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Progress on DR Congo's path to stability, but shortfalls hamper efforts

United Nations peacekeepers are making “important headway” on the difficult road towards bringing stability to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), but shortfalls in funds and military equipment are constraining their efforts, a top official said today.

From combating rape used as a weapon of war by both rebels and national army soldiers, to the reintegration of former rebels and speedy responses to violence, much greater efforts are needed, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative for the DRC, Roger Meece, told the Security Council, while citing improved cooperation with the DRC government.

He highlighted shortfalls in financing and equipment, ranging from an insufficient number of military helicopters to ensure security to a lack of funding for judicial reform and the holding of elections. “I encourage all donors and partners to increase their own activities in these areas,” he said in later comments to reporters.

“The protection of civilians clearly remains our major priority and focus, driven by operations of predatory foreign and domestic armed groups in the eastern portion of the country,” the Special Representative said in his briefing to the Council. Citing last month’s rape of up to 80 people by the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), he added, “These groups continue to act as predatory forces, often incorporating the use of rape and other violence as a weapon against civilians.”

Mr. Meece also noted “too many reported case of abuses” by the national army and police, including 35 people raped over the New Year’s holiday, but praised the rapid intervention of government authorities and the arrest of seven soldiers and four officers. “Such action is a welcome step toward ending the impunity felt by too many for too long,” he said.

There are, however, still significant weaknesses in the military and civilian justice systems, and the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) – the peacekeeping mission which Mr. Meece heads – has worked to bolster military prosecution capabilities with support from Canada and the UN Peacebuilding Fund, “but much greater efforts are needed,” Mr. Meece stressed. The Fund, which was set up in 2006 and relies upon voluntary contributions, supports efforts to augment peace and stability in countries emerging from conflict.

Since 1999 and under various names, the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC – with currently more than 19,000 uniformed personnel on the ground – has overseen the vast country’s emergence from years of civil war and factional chaos, culminating most notably in 2006 with the first democratic elections in over four decades. But fighting has continued in the east where the bulk of UN forces are deployed.

Reintegration programmes for former armed rebels pose a problem, since those integrated without sufficient training tend to be associated with reported abuses, Mr. Meece noted. Last September, MONUSCO started a long-term training programme for those integrated into the police, with financial support from Japan, but again “much more is needed,” he added.

The FDLR remains the major rebel force in eastern DRC, but Mr. Meece reported some hopeful signs in countering it, including the “demoralizing” impact of European action against its political leadership which has resulted in internal strains and operational problems.

“It is certainly premature to assert that the FDLR is collapsing but the group’s capacity is diminishing and is under strain,” he said. “In fact, for the first time in my experience in the region, I believe the outline can be seen of an eventual resolution of this long-standing threat to the population. We are not at the point of success, but there is clear progress.”

Citing the developing collaboration between MONUSCO and government forces, which has reduced the operational capacity of the armed groups, Mr. Meece noted that, while not free of problems, “this more active military posture is a necessary component to achieve conditions of long-term security,” but he warned that a shortage of military helicopters significantly constrained operations.

“We are still facing serious shortfalls that are projected to increase absent new timely contributions,” he said, stressing that India’s extension of the use of its existing combat helicopters until July only provided “breathing room.” Among measures taken to increase the protection of civilians, he cited the establishment of community alert networks, the use of cell phones with pre-set contact numbers and high frequency radios.

In a press statement following Mr. Meece’s briefing, the Council “voiced deep concern about MONUSCO’s chronic shortage of military helicopters and urged member states to urgently contribute military helicopters to fill this critical capability gap.” The statement strongly condemned the rapes, welcomed the government’s swift response and called for the speedy prosecution of the perpetrators.

The Council also expressed concern at the limited progress made in security and judicial sector reform, “in particular the training and reform of the national army and police, which remains a crucial element for stabilization and peace consolidation.”

Turning to this year’s national elections – “a critical component of Congo’s long-term stabilization” – Mr. Meece cited the mission’s logistical support and concerns over funding.

“I must note my concern, however about MONUSCO budget levels, as it is not yet clear we will have the needed funds in the 2011/2012 budget cycle to ensure the necessary logistical support we are uniquely positioned to provide,” he warned. “If we face MONUSCO budget shortfalls, we will be obliged to utilize funds from other parts of the mission’s budget, potentially with quite significant negative impact on other operations.”

But despite the challenges ahead, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative concluded his remarks to the Council on a hopeful note.

“I remain optimistic that with sustained engagement and support we are on a path toward achieving the kind of security and stable conditions which the people of the Congo and region richly deserve,” he said.

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