Protecting civilians must be at the heart of counter-LRA intervention
President Obama’s decision earlier this month to deploy approximately 100 US troops to central Africa in support of regional efforts to defeat the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has attracted both praise and criticism. As one of the only international NGOs providing humanitarian aid in LRA-affected areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Oxfam’s primary concern is that any efforts to address the LRA learn from the mistakes of past counter-LRA efforts and ensure that the protection of civilians is at the center of any intervention.
This is not the first time that the United States has intervened militarily in pursuit of the rebel group. Since 2008, the US has provided more than 40 million dollars of logistical assistance, training, and equipment to support regional efforts against the LRA. In December 2008, the US supported Operation Lightning Thunder, a disastrous joint military campaign conducted by the armies of the DRC, Uganda, and South Sudan. The operation not only failed to eliminate senior LRA leaders, but led to vicious reprisal attacks against civilians in eastern DRC and South Sudan, which killed approximately 865 women, men, and children. There is an even longer history of military campaigns by Uganda–where the LRA originated–which did little to dislodge senior leadership while inflicting massive suffering on the civilian population of northern Uganda.
Focusing exclusively on military solutions to the LRA only deals with one piece of the problem: it is no coincidence that the LRA preys on villages in the most remote and underdeveloped areas of central Africa. The lack of basic infrastructure or effective protection by police, the Congolese military, or international peacekeepers makes vulnerable people easy targets for killing, abduction, and looting.
Although military experts have suggested that the LRA may have been significantly degraded militarily, it nevertheless retains the capacity to displace, abduct, rape, and kill hundreds of thousands. Nearly 440,000 people remain displaced by the LRA in the region, not including those who flee attacks for short periods of time and then return home. Such violence and displacement further entrench poverty and vulnerability for hundreds of thousands. Accordingly, the US needs to do much more to make these communities less vulnerable by developing infrastructure such as increased phone coverage and roads, but also by helping to address the absence of effective state presence and protection which made these areas attractive to the LRA in the first place and continue to allow them to operate freely today.
This is not just good sense; it is also the law. In May 2010, President Obama signed the bipartisan Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, which made it the policy of the US to “work with regional governments toward a comprehensive and lasting resolution” to LRA-affected areas by providing humanitarian aid and “providing political, economic, military and intelligence support” for both military and non-military strategies to defeat senior leadership of the LRA and disarm and demobilize lower-level fighters.
To operationalize this law, nearly a year ago the Obama administration released a strategy with four key objectives: to 1) increase protection of civilians, 2) ‘apprehend or remove from the battlefield Joseph Kony and senior commanders’, 3) promote defection and DDR (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration) of LRA fighters, and 4) increase humanitarian access to LRA- affected communities. Some progress has been made over the past year since this groundbreaking strategy was announced, but much more still needs to be done.
Oxfam has conducted annual surveys in eastern DRC for the last five years to better understand the threats and challenges people face as well as their suggestions for national and international actions to help them live in safety and dignity. In 2011, Oxfam interviewed 322 people across nine LRA-affected communities in Haut Uélé Province; 62% of all those interviewed—and the vast majority of women and children—said that they felt less safe than last year.
One important way to help people to feel more secure is to ensure that the Congolese security forces actually protect people from the LRA and other threats. Unfortunately, people interviewed by Oxfam cited the Congolese police and army as both protective forces and as abusers of power. Accordingly, US efforts to combat the LRA should include supporting the security sector reforms that communities say will most directly improve their safety, including providing for soldiers’ pay and welfare, garrisoning troops to reduce tensions with communities, enhancing discipline and justice, and providing training in human rights. Next week, I’ll write more about the non-military means the US should pursue to defeat the LRA and help protect the hundreds of thousands of people who continue to leave in fear of rebel attacks.