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 atrocities perpetrated against populations in Kasaï, Kasaï Central and Kasaï Oriental provinces since August 2016. Inter-ethnic tensions have become a dominant characteristic of the conflict and the Catholic Church in the DRC has reported over 3,000 people have been killed. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), of the 3.7 million internally displaced persons in the DRC, over 1.3 million are in the Kasaï region.
The UN Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC (UNJHRO) has found at least 80 mass graves in the Kasaï region since January, many of which have been attributed to the government's armed forces (FARDC). On 4 August the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report implicating the FARDC and local government officials in actively fomenting ethnic violence in the Kasaï region and in supporting the formation of another militia, Bana Mura.
OHCHR has noted that the Kamuina Nsapu militia has perpetrated atrocities against civilians and that the FARDC has used disproportionate force in its response, with both sides committing extrajudicial and targeted killings. 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. Meanwhile, since late March, Bana Mura has targeted populations based upon ethnicity, mutilated women and children, and destroyed villages that allegedly support Kamuina Nsapu. 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.
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, attacks by militias, as well as inter-communal violence, continue to threaten vulnerable populations in North Kivu, South Kivu, Tanganyika and Katanga. The FARDC and MONUSCO reported an increase in attacks by Mayi-Mayi militias in the Kivus since June.
The risk of political violence as a result of 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 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. The government has since declared it lacks the capacity to hold elections in 2017.
Rising tensions in areas that have been relatively calm in recent years, including the Kasaïs, is indicative of the enduring challenge of preventing the emergence of armed groups opposed to the rule of the central government. The growth in inter-ethnic violence in the Kasaï region and evidence implicating the government in attacks targeting certain ethnic groups increases the risk of further atrocities in the region. The situation in the Kasaïs is also creating an enormous humanitarian crisis, placing additional strain on a country that was already home to over 2 million IDPs and tens of thousands of refugees from neighboring countries.
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.
The government has often failed to hold members of the FARDC accountable for systematic human rights violations. Despite diplomatic pressure from the international community, the government has not undertaken a meaningful investigation into allegations that hundreds of people have been killed by the FARDC in the Kasaï region.
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 mounting security challenges.
On 19 April the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, called for an immediate, impartial international investigation 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, which it failed to meet. On 23 June the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution mandating the High Commissioner appoint a team of international experts to collect and preserve evidence to determine responsibility for possible atrocities perpetrated in the Kasaï region.
On 31 May the European Union imposed sanctions on nine individuals with "command and control" responsibility for security forces involved in deadly violence against protestors. The following day the United States issued sanctions against François Olenga for command responsibility of the Republican Guard during violence against the political opposition in Kinshasa. The UNSC also currently subjects 9 entities and 31 individuals connected to armed groups in the eastern DRC to sanctions.
On 27 July the UNSC issued a Presidential Statement calling upon parties to the 31 December CENCO agreement to remain committed to its implementation. The UNSC also condemned the violence in the Kasaï region.
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 in both the Kasaï and eastern regions. The government must halt support for Bana Mura and condemn the targeting of civilians based upon ethnicity.
The government must urgently address allegations of the security forces using disproportionate and 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.
The government must fully cooperate with the Human Rights Council-mandated international team of experts, providing access to all relevant sites and also establishing a credible domestic investigative mechanism. If the government fails to fulfill its promises in this regard, the International Criminal Court and UNSC should be prepared to act to ensure accountability.
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 August 2017