Democratic Republic of the Congo

29 February 2024
Risk Level: Current Crisis

Various armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo recurrently and indiscriminately attack civilian populations, committing 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 violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International 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 (ADF), Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO) and the March 23 Movement (M23), among others. 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, these efforts have failed to stem violence or attacks against populations. At least 2,446 civilians were killed in South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri provinces between January and late October 2023. Ongoing attacks have had a devastating impact on children and women. According to the UN Children’s Fund, more than 450 cases of recruitment and use of children in armed groups were verified from July to September, a 50 percent increase compared with the first half of 2023. A dramatic increase in sexual violence against women and girls has also been recorded.

Tensions have also arisen outside of eastern DRC. Inter-communal conflict between the Teke and Yaka communities – sparked by disputes over land and customary rights in western Mai-Ndombe province – intensified and expanded into neighboring provinces throughout 2023, leaving hundreds of civilians dead and scores of villages, schools and medical facilities destroyed. Grave human rights violations have been recorded, including sexual violence, kidnapping for ransom and torture. The emergence of the Mobondo, a group of predominantly Yaka fighters, has hampered reconciliation efforts. The Congolese government has trained and sent hundreds of surrendered members of the Mobondo to eastern DRC to fight M23 without any prior vetting to ensure that new FARDC recruits were not previously involved in serious human rights abuses.

Protracted and resurgent violence and insecurity have exacerbated an already dire humanitarian crisis, with 25.4 million people in need of aid. Nearly 7 million Congolese are internally displaced and face grave protection risks. 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.

The International Criminal Court has been investigating serious crimes in the DRC since 2004. In 2023 the DRC government requested the Court investigate alleged crimes committed in North Kivu from 1 January 2022 to date, prompting Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan to announce during June 2023 his intention to conduct a preliminary examination.


Following a request by the Congolese government for an accelerated withdrawal of MONUSCO, the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted a resolution on 20 December mandating the withdrawal of the mission within one year. According to the disengagement plan, peacekeepers will depart from South Kivu by the end of April and remain in North Kivu and Ituri to continue carrying out their civilian protection mandate.

The security situation in North Kivu has further deteriorated since early October 2023, as ongoing fighting between M23 and the FARDC, supported by a coalition of local militias (known as Wazalendo), has killed or injured dozens and triggered mass displacement. M23 has recaptured lost territory and reportedly perpetrated unlawful killings, rape and other alleged war crimes. In mid-December troops began deploying in North Kivu as part of the Southern African Development Community Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC). M23 made major territorial advances during January and February, bringing the conflict closer to the provincial capital of Goma. The intense fighting – marked by the use of heavy artillery and shelling in populated areas by both sides – displaced at least 144,000 people in two weeks alone in Masisi territory. Civilians also remain at risk in Ituri, with the ADF and CODECO launching recurrent attacks marked by kidnappings, killings and the burning of homes in Djugu, Irumu and Mambasa territories.


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 once again being used as a weapon of war to terrorize and control communities affected by conflict.

Amid widespread violence across the eastern provinces, the withdrawal of MONUSCO has raised concerns regarding the future of civilian protection. The drawdown of MONUSCO from areas where peacekeepers regularly patrolled may exacerbate an existing security and protection vacuum, putting civilians at further risk. FARDC offensives often trigger violent reprisals by armed groups who target civilians. By routinely integrating members of armed groups who have been implicated in past crimes into the FARDC, the government has encouraged impunity, while posing risks to civilians.

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 targeting Tutsis/Banyarwanda individuals and others. UN officials have warned about the potential for a direct confrontation between DRC and Rwanda.


    • Rising cross-border tensions between Rwandan and Congolese officials and mobilization of troops.
    • Indiscriminate use of heavy artillery, shelling and bombings near civilian areas, including displacement camps, hospitals and schools.
    • Long-standing, unaddressed inter-communal tensions and rivalries, as well as the politicization of identity.
    • Growing trend of conflict-related sexual violence, disproportionately impacting displaced women and girls.
    • Existing security vacuum exacerbated by FARDC deployment to fight M23, emboldening other armed groups to target civilians.


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. All forces deployed in the eastern provinces should prevent, investigate, address and publicly report violations and abuses of human rights and violations of IHL.

The East African Community, Economic Community of Central African States, International Conference on the Great Lakes Region and the Southern African Development Community should coordinate regional initiatives. Neighboring states should 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.

The DRC authorities must thoroughly and transparently investigate and condemn ethnic-based hate speech and incitement to violence, while strengthening capacity building measures for civil society and journalists in this regard. MONUSCO must maintain a protective environment for civilians throughout the phases of disengagement, including by developing integrated provincial protection plans, in close consultation with civil society.


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