Dealing with the FDLR: The art of the possible

Inter-Rwandan Dialogue. Again and again, Congolese civil society actors and politicians come back to this as a means of solving the problems in the Great Lakes. In the words of one such Congolese activist: “Why should Rwanda be allowed to fight its civil war on our soil [against the FDLR], causing untold suffering in the Congo, while never once even considering peaceful negotiations as a means of solving the conflict?”

This sentiment has been echoed by a petition signed in 2007 by Congolese ministers, politicians and civil society members – including 66 parliamentarians – demanding an inter-Rwandan Dialogue. In countless meetings with Congolese customary chiefs, politicians and human rights activists, I have heard those three words are chanted. The Catholic lay group Sant Egidio has been pushing for years to organizing negotiations between the FDLR and the Rwandan government (Kigali has refused) and another lay Catholic group Fundacio S’Olivar (based in the Mallorcan Islands) has been pushing for an Inter-Rwandan Dialogue for several years now, and has organized meetings of the Rwandan Diaspora with this end. (This group was accused by the UN Group of Experts of providing material support to the FDLR).

A few words on this controversial topic.

First, the military reality. Ever since it fled into exile, the purpose of Habyarimana’s government has been to use armed force to pressure Paul Kagame’s government to accept negotiations. After all, that was the RPF’s own strategy when it was a rebel group (1990-1994) based in northern Rwanda. However, this military pressure has failed. The former Rwandan army (ex-FAR) and its successor organizations (ALiR, FDLR) waged a brutal insurgency in northwestern Rwanda until 1999, when they were beat back into the Congo. Their last major incursion into Rwanda was in early 2001, when 1,000 of their soldiers were killed and even more captured. Since then, the FDLR has been unable to put any military pressure on the Rwandan government. If Kigali is going to accept negotiations, it will only be because its international partners pressure it to do so. In fact, the FDLR’s strategy has changed based on this reality: instead of using military pressure on Kigali, they brutalize Congolese civilians, hoping that this will pressure donors to act on Kigali.

Second, the legacy of the genocide. The FDLR is an organization that is closely linked in Rwandan imagination with the genocide. The Rwandan press often refer to it as the ex-FAR & Interahamwe, the very forces that carried out the genocide. While this is inaccurate – a majority of the FDLR’s troops were too young to have been liable for crimes committed in 1994 (under Rwandan law, I believe you have to be 16) and many of them were youths/children recruited in the refugee camps in the Congo – many of the FDLR’s officers were indeed FAR officers. How many were involved in the genocide is a big unknown – I have heard 20% of the officer corps, but the Rwandan government has not indicted any of their main leaders (aside from Callixte Mbarushimana, in France) – but any pressure for negotiations must consider that we might be negotiating with war criminals. There is a good chance that their military commander, General Sylvestre Mudacumura, was involved in 1994 massacres, as well as several other of the top brass. As we know through our experience with the LRA (whose top commander is indicted by the International Criminal Court), it is not easy negotiating with people who believe that peace = arrest. Also, we need to recognize the reality of Rwandan politics. It is not just Paul Kagame who does not want to negotiate with the FDLR. The entire Rwandan political scene revolves around the genocide, it dominates the political discourse and it the point of reference for much of Rwandan politics. It would be immensely difficult to persuade the various powerful interest groups in Rwandan politics (genocide survivors, army, etc.) to accept political negotiations with the FDLR. The Rwandan government would have to accept the FDLR as a political party, which would be impossible under the current legislation, which forbids the use of ethnicity and genocide ideology by political actors.

Which brings me back to the reality – as long as Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Rick Warren, Paul Farmer, Bill Gates, TIME magazine and much of the western diplomatic establishment strongly supports the Rwandan government, it will be difficult to impose direct political negotiations with the FDLR.

But this is not to say that the sentiment of negotiations is wrong or forsaken. In the face of immense killing and displacement in the eastern DRC, any diplomatic initiatives must be considered. Even if the Kimia II operations seriously damage the FDLR – which they are doing – they will not get rid of the organization. So what can be done?

Talking to the FDLR will encourage them, will throw them a lifeline. But there is no reason why discrete, informal contacts cannot be made with moderates within the group and the Rwandan Diaspora. Some of the FDLR’s top commanders and believed to have nothing to the 1994 genocide. These initial talks should focus on what is possible: providing incentives to FDLR commanders and soldiers to return to Rwanda.

  • This could mean promising them positions in the army or administration, or arranging for an exile for those who do not want to return.
  • The FDLR will not be able to be a political party in Rwanda (as they have demanded), but this does not mean that their members could not form another party and enter the political debate. This would have to come with donor pressure on the Rwandan government to open political space.
  • The Rwandan government should also reveal what kind of dirt they have in their legal files on FDLR leaders – I think it is relatively little (Rakiya Omar’s comprehensive report earlier this year about genocidaires in the FDLR has information only on very few leaders).
  • While many FDLR leaders may not be liable for crimes of genocide in Rwanda, many are responsible for countless abuses in the Congo. While they shouldn’t be let off the hook for this, we need to be pragmatic. Let them leave the bush, give up the brutal insurgency. Prosecution can come later. This is the position of all Congolese human rights group I have spoken with, and even (less publicly) of international human rights activists.
These kinds of informal, sustained contacts are – I believe – what US Senator Russ Feingold (Democrat, Wisconsin) was alluding to in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying

“the international community should urge Kigali to open direct negotiations with non-genocidaire combatants of the FDLR to encourage their repatriation.”

This will not be easy. 2010 is an election year in Rwanda, and the RPF will not want to be seen compromising with its worst enemy. However, the FDLR are hurting and could be open to some sort of deal. After all, as Bismarck said, politics is the art of the possible.