Various armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continue to perpetrate crimes against humanity, resulting in the largest displacement crisis in Africa.
Attacks by armed groups and recurring inter-communal violence continue to threaten populations in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Despite military offensives conducted by the government’s armed forces (FARDC) with assistance from the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), violence continues to escalate. More than 120 militias and armed groups are currently active in the eastern DRC.
According to the UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) in the DRC, during 2020 an estimated 2,487 civilians were killed by armed groups in North Kivu, South Kivu, Tanganyika and Ituri provinces. The majority of victims were in Ituri and North Kivu provinces, where inter-communal violence, as well as fighting between the FARDC and ethnic militias, have escalated. According to UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), over 5.2 million Congolese are currently internally displaced, including an estimated 3 million children, while more than 934,000 refugees have fled to neighboring countries, making it the largest displacement crisis in Africa.
In North Kivu attacks by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) armed group, which has been perpetrating atrocities in the Beni region for more than six years, escalated after the FARDC launched an offensive against them in October 2019. Since then, the ADF has carried out retaliatory violence against villages near Beni, as well as in Ituri province, killing nearly 850 civilians and kidnapping 534 during 2020. UNJHRO has reported that attacks by the ADF have been “systematic and brutal” and may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. The group has continued to target civilians during 2021, killing more than 50 people during the first two weeks of February alone.
Elsewhere in North Kivu fighting between factions of the Nduma Defense of Congo-Rénové (NDC-R) has displaced more than 40,000 people since July. NDC-R fighters have been implicated in killings, rape, child recruitment and torture of civilians in territories they control. The leader of one NDC-R faction, Guidon Shimiray Mwissa, is wanted by the DRC authorities for perpetrating crimes against humanity. The NDC’s former leader, Ntabo Ntaberi “Sheka,” was sentenced to life imprisonment by a military court on 23 November 2020 for war crimes and crimes against humanity previously perpetrated by the group.
UNHCR and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have warned that atrocities in North Kivu are putting internally displaced persons and children at particular risk. According to UNHCR, between December 2020 and January 2021, armed groups committed at least seven incursions into five sites for displaced populations in North Kivu. Some armed groups have also forcibly occupied schools and attacked health centers in North Kivu. During the first half of 2020 UNICEF registered a 16 percent increase in grave violations against children, including recruitment into armed groups and sexual violence.
For more than 20 years various armed groups have exploited the weakness of state authority to perpetrate attacks against civilians. Widespread violence in eastern DRC is indicative of the enduring challenge of building effective governance and stability. The volume of attacks by armed groups in Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu provinces, combined with inter-communal tensions, is straining the capacity of the FARDC and MONUSCO to provide adequate protection to civilians.
Rampant impunity and competition for control of profitable minerals have enabled the proliferation of armed groups. While the FARDC has initiated offensives against various militias, groups like the ADF have a history of violent reprisals targeting civilians. The FARDC and police have also been implicated in widespread violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, including arbitrarily killing civilians, while combatting armed groups.
The DRC government has struggled to uphold its responsibility to protect, and government forces have at times been complicit in atrocity crimes.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) currently subjects 13 entities and 31 individuals in the DRC to sanctions. Since 2013 the government of the DRC and neighboring states have collectively addressed the threat of armed groups through the “Peace, Security and Cooperation [PSC] Framework for the DRC and the region.”
On 18 December the UNSC extended the mandate of MONUSCO for one year. The resolution emphasized that the government “bears the primary responsibility to protect civilians within its territory and subject to its jurisdictions, including protection from crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
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 government should cooperate with UNJHRO and ensure all state agents responsible for extrajudicial killings, sexual violence and other human rights violations and abuses are held accountable. Recent massacres must be independently investigated and the perpetrators punished.
The government, with the support of MONUSCO, should implement measures to mediate inter-communal tensions in eastern DRC and address structural issues of land access, resource allocation and poor governance. The DRC government needs to implement a credible disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and repatriation program to encourage the ADF and other armed groups to lay down their arms.
Neighboring states should continue to uphold the PSC Framework and provide assistance in confronting armed groups.