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Minorities at risk if Congo’s fragile peace is allowed to fail

9 June 2004

Renewed fighting in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo has increased fears of an escalation of tensions and a return to war. An ethnic dimension to recent violence (including ethnic Hutu and Tutsi related allegiances) and the brutal history of the deeply traumatized region in which over three million were killed, have led to calls for early action to restore peace and to ensure the security of innocent civilians. Minority Rights Group International today stressed the need to establish the rights of minorities in order to secure sustainable peace in the region. MRG also highlighted the plight of the most vulnerable groups including the Batwa pygmies, who suffered terribly during the five-year war and its aftermath.

According to MRG, the current sporadic violence is likely to descend once again into full-scale conflict if not addressed immediately. A negotiated settlement between government and rebel groups remains possible stated the rights group, however this will require rapid action to restore confidence in DRC’s complex peace and power-sharing agreement. Government troops have recaptured the town of Bukavu forcing rebel forces to flee, however MRG are concerned that the situation remains dangerously unstable. The presence of UN peacekeepers (MONUC) has helped to contain the fighting and ensure the security of civilians in Bukavu, yet questions have been raised about the role of the UN who have been criticized and attacked by locals for failing to prevent recent events. MONUC’s mandate does not allow troops to become involved in armed conflict in other than a protective capacity, effectively leaving them powerless to re-establish peace once it has broken down.

‘It is not unreasonable to predict a further rapid descent into full-scale conflict without immediate action to calm the situation’, stated Director of Minority Rights Group International, Mark Lattimer, recently returned from a Batwa fact-finding mission in the region. ‘There is a danger that UN peacekeepers become unable to fulfil a deterrent role because rebels and government forces alike are aware of their inability to act decisively. Without rapid preventive action, conflict takes on a momentum which is extremely difficult to resist. The Batwa are among those who will once again become the victims if rebel factions return to the Batwa’s forest territories’.

Reports received by MRG’s Batwa partners in Bukavu have highlighted the current state of high tension in the town and raised further fears for the security of the inhabitants. Among the worst affected minority groups, the Batwa pygmies have been caught up in a war which devastated their communities and forced them to flee from their villages deep in the forest interior. Their villages were often in regions used by rebel groups due to their inaccessibility, and they have been targeted and exploited for their knowledge of the forest and to act as guides and hunters. The Batwa have also been particularly vulnerable to attack due to ‘de-humanizing’ popular perceptions of them and their forest livelihood, including the notion that they have special powers which can be acquired through acts of cannibalism.

Rwandan forces have been implicated in recent fighting increasing concern for regional peace and stability and leading to closure of the borders. Accusations have been made of mistreatment against the Banyamulenge troops who are related to Rwandan Tutsis, by the regions military commanders. Reports suggest that since the peace deal was signed in April 2003 serious violence has continued in the region, including widespread rape, adding to fears expressed by MRG that ‘all of the current indicators and socio-political conditions point to the likelihood of further conflict’.

Notes for editors

For more information, contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].