Late last year, the M23 – an armed group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with longstanding ties to the Rwandan government – entered Kishishi and Bambo, two towns in the DRC’s North Kivu province. Over the course of several days, M23 fighters killed and raped dozens of civilians. Human Rights Watch reported that the group summarily killed at least 22 civilians and likely more, while Amnesty International concluded that M23 combatants raped “at least 66 women and girls” as part of a “campaign” to “punish and humiliate civilians suspected of being supporters of rival armed groups.”

This is not the first time the M23 – supported by its primary backer, the Rwandan government – has committed gross human rights violations in DRC. When the M23 first emerged ten years ago, the group committed egregious violations of international law, including summary executions and rapes. Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time, notably referred to M23 leaders as “among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations in the DRC, or in the world for that matter,” citing the group’s track record of mass rapes, massacres, and recruitment of children. Following the M23’s 2012 takeover of the provincial capital, Goma, the United States played a key role in pressuring the Rwandan government to halt support to the M23, which eventually helped lead to the group’s collapse.

Now, with the M23 again operating in large swaths of North Kivu, history is repeating itself. The group is once again benefiting from Rwandan support, including the deployment of the Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF), Rwanda’s military. And civilians are again paying the price.

But this time, Kigali has largely maneuvered in Congo without any diplomatic or economic consequences. The United States, and other international actors including Belgium, France, and the European Union, have publicly demanded that Rwanda cease supporting the M23. But rhetoric has not translated into meaningful action.

Without pressure from Washington and the international community, there is little indication that Kigali will imminently withdraw from Congo or cease its support of the M23. Given the devastating effect of Rwandan support for the M23 on Congolese civilians, significant measures are needed. The United States should take immediate steps to halt all security cooperation activities with Rwanda until concrete conditions are met, including the withdrawal of RDF soldiers from Congolese territory; the complete cessation of Rwandan support to the M23; and Rwanda’s good-faith commitment to respecting the territorial integrity of its neighbors.

A New Conflict with M23

Last year’s violence in Kishishi and Bambo marks only one episode in an increasingly intractable armed conflict, fought primarily between the M23 and the Congolese military (FARDC). Combat started in the fall of 2021, when the M23 attacked the FARDC’s positions in North Kivu. Since then, the group has vastly expanded its control of Congolese territory, capturing key towns and moving within several kilometers of Goma, the provincial capital. The FARDC – with some support from MONUSCO, the U.N. Peacekeeping Mission deployed in the DRC since the late 1990’s – has attempted multiple offensives to dislodge the group. But, with few exceptions, the M23 has consistently defeated the FARDC, often conquering more territory in counter-offensives. The M23 has also been accused of attacking MONUSCO, including downing a U.N. helicopter in March 2022. International efforts, including the recent deployment of a regional force under the auspices of the East African Community, have not resolved the crisis, though the M23 has ceded some territory.

The violence has severely impacted Congolese civilians. The U.N. estimates that the fighting has displaced 900,000 people. The humanitarian response has been inconsistent, and many displaced civilians are living in horrific conditions, facing increased risks of sexual and gender-based violence, food insecurity, and cholera and other diseases.

More broadly, the recent conflict emerged in an already catastrophic humanitarian and protection context. Communities across eastern Congo contend with the presence of more than 100 armed groups, weak or non-existent state authority in some areas, and security forces that are often ineffective or abusive. Armed conflict has exacerbated one of the world’s largest displacement crises – more than 5.9 million Congolese are currently displaced.

Rwandan Involvement and Support for the M23

The M23 is not fighting alone. In a confidential July 2022 report, the U.N. Group of Experts on the DRC found that the Rwandan government provided “weapons, ammunition and uniforms” to the group, and that the RDF itself conducted operations in the DRC, including unilateral and joint operations with the M23. This includes leading operations against the FARDC and Congolese armed groups and providing reinforcements for M23-led operations. As one DRC-based diplomat explained in an interview, “It is not just about Rwandan support to the M23, but Rwandan presence and support. Rwanda largely defines the breadth and scope of M23 operations, and the Rwandan Defense Forces are taking the lead in important battles.” U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) similarly noted in a public letter last month that, “Direct state support for M23 enables its reign of terror across the Eastern DRC.”

Though the Rwandan government has consistently denied supporting the M23, Rwandan officials have repeatedly asserted their own security interests in the Congo. In the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, many Rwandan government officials and Interahamwe responsible for the genocide (known as Génocidaires) fled to Congolese territory and created the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), an armed group established to re-take power in Rwanda. Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s administration has highlighted the FDLR’s continued presence in the DRC and its collaboration with the FARDC as a key driver of ongoing instability. In a February 2022 speech, Kagame referenced the DRC when he asserted that Rwanda’s “current doctrine is to go and fight the fire at its origin…we do what we must do, with or without the consent of others.” Kagame further stressed that “the DRC is unable or unwilling to govern its territory, which is why the situation persists.”

The FARDC’s collaboration with the FDLR, as well as other armed groups in the DRC, is well-documented and raises critical human rights concerns. But such support justifies neither Rwandan military intervention in Congo, nor support to the M23 that enables and abets targeting civilians. Most analysts agree that the FDLR, which then-senior Rwandan military official James Kabarebe described as “on the verge of defeat” in 2021, no longer poses a threat to Rwanda. And recent collaboration between the FARDC and the FDLR likely “would not be happening without [the] M23’s offensive,” as another DRC-based diplomat said.

Rwandan collaboration with the M23 has substantial historical precedent. The M23 is only the latest in a line of Rwandan-backed armed groups active in the DRC since Rwanda initially deployed its military into the Congo in 1996. Ten years ago, the M23 took over the provincial capital of Goma with substantial support from Rwanda.

U.S. Actions Helped Stop the M23 Before

Following the M23’s 2012 takeover of Goma, the United States played a critical role in pressuring the Rwandan government to halt support for the group. Although the U.S. is among Rwanda’s largest bilateral donors, its security cooperation activities with Rwanda have been limited. Congressional concern over Rwanda’s support to the M23, however, led to the inclusion of Section 7043 in the FY2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA), requiring that Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programming for Uganda and Rwanda be suspended if the secretary of state has “credible information” that either country is providing support to armed groups in the DRC who have violated human rights or are involved in mineral exportation. In a break from previous policy, the Obama administration publicly criticized Rwandan support for the M23 and suspended FMF as section 7043 required. In October 2013, the administration suspended more military aid to Rwanda under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA), citing Rwandan support for the M23, which had abducted and recruited children as soldiers.

While the amount of military aid cut was relatively small, U.S. actions likely encouraged European donors – including the European Union, Germany and Sweden – to follow suit, some of which similarly halted aid to Rwanda. Critically, the U.S. rationale for restricting security cooperation was narrowly tailored, focusing specifically on Rwandan support for armed groups in Congo. When the Rwandan government ceased providing support to the M23, the Obama administration subsequently waived many restrictions on security cooperation activities.

There were multiple factors behind the M23’s defeat in 2013, including a reinforced U.N. peacekeeping mission fighting alongside the FARDC, changing regional dynamics, a reorganization of the FARDC leadership, and significant dissensions within the M23 itself. It is clear, however, that pressure from the United States and other international actors led, at least in part, to Rwanda’s suspension of support to the M23, which in turn contributed to the group’s rapid collapse. Without Rwandan support, the M23 crumbled in the face of Congolese and U.N. military pressure.

But a decade after its initial defeat, the M23 is once again benefiting from Rwandan assistance, including the deployment of RDF troops. And while the United States and other international actors have publicly demanded that Rwanda cease supporting the M23, the results have been minimal.

Calling Out Kigali is Not Enough

Unlike in 2012, Kigali has to date largely avoided repercussions for its actions in Congo. This relative lack of consequences is likely due, in part, to Kigali’s diplomatic ties with powerful international actors. A close ally of Rwanda, the U.K. signed a widely criticized agreement with Kigali in April 2022, which would allow asylum seekers in the U.K. to be deported to Rwanda, regardless of their home country. U.K. Home Secretary Suella Braverman recently traveled to Rwanda to finalize the plan, even as it faces numerous legal challenges. Meanwhile, after decades of strained relations between France and Rwanda, French President Emmanuel Macron has sought rapprochement with Kigali, including by publicly acknowledging France’s role in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. France and Rwanda notably have important security interests in common, including in Mozambique and the Central African Republic. And the European Peace Facility, a funding mechanism of the European Union, committed to providing 20 million euros to the RDF to conduct counterterrorism operations in Mozambique, in an area where French energy giant Total has significant investments.

The United States has been more vocal than its European partners, and several U.S. policymakers have publicly condemned Rwandan support for the M23. In a July 2022 letter to secretary of state Antony Blinken, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) called for a comprehensive review of U.S. policy toward Rwanda and warned he would place an informal hold on U.S. security sector assistance to Rwanda. While there may have been a private or working-level response, there has been no public reply to the Senator’s queries. In a more recent letter to Blinken, Senators Durbin and Booker expressed concern about the M23’s targeting of civilians and Rwanda’s support for the group and called forincreased U.S sanctions. The Senators also repeated Menendez’s request for a fuller accounting of U.S. security sector assistance toward Rwanda.

Though the United States has been more vocal regarding Rwanda than its European partners, denunciations have not yet had a visible impact on the ground. Absent major political and economic pressure, there is no indication that Kigali will withdraw from Congo or imminently cease its support to the M23.

Opportunities for U.S. Engagement

The United States has a valuable opportunity to play a similar role in crisis mitigation as it did a decade ago. As stated above, the U.S. government should clearly and publicly take steps to halt all security cooperation activities with Rwanda and tie reinstatement of cooperation to conditions, including the withdrawal of RDF soldiers from Congolese territory; the cessation of Rwandan support to the M23; and Rwanda’s good-faith commitment to respecting the territorial integrity of neighboring states. Both the Biden administration and Congress can take measures to re-shape U.S. security assistance to Rwanda.

Executive Measures

There are a range of legal avenues through which the executive branch could curb security assistance to Rwanda and put pressure on its leadership. First, the Biden administration should borrow from the Obama administration’s playbook and use the CSPA to cut or curb security cooperation programs with Rwanda over its support of the M23. Section 402 of the CSPA, as amended, requires the State Department to provide an annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report to identify a list of states whose armed forces, police or security forces, or government-supported armed groups use child soldiers. Rwanda was not included in the 2022 TIP report. But given substantial evidence of the M23’s continued use of child soldiers  – and Rwandan government support to the M23 – the secretary of state could re-designate Rwanda under the Section 402 of the CSPA.

Barring any waivers or exemptions, Rwanda’s presence on the list would prohibit licensing for direct commercial sales to Rwanda, international military training and education (IMET), peacekeeping operations (PKO), and the provision of excess defense articles (EDA), as well as existing or potential “train and equip” operations conducted under 10 U.S.C. §333. The restriction on PKO funding, however, does not apply to programs that support “military professionalism, security sector reform, respect for human rights, peacekeeping preparation, or the demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers.” Designating Rwanda under the CSPA also would similarly not bar Rwandan soldiers from military education and training through the Defense Institute for International Legal Studies (DIILS) or the Center for Civil-Military Relations at the Naval Postgraduate School, provided the State Department determines that the government is undertaking efforts to end the use of child soldiers.

Second, the Biden administration can rely on a provision of the 2023 Consolidations Appropriations Act, which prohibits certain types of IMET funding to governments in the African Great Lakes Region which are “facilitating or otherwise participating in destabilizing activities in a neighboring country, including aiding and abetting armed groups.” If the U.S. government has already begun refusing IMET funding to Rwanda privately, it should make that decision public, emphasizing that it is complying with the legal requirements accompanying appropriated funds.

Finally, the Biden administration could consider individual sanctions through different legal regimes. In 2012, the United States sanctioned specific M23 commanders, as well as the group as a whole, under Executive Order (EO) 13413. The FDLR – the armed group formed by Rwandan génocidaires that is still active in the DRC and remains a significant foe of the Rwandan government – was sanctioned in parallel, to respond to Rwanda’s security concerns.

Under EO 13671 (the amended version of EO 13413, extended in 2022), the administration could follow the European Union – which recently sanctioned M23 spokesperson Willy Ngoma – by sanctioning additional M23 and other non-state armed group leaders. But President Biden should also consider the possibility of sanctions against Rwandan government officials. EO 13671 allows for sanctioning individuals “responsible for or complicit in” actions or policies which “threaten the peace, security, or stability of the DRC;” including “the targeting of women, children, or any civilians through the commission of acts of violence;” and “attacks against United Nations missions, international security presences, or other peacekeeping operations.” Depending on its findings, the administration could also sanction leaders of other armed groups or Congolese military officials who may be “complicit in” violations committed by other armed groups.

Notably, EO 13671 specifically allows for sanctions of individuals “who have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, logistical, or technological support for, or goods or services” in support of listed activities or “any person whose property…is blocked pursuant to this order.” (Emphasis added.) Because the M23 is itself sanctioned under EO 13671, providing any of the types of support listed above to the group – as multiple Rwandan officials have likely done – should be grounds for sanction.

Global Magnitsky sanctions provide another potentially useful avenue for action. Recently reauthorized, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act allows for sanctioning individuals “responsible for or complicit in, or to have directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse.” The United States has sanctioned foreign government officials in the past, including in Uganda. Depending on the administration’s findings, the administration could potentially identify Rwandan officials for Global Magnitsky sanctions.

Congressional Measures

Congress has a similarly critical role to play in restricting U.S. security sector assistance to Kigali. The IMET restriction in FY 2023 CAA discussed above is narrow – it still allows for certain types of IMET support. Congress could take immediate steps to close the loophole and restrict all IMET support to Rwanda unless and until it ceases “destabilizing activities” in the DRC, including “aiding and abetting” the M23.

But Congress should also restrict secuity sector assistance to Rwanda more expansively than it did in past legislation. Members of Congress should look to must-pass legislation like the Fiscal Year 2024 Consolidated Appropriations Act and National Defense Authorization Acts to attach an amendment that would close gaps in implementation for the CSPA and other oversight legislation of U.S. security cooperation. Rather than focusing on specific types of support – such as IMET or FMF – legislative language should require that all security sector assistance and security cooperation activities, including arms sales, to Rwanda be suspended until Rwanda withdraws its own troops from Congolese soil and ceases support to the M23.

A Rules-Based International Order?

On the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, Biden framed the international community’s response to Russia’s invasion as a question: “Would we respond or would we look the other way?”

The same question applies to the Congo, where the deployment of Rwandan troops is similarly “in violation of [the DRC’s] territorial integrity and of the Charter of the United Nations.” But so far, Rwanda has largely avoided significant economic or political consequences. Public statements of disapproval mean little. As a DRC-baed diplomat explained to one of the authors, “The Rwandans can shrug off statements, as long as the facts on the ground are still in their favor.”

The M23 and the Rwandan government’s actions do not absolve the Congolese government of responsibility. According to U.N. reports, Congolese security forces are routinely responsible for about half of human rights violations committed in the DRC each month. Congolese government initiatives to defeat armed groups have also largely proven unsuccessful. But the failures and weaknesses of the Congolese state cannot justify Rwanda’s armed intervention of the Congo and support to the M23.

In 2013, the United States played a key role in Rwanda’s withdrawal and the M23’s collapse, relying on economic and diplomatic tools to pressure the Rwanda government to pull back its troops and cease support for its proxy. And just last month, U.S. officials were critical in efforts to secure the release of Paul Rusesabagina, a well-known critic of Kigali who had been imprisoned in Rwanda and sentenced to 25 years in prison for terrorism in a widely criticized trial. The liberation of Rusesabagina is a reminder that, despite Kagame’s public unwillingness to be “bullied,” the Rwandan government is not immune from U.S. and international pressure.

Building the successes of the Obama administration, the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress should seize the opportunity to put economic and political pressure on Rwanda and support security and peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

IMAGE: Anti-M23, the March 23 Movement, messages are written in chalk on the wall of a school building in Kishishe, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on April 5, 2023. M23 fighters used the school as a military base. (Photo by Alexis Huguet / AFP via Getty Images)