DUNGU, Congo – A coalition of nearly 40 human rights groups called on the U.S. to step up efforts to fight against a brutal Ugandan-led rebel group that has intensified its attacks in central Africa, especially in Congo's volatile northeast.
In a statement late Monday, the groups, which include New York-based Human Rights Watch, said a special envoy should be appointed for the African Great Lakes region. That envoy, they said, should have a mandate that extends to areas where the Lord's Resistance Army is most active, "to support stronger United Nations peacekeeping and to intensify efforts to arrest" LRA leaders being sought by the International Criminal Court.
"The governments of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Southern Sudan — countries where the group is currently active — have not shown sufficient capability or resolve to protect civilians adequately from LRA abuses," the human rights and humanitarian groups said in a statement.
Last May, President Barack Obama's administration signed into law an act that commits the U.S. to help civilians threatened by the LRA.
"Many of us believed that President Obama's commitment to addressing the LRA threat would finally help stop our suffering," said Abbe Benoit Kinalegu of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Dungu. "Yet one year later, we continue to live in fear as the LRA's attacks have shown no signs of decreasing."
The LRA, which originated in Uganda, is known for vicious attacks against civilians, for abducting and forcing children to become members of the group and for brutally torturing others. Its leader, Joseph Kony, is wanted by the International Criminal Court. Two other leaders, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen, are also wanted under ICC arrest warrants issued in July 2005 for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in northern Uganda.
Since 2008, the LRA has killed nearly 2,400 civilians and abducted about 3,400 others, according to Human Rights Watch and U.N. documentation. LRA attacks continue in northern Congo, eastern Central African Republic and in Southern Sudan, the rights group said.
Nearly 120 attacks were carried out in the first four months of 2011, killing 81 civilians, Human Rights Watch said in its report, also released Monday. Of those attacks, 97 were carried out in Congo.
Human Rights Watch said more than 38,000 Congolese civilians were displaced in 2011 because of LRA attacks, adding to the hundreds of thousands that have been displaced over several years.
The coalition of human rights groups said that the U.S. government should also use its "diplomatic influence with other (U.N.) Security Council members and U.N. member states, to ensure a more effective peacekeeping presence in the LRA-affected regions."
The groups also said U.N. peacekeepers are too few in number and "have little capacity or will" to protect civilians beyond their own bases.
"More peacekeepers are urgently needed in these areas to effectively protect civilians at risk of LRA attacks," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The groups said fewer than 1,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops are deployed to northern Congo's Haut Uele district where Dungu is located, and there are no peacekeepers in the neighboring Bas Uele district, "even though some of the worst recent LRA atrocities have occurred there and Kony, the LRA leader, is believed to have been there recently."
The groups also pinned some responsibility for atrocities on Congo's army.
"Congolese army soldiers have also been responsible for serious abuses against the civilians they are charged with protecting, including killing, rape, torture and arbitrary arrest," the groups said.