Various armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo recurrently indiscriminately attack civilian populations and commit violations that may amount to crimes against humanity.
Attacks by armed groups and recurring inter-communal violence have threatened populations in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for nearly 30 years. More than 120 militias and armed groups actively operate in Ituri, North Kivu, South Kivu and Tanganyika provinces, many of whom regularly perpetrate widespread violations and abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. While combating armed groups, the government’s armed forces (FARDC) and police have also been implicated in widespread violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, including sexual violence, torture and arbitrary killings, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Despite military offensives conducted by the FARDC, with assistance from the UN peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO), violence has escalated in the eastern provinces for several years amidst a surge in attacks by groups like the Allied Democratic Forces, Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO) and the March 23 Movement (M23). Although the government declared military rule in North Kivu and Ituri in May 2021 under a so-called “state of siege” to confront armed groups, and joint military operations have been deployed, including through the East African Community (EAC), these efforts have failed to stem violence or attacks against populations. In 2022 more than 1,800 civilians were killed and thousands injured in Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu, according to the UN.
Amidst armed conflict and inter-communal violence, the government has cracked down on dissent and infringed on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. According to the UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) in the DRC, there appears to be systematic efforts to prevent civil society and journalists from investigating allegations of human rights violations and abuses involving the FARDC or highlighting issues related to the state of siege. Ahead of the 20 December 2023 general elections, Congolese authorities have arbitrarily detained and threatened opposition leaders, journalists and human rights defenders and violently suppressed peaceful demonstrations. From January to June UNJHRO documented at least 80 victims in election-related incidents, including summary and extrajudicial executions.
Protracted and resurgent violence and insecurity have exacerbated an already dire humanitarian crisis. According to the International Organization for Migration, 6.9 million Congolese are internally displaced. Armed groups, in particular CODECO, have perpetrated targeted attacks against displacement sites in eastern DRC, killing hundreds of civilians and causing further displacement. At times the FARDC and MONUSCO have failed to prevent or stop these attacks. Widespread checkpoints and other deliberate movement restrictions by armed groups and, occasionally, the FARDC have prevented communities from accessing vital assistance.
The security situation in Ituri and North Kivu has deteriorated despite ongoing diplomatic efforts by the EAC and International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). Since January a surge of violence has killed over 770 civilians across Ituri, while the resumption of intense clashes between M23 and a coalition of pro-government armed groups, as well as with the FARDC, have killed or injured dozens since 1 October. More than 450,000 people were forced to flee Masisi and Rutshuru territories in six weeks alone.
Ongoing attacks continue to have a devastating impact on children and women. The number of cases of grave violations against children verified by the UN Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism during the first half of 2023 increased by 41 percent compared to the same period in 2022. A dramatic increase in sexual violence against women and girls has been recorded in the eastern provinces. During July Médecins Sans Frontières treated 1,500 female victims of sexual violence in three displacement camps outside Goma – more than double the number in May. The UN Refugee Agency recorded more than 8,200 human rights violations in September alone, including killings, looting and rape.
In recent months Congolese authorities and segments of the population have increasingly called for an accelerated withdrawal of MONUSCO. On 16 October the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted a presidential statement, expressing its “readiness to decide by the end of 2023 on the future of MONUSCO, its gradual, responsible and sustainable withdrawal and the concrete and realistic steps to be undertaken.”
On 15 June the DRC government submitted a new referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) requesting the Court investigate alleged crimes committed in North Kivu from 1 January 2022 to date. In July the ICC confirmed a $31 million reparations order in its existing case against former rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda.
Various armed groups have exploited the absence or weakness of state authority in eastern DRC to perpetrate attacks against civilians for decades. Rampant impunity and competition for control of profitable minerals have enabled the proliferation of such groups. Ethnically motivated and deliberate attacks by armed groups against displaced Congolese have led to waves of secondary displacement while sexual violence is increasingly being used as a weapon of war to terrorize and control communities affected by conflict.
Widespread violence across the eastern provinces is straining the capacity of the FARDC and MONUSCO to provide adequate protection. FARDC offensives often trigger violent reprisals by armed groups who target civilians. A rushed withdrawal of MONUSCO would create a significant security vacuum, putting civilians at risk.
The risk of contested elections and related violence has heightened amid the lack of consensus regarding the electoral process. Ongoing fighting and insecurity have raised concerns that millions of Congolese will be unable to vote.
The UNSC-mandated Panel of Experts on DRC and several others have alleged that Rwanda supported M23 in 2013 and has provided logistical support and fought alongside the group during its resurgence since November 2021. M23’s renewed offensive has aggravated regional tensions and provoked an increase in hate speech and incitement to discrimination in DRC, particularly based on ethnic identity. The UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region has warned of a “very real” risk of a “direct confrontation” between Rwanda and DRC, citing troop mobilization, the absence of direct high-level dialogue and persistent hate speech.
The DRC government and all regional and international forces must ensure that protecting civilians remains their primary priority as they address the ongoing threat posed by armed groups. A vetting process within the FARDC should be implemented to identify and provisionally remove individuals who may have been implicated in serious human rights violations while cases are pending.
The DRC government should ensure that security forces do not violate the fundamental freedoms necessary for credible and transparent elections and allow all political parties to campaign. The government and opposition should condemn inflammatory language on-and offline and use peaceful and legal means in the event of contested results.
The EAC, Economic Community of Central African States, ICGLR and Southern African Development Community should coordinate regional initiatives. Neighboring states should continue to uphold the “Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the DRC and the region” and ensure that forces deployed to eastern DRC uphold human rights and refrain from illicit activities. The international community should suspend military assistance to governments found to be supporting armed groups.
MONUSCO, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide should further mobilize authorities and civil society to condemn hate speech and the stigmatization and racial profiling of communities.