(The following are edited excerpts from Pulitzer Center Executive Director Jon Sawyer’s interview on Oct. 6, 2013 with Gen. Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz of Brazil, commander of the MONUSCO peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Questions have been edited for clarity and length.)
Pulitzer Center: You met earlier today with members of the UN Security Council, who are in Goma assessing peacekeeping operations here generally and especially the recent coordinated actions of MONUSCO and the Congolese army (FARDC) against M23, one of many militia groups active in eastern Congo. What is the most important message for the Security Council?
Santos Cruz: The most important message to the Security Council is to continue the efforts to disarm the M23 and the same message to all the armed groups. That is very important. We are here under the Security Council mandate . . . We ask our boss, the Security Council and the United Nations, to continue taking actions, including all the diplomatic measures possible, to really stop the violence in the Congo.
PC: Was the August military engagement, driving M23 off the high ground just north of Goma, an important turning point?
Santos Cruz: It was a very important moment, this success of the FARDC with support from the United Nations. It was important for a very practical reason in that M23 was pushed back to a position where Goma is out of range. It’s a very practical point, to have more than 1.2 million out of range from this criminal activity, of bombing civilian areas without any military value because the population was not a military target.
The M23 shelled the city because they wanted to hurt the population, to create chaos . . . and second, they wanted to turn the population against the United Nations, saying that we had one mandate and we were not protecting the population according to the obligations of the mandate. That was the strategy at that time. Then, because of the mandate, it’s understandable that the population has an over-expectation [as to the mandate to protect them]. The population is very tired of the violence for so many years . . . [It] wants to implement everything overnight, like a miracle.
PC: The FARDC and MONUSCO could have gone farther, pushing for total defeat of the M23. Who made the decision not to go further?
Santos Cruz: From the military point of view I planned, we planned, to support the FARDC. But you have one very complex political environment. It is not only the question of the military decision. We have to consider the Congolese government that is the authority in the country. Everybody knows that we have [also a] more regional problem, that this problem is much more than a national challenge. It is a regional problem. We have the international community extremely engaged in the Congolese problem at this moment. And then you have so many political constellations. So when you criticize very simple military decision—it’s much more complicated than that.
PC: You also face the extraordinary logistical challenges of operating in a place like the Congo.
Santos Cruz: We are talking of Congo, one of the largest countries in the world, one of the ten largest countries in the world, with a very poor infrastructure of roads. Sometimes with 20 kilometers in our countries we have a perception of time; here 20 kilometers is a completely different perception. Say something happened 10 kilometers or eight kilometers from the base. In our conception, in our countries, we may be talking some minutes; here, we may be talking some hours.
And then we have a problem of mobility, because it’s a huge country, poor roads. And then we have many, many difficulties to be timely in action. And sometimes with these kinds of crimes, actions against the population, they do it in minutes—or a few hours—and then with our reaction it’s extremely difficult to be timely because of the conditions of mobility and the size of country.
PC: What is the significance of the expanded mission for MONUSCO that the Security Council approved last March, calling for targeted offensive operations to neutralize armed groups?
Santos Cruz: With the new mandate we have, the experience we have now, we see that we need to take action against the threats. . . And then it’s one different posture. You see that the mandate changes and we need to change as well. Now, the posture is to go and neutralize the threat. We go to where the threat is and we neutralize the threat . . . We need to take action. It’s a different dynamic, a completely different idea.
PC: The recent focus on the M23 has meant more UN and FARDC presence along the border with Rwanda, less presence in the interior of North and South Kivus where dozens of other armed groups are active. What do you say to people there?
Santos Cruz: All of the population is anxious about security. Sometimes they are not so happy because we are taking action one place and they want security everywhere. And then you know how we are stuck at the moment around M23. I hope we will have a solution in a short time, in order to have the possibility to move to different areas.
You see that because of the M23, the battle with M23, they [FARDC] moved some troops from North Kivu to fight against M23, here close to Goma. And then with so many armed groups, when you create any vacuum they immediately try to occupy the space.
PC: Do you anticipate more aggressive action against the other armed militias, such as the arrest of leaders accused of war crimes?
Santos Cruz: The restriction we have is the collateral damage. That is the problem. Because they hide inside the population. You don’t have all the time with armed groups clear targets. They are not so clear targets. They hide inside the population. And for us the most important thing is to not have more suffering on the population. This population has suffered so much over a long time, at the hands of these criminal groups, that we should be very careful not to cause any more suffering.
And then we need to select very well when we take some action. That’s why it’s not so easy, when sometimes people say let’s just go in and fight them. The problem is that they are in the middle of the population. That’s the complication.
PC: Will your success in August against the M23 have a deterrent effect on other militias, persuading them to disarm voluntarily?
Santos Cruz: You never have two battles in the same way. Never. The battle with M23 in August was a very classic battle, without civilian population on the battlefield. We didn’t have problem with population. But then sometimes you don’t have the same picture. Sometimes you’re in the middle of a town and the population manipulated by armed groups. You never have two equal situations.
PC: How much of the conflict here is related to Rwanda, and to other regional interests beyond DRC’s borders?
Santos Cruz: The problem with the armed groups here is that all of them are close to the border. All of them. You don’t have armed groups in the west. They are all here close to the border. That is why 96 percent of our (UN) forces is here. The conflict affects not only Rwanda but also Uganda, Burundi, and even in the north you have also the LRA [Lord’s Resistance Army] affecting South Sudan and the Central African Republic. And then you see that the problem of these armed groups affects all the neighbors.
It’s important for the Security Council to be here, to know much more the reality on the ground. One thing is the report; the other thing is the reality . . . That is why they are coming here, to know more, to see with their own eyes.
PC: The new mandate that the Security Council approved last March was seen by many as an attempt to put real teeth in the UN’s responsibility to protect civilian victims.
Santos Cruz: In the last 15 years they say about 5 million died in consequence of the conflict here . . . I think the international community and the population, they are tired of suffering atrocities, this humanitarian disaster. And with the new mandate, it’s very easy to see that the mandate was one consequence of this very anxious expectation, to have peace some day. And so they create one very strong mandate.
But the mandate is just one paper with the legal frame. Actually we need to transform that paper into reality, and then from the idea, from the will, of the United Nations, to the reality. We need to translate this into action. Then all the countries involved, all the contributing countries of the UN, they need to really understand the mandate. The Security Council representatives should understand what was the mandate, and our role—that all the forces on the ground should be dynamic, should take action, to transform the mandate into reality. Then we are going to have benefits for the people and much more credibility in the United Nations on the ground . . .
We must come here with some will, to take some risks, to take some action. In this environment to be active, it’s much better even for your own safety to act. It’s better for the people, for the United Nations, and for you.
PC: On the wall behind you is a map of Congo.
Santos Cruz: Yes, here is Goma. And when you compare North Kivu with the whole of Congo it’s very interesting—it is very small. And here you have one million displaced people. Normally you see only the map of North Kivu and it looks very big. But when you compare this to Congo you see that it is a very small piece. And yet everyday you have people raped and minors going to armed groups, forced recruitment. You have everything, all of this, in such a small place—mobilizing the Security Council, the international community, the big countries, the neighbors. The biggest budget of UN peacekeeping. Everything is here.