Written by: Chris Chapman
Probably the most toxic aspect of the current conflict in North Kivu is that, as in Iraq and Sudan and other countries, the protection civilians get from violence often depends on which ethnic group they belong to.
The FARDC - the national army - has fled Goma, unable to stem the advance of Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). The UN peacekeeping mission is desperately calling for more resources, and in the past has been accused of failing to protect civilians.
In this security vacuum, leaders such as Nkunda are able to play on the grievances of their communities to recruit militias, even if their real motivations are about controlling mines and trade. Nkunda says he is fighting because of the abuses his people, the Tutsi, have suffered.
The Tutsi do have legitimate grievances, notably they have been the victims of a number of pogroms in the 1990s. But they certainly do not have the monopoly on suffering in North Kivu. To cite one example, the Mbuti Pygmies, an indigenous people in the Kivus and Ituri, has no militia to protect it; it has been targeted by armed groups, and subjected to massive human rights violations - torture, displacement and the rape of women and children.
The grievances of the Tutsi cannot justify the abuses committed by the CNDP: it has used rape on a massive scale as a tool to terrorise civilian populations, and mass graves of civilians have been found by MONUC, the UN mission in the DRC, in areas recently vacated by the rebel group. More recently, the group has been using refugee camps to launch attacks, in clear contravention of international law.
UN forces are well placed to provide security in North Kivu, because what is desperately needed is a security force that is perceived as neutral. It clearly needs strengthening, but the international political will to do so appears to be weak.
In response to a French proposal earlier this week to send additional European Union troops, British Foreign Office Minister Mark Malloch-Brown said, "we cannot rule out an additional deployment ... but I think it is too early to say that is necessary ... and whether it would arrive in time is also questionable". It's too early, but it may also be too late; a classic piece of diplomatic equivocation, and the result is likely to be that nothing is done.
Faced with another human catastrophe, we are yet again throwing up our hands in powerlessness. It is imperative that the EU approve the French proposal, and send troops to North Kivu within days; it was for this kind of situation, after all, that EU battle groups were proposed in the first place. Even if they arrive too late to protect Goma, there is no reason to assume that Nkunda will stop there.
However in the long term, the only way to stop these conflicts from re-occurring will be by addressing their root causes. There has been a succession of peace agreements between Nkunda's forces, other armed groups and the DRC government.
But, like so many peace agreements, these have only addressed the visible part of the conflict iceberg; the immediate violence. What is needed is for the government to address grievances over illegal land seizures, by establishing a transparent judicial process to review claims. Economic opportunities must be improved by loosening the grip of the militias on import/export income and mines.
The Congolese army needs to become a professional, impartial force that provides security to all communities, including the most vulnerable, by integrating the various militias. In so doing, the militia brigades must be broken up and dispersed, otherwise they carry on waging the same wars in different uniforms.
Finally, and most importantly, the Rwandan and DRC governments need to stop using proxy militias to fight for control over North Kivu and its resources; if they fail to do this, they risk an inflammation of the conflict that may finally destabilize Rwanda and cause the Balkanisation of the DRC.