed, ethnic Hutu-dominated government carried out the genocide of more than 800,000 moderate Hutu and ethnic Tutsi Rwandans.
A Tutsi-dominated insurgency, led by then-General Paul Kagame, restored stability to the country, making it a model of economic prosperity and forging a reputation for the rebuilt country as a regional peacekeeper, sending Rwandan blue helmets to Sudan to protect civilians. But his government has also been the subject of U.N. investigations charging it with carrying out large-scale reprisal killings in eastern Congo and Rwanda in the 1990s, and backing a succession of armed groups in eastern Congo.
Both Republican and Democratic administrations have vigorously backed the government in Kigali. In September 2007, the Bush administration supported the appointment of an alleged Rwandan war criminal as the deputy commander of the U.N. mission in Darfur, even though the appointment may have violated a U.S. law prohibiting funding for peacekeeping operations that employee rights abusers.
The latest conflict in eastern Congo began in April 2012, when Bosco Ntaganda, a former Congolese militia leader who stands accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court, began an armed mutiny against government forces in eastern Congo. Ntaganda, once fought along the Rwanda Patriotic Front -- which toppled a pro-French government in Kigali and drove government forces responsible for genocide into eastern Congo, then known as Zaire.
An independent U.N. Security Council panel, known as the Group of Experts, claims that Rwanda military leadership, including Defense Minister James Kaberebe, have armed, trained and commanded the mutineers under Ntaganda, who goes by the grim nickname, The Terminator. In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, the Group of Experts coordinator, Steve Hege, accused Rwanda of leading the overthrow of Goma.
"The Group has repeatedly concluded that the government of Rwanda (GoR), with the support of allies within the government of Uganda, has created, equipped, trained, advised, reinforced and directly commanded the M23 rebellion," Hege wrote in a November 26 letter, posted by the New York Times, to the U.N. committee overseeing sanctions in Congo. "The information initially gathered by the group regarding the recent offensive and seizure of the North Kivu Provincial town of Goma strongly upholds this conclusion."
Rwandan officials have repeatedly denied allegations that the government is supporting the M23, saying the experts are politically biased against Rwanda and that they have furnished sufficient documentary evidence to prove their case. But the Security Council's key Western governments, including the United States, Britain, and France have largely backed the Group of Experts panel in the face of Rwandan criticism.
Philippe Bolopion, Human Rights Watch's U.N. representative said that Washington should publicly acknowledge Rwanda's support for the M23 and ratchet up pressure on the government to rein them in. "The U.S. premise that private engagement is the best way to restrain Rwanda has been shown to be false, with tragic consequences," he said.
"It's puzzling that the United States continues to remain silent while Rwanda is putting weapons in the hand of notorious M23 abusers, who are using them to kill civilians, rape and recruit children. It's even more inexplicable since the M23 is attacking U.N. peacekeepers that the United States has supported and financed to protect civilians."
The United States, however, maintains that that is exactly what it is trying to do.
In Rice's public remarks, she has singled out the M23, for instance, posting a tweet condemning the actions of the M23 and "those who support them."
"Working with colleagues on the Security Council, the United States helped craft the resolution to reinforce the delicate diplomatic effort underway at the moment in Kampala to end the rebellion in eastern Congo," said Payton Knopf, a spokesman for Rice.
"The Security Council's strong resolution, which the U.S. cosponsored, condemned the M23's military campaign, demanded that the M23 withdraw immediately from Goma and permanently disband and lay down its arms, and threatened swift sanctions against M23 leaders as well as their external supporters."
But while some of Washington's counterparts in the council feel the United States is protecting Kigali, Rwandan officials say they are not convinced, citing American support for last month's resolution denouncing foreign support to the M23, a thinly veiled swipe at Rwanda.
"It's impossible to say Rwanda will be in safe hands with the United States on the DRC issue," said Olivier Nduhungirehe, a U.N.-based Rwandan diplomat. "Rwanda will be on our own.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.