Democratic Republic of Congo: UN should deploy a rapid reaction force in Ituri

In an open letter to the Security Council, the two human rights organisations called the situation in Ituri a 'critical test' of the Security Council's commitments to prevent mass killings and protect civilians, and noted that the United Nations Observation Mission in Congo (MONUC) has been unable to adequately protect civilians. The Security Council is currently discussing the characteristics and mandate of a possible force.

Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International, said: 'In Ituri today, the elements of a devastating crisis are clearly present.'

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said that thousands of civilians continue to be at risk as opposing Hema and Lendu ethnic militia groups remain fully armed and ready to attack again. Tens of thousands of other civilians are believed to have fled Bunia, and their condition is unknown.

The two organisations stressed that any military action should be undertaken with full respect for international human rights and humanitarian law. They emphasised that the rapid reaction force should have a robust mandate to ensure the maintenance of law and order and to protect civilians in Bunia, to locate and protect those civilians who have fled outside the town, and to ensure that humanitarian assistance can reach civilian populations in need.

Given the urgency of the situation, the two human rights organisations urged that a rapid reaction force be deployed immediately in the Ituri region, pending an agreement by the Security Council on the expansion and strengthening of MONUC's mandate, and the respective deployment of its reinforced troops.

The organisations are following up their appeal to the Security Council with appeals to specific countries to support Security Council action along the lines suggested and to contribute troops to an UN-authorised force.

'Thousands of civilians have already died in this conflict,' said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. 'Only rapid UN action can head off continued killings.'

At least 5,000 people died from direct violence in Ituri between July 2002 and March 2003. These victims are in addition to the 50,000 civilians that, according to United Nations estimates, have died there since 1999.

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