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 throughout the region.
The UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) in the DRC reported on 5 August that an estimated 1,300 civilians, including 165 children, were killed by armed groups in the first six months of 2020 in North Kivu, South Kivu, Tanganyika and Ituri provinces. This is a more than threefold increase when compared to the same period last year. UNJHRO has also recorded more than 400 adult victims of conflict-related sexual violence. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), over 5.5 million Congolese are internally displaced while more than 900,000 refugees have fled to neighboring countries, making it the largest displacement crisis in Africa. UNHCR also raised concern regarding increased attacks on internally displaced persons (IDPs) and host communities.
The majority of the attacks have taken place in Ituri province, where inter-communal violence as well as fighting between the FARDC and ethnic militias, particularly the predominantly ethnic Lendu Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO) armed group, have escalated since late 2019. More than 650 civilians have been killed by armed groups and over 660,000 have been displaced in Ituri since January. UNHCR has recorded at least 3,000 serious human rights violations, including more than 140 women raped. The UN Children’s Fund has also received allegations of more than 100 serious child rights violations, including rape, killing and maiming, and attacks on schools and health centers.
During January UNJHRO reported on inter-communal conflict between Lendu armed groups and those from the ethnic Hema community that has taken place in Ituri province since December 2017, alleging that ethnic armed groups may have perpetrated war crimes or crimes against humanity. At least 700 people were killed and 142 were subjected to sexual violence during several waves of violence between December 2017 and September 2019. The majority of victims were from the ethnic Hema community.
Meanwhile, attacks by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) armed group, which has been perpetrating atrocities in the Beni region of North Kivu for more than six years, escalated after the FARDC launched an offensive against them on 30 October 2019. Since then the ADF has carried out retaliatory attacks against villages near Beni and, more recently, in Ituri province. Those fleeing the violence have reported mass killings conducted with machetes, as well as sexual violence and abductions. UNJHRO has reported that attacks by the ADF since January 2019, during which 793 civilians were killed, may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
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 growing inter-communal tensions in Ituri and South Kivu, is straining the capacity of the FARDC and MONUSCO to provide adequate protection to civilians. Efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic are also limiting the capacity of the government to extend services throughout the country.
The Hema and Lendu have a long history of conflict, including several years of intense fighting in Ituri province that started in the late 1990s and resulted in thousands of deaths. The Hema are predominantly pastoralists and the Lendu are mainly sedentary farmers, with longstanding disputes over access to land and other resources. The intensity of recent attacks in Ituri demonstrates the need for inter-communal mediation and the disarmament of CODECO.
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 DRC government has struggled to uphold its responsibility to protect in the past, 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 8 July 2019 the International Criminal Court found former DRC warlord Bosco Ntaganda guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in Ituri from 2002-2003. Ntaganda was subsequently sentenced to 30 years imprisonment.
On 19 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 in Ituri must be investigated and perpetrators punished. The government should also ensure timely trials are held for ADF and CODECO combatants in their custody.
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 also needs to implement a credible disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and repatriation program to encourage the ADF, CODECO and other combatants to lay down their arms. Neighboring states should continue to uphold the PSC Framework and provide assistance in confronting armed groups.
Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date on R2P news and alerts
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA