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, where inter-communal violence, as well as fighting between the FARDC and ethnic militias, has escalated. According to the 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 this the largest displacement crisis in Africa. The World Food Programme and UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimate that 27.3 million people are critically hungry.
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 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 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, killing more than 200 people and kidnapping at least 70 in the first three months of 2021.
UNHCR and the UN Children’s Fund 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.
In Ituri province armed groups, particularly factions of the Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO), a predominantly ethnic Lendu armed group, have recently escalated their attacks on villages. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), during April at least 40 people were killed in attacks that also involved kidnappings, rape and burning of homes, especially in Djugu and northern Irumu territories. OCHA estimates that at least 70,000 people fled as a result of the violence.
During April UNHCR also warned of a resurgence of violence in the Grand Kasaï region, where inter-ethnic militia violence resulted in widespread atrocities between 2016-2018. During late March 2021 clashes reportedly erupted in the Bakwakenge locality between fighters from the Luba and Kuba ethnic groups, resulting in at least 13 people killed, 190 homes destroyed and 21,000 people displaced.
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.
Renewed attacks by CODECO elements could result in a recurrence of atrocities in Ituri. CODECO and its affiliates were implicated in the killing and rape of hundreds of civilians during the first half of 2020 prior to signing ceasefire agreements with the government. UNJHRO has previously accused CODECO of potential crimes against humanity for its role in inter-communal violence between ethnic Lendu and Hema communities between December 2017 and September 2019.
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 2020 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.”
On 31 March the UNSC issued a Press Statement expressing concern regarding rising inter-communal violence and armed group activity.
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, CODECO and other armed groups to permanently lay down their arms.
Neighboring states should continue to uphold the PSC Framework and provide assistance in confronting armed groups.