Populations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo face an imminent threat of mass atrocity crimes committed by various armed groups.
Attacks by armed groups operating in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), as well as recurring inter-communal violence, pose an imminent threat to vulnerable populations. Despite military offensives conducted by the government’s armed forces (FARDC) with assistance from the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) and its Force Intervention Brigade, violence continues. 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.
Several provinces in eastern DRC – notably North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri and Tanganyika – as well as the Kasaï region, have been plagued by inter-communal violence and attacks by armed groups. The UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) in the DRC documented 6,545 human rights violations during 2019. In conflict-affected provinces more than 332 people were extrajudicially executed by government security forces while 1,027 were killed by non-state armed groups. UNJHRO also documented more than 1,054 cases of conflict-related sexual violence, a 62 percent increase over 2018.
During January UNJHRO reported on conflict between the Hema and Lendu communities in Ituri province, alleging that 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, although some Hema armed groups also engaged in reprisal violence.
Inter-communal attacks as well as fighting between the FARDC and armed ethnic militias, particularly the predominantly-Lendu Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO) armed group, have continued to escalate in Ituri. UNHCR reported on 8 May that more than 274 civilians have been killed and 200,000 displaced in the area since March. Attacks escalated as CODECO perpetrated violent reprisals following the killing of their leader, Ndudjolo Duduko Justin, by the FARDC in mid-March. Between March and May UNHCR recorded more than 3,000 serious human rights violations, including more than 140 women raped.
Meanwhile, on 30 October the FARDC launched an offensive against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) armed group in North Kivu. Since then the ADF has carried out retaliatory attacks against villages in the Beni region, killing more than 400 civilians. Those fleeing the violence have reported mass killings conducted with machetes, as well as sexual violence and abductions. The offensive was partly prompted by the role of the ADF in inhibiting the government and international community from confronting cholera, measles and Ebola outbreaks that have claimed the lives of thousands of people. The World Health Organization documented more than 390 attacks on health facilities in DRC during 2019.
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.
Rampant impunity, competition for control of profitable minerals, as well as unresolved inter-communal conflicts, have enabled the proliferation of militias and other armed groups. Although the Hema and Lendu have a long history of conflict, they coexisted relatively peacefully from 2007 to 2017. The gravity of the recent attacks in Ituri demonstrates the need for inter-communal reconciliation and rapid disarmament of CODECO to prevent further atrocities.
The DRC government has struggled to uphold its responsibility to protect in the past, and government forces have at times been complicit in the perpetration of mass atrocity crimes.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) currently subjects 13 entities and 31 individuals in the DRC to sanctions.
On 8 July 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.
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 government should conduct a thorough investigation of recent massacres in Ituri and hold the perpetrators accountable. Neighboring states should continue to uphold the Peace and Security Framework for the DRC and provide assistance in confronting the threat of armed groups to the region.
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