Rwanda’s recent election to the UN Security Council has raised eyebrows after allegations of Rwandan intervention in the DRC.

UN experts recently traced a rebel movement inside the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to Rwanda. While concerning in its own right, their report was especially noteworthy in that only a week after it became known in the press, Rwanda was elected to the UN Security Council (UNSC). Rwanda’s campaign was challenged by several other African nations in the wake of accusations of Rwandan support for the militant movement within the DRC known as M23.

Image courtesy of Commonwealth Secretariat, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Only a few days before the Security Council elections were due to start, UN investigators released a report blaming Rwanda and its northern neighbor Uganda for supporting, and in the case of Rwanda, orchestrating the M23 rebel movement in the DRC. This group, composed of mutineers from the DR Congolese army (FARDC) and active in the eastern region of the country, near Rwanda, has posed a major security threat to the DRC over the past year. Based in the North Kivu Province, the rebels were part of an older rebel army: the National Congress for the Defence of the People. Both groups are ethnically Tutsi and have ties to Tutsis in Rwanda. In peace accords signed 23rd March, 2009, the NCDP was integrated into the DRC military. In April 2012, the group rebelled again, complaining of poor conditions. The M23 mutineers have been accused of major human rights violations; their leader, General Bosco Ntaganda, known as “The Terminator,” is wanted by the International Criminal Court for his use of child soldiers. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also accused M23 of crimes such as rape and the killing noncombatants.

HRW says that Rwanda is complicit in these war crimes because of their support for the movement. The organisation says that the Rwandan government has recruited their own people, including children, to join M23. The UN report from the Group of Experts, meant to examine the M23 crisis, claims that Rwandan government has also provided M23 forces with military supplies, sent Rwandan soldiers to aid in specific M23 offensives, that the Rwandan Minister of Defense decides M23 strategy, and that Rwandan commanders have even been seen directing M23 units on the battlefield.

Rwanda and Uganda both deny accusations that they are involved with M23, but international perception has been skeptical. Several countries have suspended aid to Rwanda because of the Group of Experts report, and when it came time to vote on the Security Council seat, several African nations, such as South Africa, admirably rebelled against the Rwandan candidacy. It is unclear why so many nations supported Rwanda, but that they did is disquieting.

Rwanda has continued to speak proudly of its place on the Security Council. Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo touts her country’s unique perspective on security issues because of the 1994 genocide that killed nearly a million Rwandans. Rwanda had a Security Council seat at that time as well, but in the intervening time has vastly improved its internal security. President Paul Kagame tweeted after the Rwandan victory that “No matter what haters say… justice&truth will prevail!” Kagame’s nationalist persona has been both a boon and hindrance to his country’s international image. He has been celebrated for unifying his country, but demagoguery like this statement is detrimental to the international system, especially when it conceals Machiavellian motives.

The central African powers are not exactly friendly with one another, and conflicts have spilled across borders before. Ethnically Rwandan citizens of the DRC have suffered from discrimination, and Rwanda sees them as in need of protection. Additionally, this region of the DRC is particularly mineral-rich, and M23’s control of the area has allowed Rwanda to effectively annex the territory for itself. Rwanda has openly supported rebels in the DRC in the past, including M23’s predecessor, the NCDP. Tutsis, a primarily Rwandan ethnic group, also live in the Eastern DRC; additionally, following the genocide, Rwandan refugees fled to the DRC, then called Zaire. Both the First and Second Congo Wars (fought between 1996 and 2003) involved the support of the Rwandan government for factions within the DRC. The close ties between the two regions and contentions between different factions led to years of violence.

While the actions of Rwanda and M23 are concerning, Congolese forces are not without blame. HRW claims that Congolese forces have discriminated against Rwandans, detaining people without ties to M23 purely because they are Rwandan. Many of these prisoners have been treated poorly, and Congolese forces are being accused of looting as they retreated from M23. DRC President, Joseph Kabila, has been accused of rigging elections in his favor, and some see getting rid of Ntaganda as a way to distract and appease the international community.

UNSC memberships are handled by allotting a certain numbers of seats to each of several regional groups. Each regional group distributes its seats in different ways, with some allowing the election to take place more freely in the UNGA, and others keeping to a strict rotation. Africa traditionally follows a rotation set amongst itself quite strictly, and this year was Rwanda’s turn. However, because of the release of the UN report accusing Rwanda of supporting M23, the representative of the DRC objected to Rwandan membership of the Security Council, and several African countries voted against Rwandan membership, voting for Tanzania instead. Their actions are commendable. Voting against Rwandan UNSC membership is a stand for the integrity of the organisation, and does not come without a cost. By rebelling against the traditional African rotation, these states staked their diplomatic capital to an unlikely structural change in how UNSC members are decided. It’s a risky move with a small payoff, but if countries are better held to account for their actions, the UN will be a more effective organisation.