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.
According to the UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) in the DRC, 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 in 2019. Half of the victims were in Ituri province, where inter-communal violence, as well as fighting between the FARDC and ethnic militias, have escalated. According to the UN Refugee Agency, over 5.2 million Congolese are currently internally displaced 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 more than 850 civilians in North Kivu alone. UNJHRO has reported that attacks by the ADF have been “systematic and brutal” and may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Those fleeing the violence have reported mass killings conducted with heavy weapons, as well as sexual violence and abductions. At least 45 people were reportedly killed by suspected ADF between 31 December 2020 and 5 January 2021.
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 Congolese 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.
Violence in Ituri province between ethnic armed groups from the Hema and Lendu communities escalated in late 2019 when the predominantly ethnic Lendu Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO) armed group launched a series of attacks. More than 660,000 people were forced to flee as CODECO and other ethnic armed groups perpetrated attacks that may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity. Although violence has decreased since CODECO agreed to a ceasefire with the government during July, some factions have failed to adhere to the agreement.
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 been implicated in crimes against civilians while combating 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 in Ituri must be independently investigated and 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.