Nobel prize winner criticizes western ‘neglect’ and urges action over DRC violence | Conflict and arms

The west must ditch its “double standards” and act decisively against the worsening violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Dr Denis Mukwege, the Nobel prize-winning surgeon, has said.

In a stinging criticism of the international community’s “negligence”, Mukwege urged Britain and its allies to impose sanctions on neighboring Rwanda to help ease the growing crisis in the east of the country.

Kigali has been accused by the UN of supporting the M23 rebel militia, which returned to the fray in November 2021 after years of lying dormant and has since seized a swathe of territory in eastern DRC. Rwanda denies the claim.

A failure by the west to target the country with sanctions risked not only perpetuating the violence in North Kivu province but also the perception that it is indifferent to the suffering of Africans, said Mukwege.

“We can see very clearly that this politics of double standards is undermining the credibility of the international, multilateral system. I’m sorry to say that this sort of flexible humanism is frustrating young Africans,” said Mukwege, comparing the huge international response to the war in Ukraine with the muted references to the “totally forgotten” DRC.

In fact, he warned, western diplomatic inertia was already boosting support among many young Africans for the old enemy of western imperialism. “At protests now they are flying the Russian flag,” he said. “Now, I do not think that Russia is a solution … but there really is a lack of trust among Africans at the moment in the policies pursued by many European countries.”

Moscow has increased its presence on the African continent in recent years, often focusing on the most unstable areas where resentment against former colonial powers is most easily fanned.

In North Kivu province, renewed fighting between M23 – the March 23 Movement, a Tutsi rebel group – and national armed forces has pushed at least 390,000 people from their homes, according to the UN.

Last week, the UN accused the rebels of arbitrarily killing at least 131 people – men, women and children – in the Rutshuru villages of Kishishe and Bambo at the end of November. The militia has denied responsibility, while the government estimated the number of dead at closer to 300.

Mukwege – a gynecologist who won the Nobel peace prize jointly with Yazidi activist Nadia Murad for their efforts working against sexual violence as a weapon of war – said colleagues in North Kivu hospitals were seeing the number of patients, including rape victims, “increasing significantly” .

He had recently been in a camp for internally displaced people near Goma, where he said teenage girls were living “in a state of constant fear due to the fact that at any moment they risk being destroyed by people who view them as game… to be hunted”.

A camp for internally displaced people near Goma. More than 390,000 have left their homes because of clashes between the M23 and the Congolese army. Photograph: Guerchom Ndebo/AFP/Getty Images

Ever since M23 took up arms in late 2021, scrutiny of its alleged links with neighboring Rwanda has returned. In August the UN said it had “solid evidence” that Rwandan troops had been fighting alongside M23, while last week US secretary of state Antony Blinken emphasized in a phone call with Rwandan president Paul Kagame that his country’s “assistance to M23” must end, the state department said.

“The US has got proof… UN experts have got proof,” said Mukwege. “So the question is: what is the west waiting for to sanction Rwanda for the crimes against humanity that are being committed, these serious violations of human rights?”

Mukwege contrasted the international community’s “worrying neglect” with the “courageous decision” taken by Barack Obama in 2013 to block military aid to Rwanda over its support for M23, which was accused of using child soldiers.

Mukwege said he suspected many western countries were reluctant to act for fear of harming their economic interests in DRC, one of the most mineral-rich countries in Africa and the world’s leading supplier of cobalt – crucial for making smartphones and electric vehicles.

“Why can’t we do things differently?” he said. “Create business links that would allow Congolese people to live in peace and mining companies to do their work in a win-win relationship… there is no need to go back to the 19th century, to the time of Leopold II, to have mobile phones or car batteries.”

Mukwege, who was in London last month for a UK government-hosted conference on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, urged Britain and other European countries to settle on a “coherent” policy, adding: “I believe that recognizing that Rwanda is supporting M23, which is a terrorist group that kills, rapes and destroys the population, has to be followed by sanctions.”

The M23 denies it is a terrorist group. Bertrand Bisimwa, its self-styled president, told the Guardian via WhatsApp last week that it was trying “to definitively resolve the deep causes of conflict through dialogue and to do that the M23 is making an effort to discourage the efforts of [the government] to impose a military solution.”

He did not directly deny a close relationship with Rwanda, saying there were people there who “know our problems”. But such a tie has been repeatedly denied by Kigali.

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