Pervasive insecurity and violence resulting from tensions between the government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and a local militia following the killing of their chief, Kamuina Nsapu, has resulted in over 400 people being killed in Kasaï, Kasaï Central and Kasaï Oriental provinces since August 2016. The UN Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC (UNJHRO) has found at least 42 mass graves in the Kasaï region since January, the majority of which have been attributed to the government's armed forces (FARDC). On 2 June the UN's stabilization mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) reported at least 639 schools and a number of health centers in the Kasaï region have been destroyed or attacked during fighting. The UN has also documented hundreds of children being used as combatants or human shields by Kamuina Nsapu, as well as sexual violence perpetrated against young girls.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has noted that the Kamuina Nsapu militia has perpetrated atrocities against civilians and that the FARDC has used disproportionate force in its response. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), of the 3.7 million current internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the DRC, over 1.3 million are in the Kasaï region. OCHA reported on 8 May that there has been an increase in violence by other armed groups in the area and that inter-ethnic tensions are becoming a dominant characteristic of the conflict in the Kasaï region.
Other armed groups continue to utilize ongoing instability and the weakness of state authority in eastern DRC to attack security forces and perpetrate crimes against civilians. Such groups – including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and various Mayi-Mayi militias – have been operating in the DRC for more than 20 years. Despite offensives conducted by the FARDC with assistance from MONUSCO and its force intervention brigade, sporadic attacks by militias, as well as inter-communal violence, continue to threaten vulnerable populations in North Kivu, South Kivu, Tanganyika and Katanga.
The risk of deadly political violence as a result of ongoing tensions surrounding the postponed 2016 elections also remains high. Security forces have been accused of using excessive force during demonstrations on 19 September and 20 December – the day after President Joseph Kabila's constitutional mandate ended. UNJHRO recorded 48 civilians killed by security forces during the September demonstrations and more than 40 people killed during December.
As a result of a failure to hold elections during 2016, on 1 September a national dialogue was launched to ensure a peaceful political process. Additional mediation between the government and opposition took place under the aegis of the Conference Episcopale du Congo (CENCO). On 31 December the CENCO negotiations resulted in an agreement calling for elections to be held during 2017 and for President Kabila to abstain from seeking a third term. Negotiations on implementation met several complications, resulting in CENCO withdrawing from the process.
Competition for control of profitable minerals, as well as underlying conflict between communities that consider themselves indigenous and those perceived as outsiders, has enabled the proliferation of armed groups in the DRC. Such groups will continue to emerge even after the eradication of the ADF, FDLR, Kamuina Nsapu and other Mayi-Mayi militias if these issues are not resolved. Rising tensions in areas that have been relatively calm in recent years, including Kasaï, is indicative of the government's inability to address the competing challenges of ending the political crisis and preventing the emergence of armed groups opposed to the rule of the central government.
The FARDC has previously been implicated in attacks on civilians, including widespread sexual violence. The government has often failed to hold members of the security forces accountable for systematic human rights violations and has not adequately addressed allegations of disproportionate force during protests. Despite pressure from the international community and amidst allegations of hundreds of people killed by the FARDC in the Kasaï region, the government has not taken meaningful steps towards establishing an investigation into the situation.
Growing government repression and the population's frustration with the unconstitutional delay in elections enhances the risk of deadly violence. The government must take meaningful steps towards ensuring a timely and peaceful transition of power in the DRC, including implementation of the CENCO agreement.
The government of the DRC has struggled to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and its own forces have been complicit in some previous mass atrocity crimes. The DRC needs ongoing international support to prevent recurring violence.
On 31 March 2017 the UN Security Council (UNSC) extended MONUSCO's mandate until March 2018, emphasizing that the DRC government "bears the primary responsibility to protect civilians within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction, including protection from crimes against humanity and war crimes." The resolution reduced MONUSCO's troop ceiling from 19,815 to 16,215 despite the mounting security challenges in the country.
On 11 February MONUSCO condemned atrocities perpetrated by Kamuina Nsapu and the FARDC's disproportionate use of force, pledging to deploy a mobile monitoring response team to the area to "possibly prevent, investigate, and document human rights violations."
On 20 February the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, condemned the "blunt military response" that does not tackle the root causes of conflict but "instead targets civilians on the basis of their presumed links to militias." On 19 April High Commissioner Zeid called for an immediate investigation by an impartial international mechanism following the discovery of additional mass graves by UNJHRO. During May the High Commissioner gave the government an 8 June deadline to establish a credible investigation into the Kasaï violence, which it failed to meet. On 9 June High Commissioner Zeid called for the establishment of an international investigation.
On 4 May the UNSC issued a Press Statement calling upon parties to the 31 December agreement to remain committed to its implementation, including the objective of holding credible elections by the end of 2017. The UNSC also condemned the violence in the Kasaï region, urging the government, MONUSCO and AU to undertake prompt and transparent investigations, including of possible war crimes.
On 31 May the European Union (EU) imposed sanctions on nine individuals with "command and control" responsibility for security forces involved in deadly violence. The following day the United States issued sanctions against François Olenga for command responsibility of the Republican Guard during their involvement in violence against the political opposition in Kinshasa. Both the EU and United States issued sanctions against additional individuals during December following election related protests. The UNSC also currently subjects 9 entities and 31 individuals connected to armed groups in the eastern DRC to sanctions.
The DRC government and MONUSCO must ensure that protecting civilians remains their primary priority as they address the ongoing threat posed by various armed groups. The FARDC and MONUSCO need to improve their capacity to respond to early warning of inter-communal violence and attacks by armed groups. In light of the government's failure to launch a credible and transparent investigation into the Kasaï region, the Human Rights Council should mandate the creation of an international investigation mechanism.
The government must urgently address allegations of the security forces using unnecessarily deadly force against protestors and ensure accountability for the unlawful killing of civilians. The FARDC must not permit individuals who have previously committed atrocities to join its forces and should train all recruits in the protection of civilians, respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.
In keeping with the CENCO agreement, the government and opposition must recommit to an agreed election timetable and a peaceful transition of power.
Last Updated: 15 June 2017