From 28 November to 1 December at least 50 civilians were allegedly killed by the March 23 Movement (M23) armed group in and around the village of Kishishe, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The government alleges the death toll is significantly higher. At the time of the killings M23 was reportedly engaged in clashes with armed groups, including Mai-Mai militias, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and Nyatura, and also subsequently perpetrated indiscriminate attacks and potential summary killings. Reports indicate that some victims were killed in their homes, while others were killed at a church where they had sought shelter or while fleeing the hostilities. Unidentified armed men reportedly ordered villagers to bury the victims in mass graves.
The UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC denounced the killings, stating that, “These allegations, if confirmed, could constitute crimes under international humanitarian law [IHL].” Under IHL, indiscriminate attacks that kill or injure civilians are war crimes. The UN Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC has launched an investigation to verify the facts.
Lawrence Kanyuka, M23’s political spokesman, denied the allegations and asserted in a statement that, “M23 reminds the international and national community that it has never targeted civilian populations.” However, the UN and international human rights organizations have previously documented widespread abuses committed by M23 fighters against civilians, including deliberate killings and indiscriminate shelling, among other possible war crimes.
In the past year M23 has been waging its most serious offensive in eastern DRC since 2012. Since March at least 390,000 people have been forcibly displaced by the fighting between the government’s armed forces (FARDC) and M23. Following intense clashes in October and November, during which the group took control of much of Rutshuru territory and advanced towards Goma, the provincial capital, a fragile ceasefire agreed upon by regional leaders went into effect on 25 November for North Kivu. The ceasefire agreement stipulated that M23 withdraw from occupied zones, failing which the East African Community (EAC) Regional Force would intervene. Following the news of the clashes in Kishishe, which effectively shattered the ceasefire, the FARDC warned that its troops “are obliged to respond to all attacks and to do everything possible to protect the Congolese people.”
While diplomatic efforts are underway to end the fighting, civilians remain at heightened risk of atrocities. Authorities should take measures to protect civilians in North Kivu while UN peacekeepers should be deployed in and around Kishishe to protect survivors. All forces active in the area, including the FARDC and the EAC Regional Force, must ensure operations against armed groups are carried out with strict adherence to IHL and utilize tactics that mitigate civilian harm. All perpetrators of atrocities must be accountable for their crimes.
On 5 December the 21st session of the Assembly of States Parties (ASP) of the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened in The Hague. The annual meeting of the ASP provides an opportunity for the 123 members of the ICC to acknowledge achievements made in fighting impunity and to raise awareness about the challenges that remain in delivering justice for victims of atrocities and preventing the recurrence of such crimes.
During the opening of the ASP, ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan stated that during 2022 his Office “has implemented significant changes to make us more agile, field-focused and increase our capacity to partner effectively with survivors and impacted communities.” A recent example of this is the request issued by Prosecutor Khan on 24 November before the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) seeking authorization to hold a hearing on the confirmation of charges against Joseph Kony in his absence. An arrest warrant against Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, was issued in 2005 for 33 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, cruel treatment, enslavement, rape and attacks against civilians. If authorized by the PTC, this would be the first hearing in absentia since the establishment of the ICC.
While the ICC continues to be one of the most important institutions for the investigation and prosecution of international crimes, this year various states have taken important steps to provide long-awaited justice for victims and survivors of past atrocities. During September a court in Guinea opened the long-delayed trial of alleged perpetrators of the 2009 stadium massacre. In October Kenyan prosecutors decided to charge 12 police officers with crimes against humanity in the context of the violent crackdown following the disputed presidential election in August 2017. This is the first case that will utilize Kenya’s “International Crimes Act” to prosecute crimes against humanity in national courts. Also in October, the Special Criminal Court in the Central African Republic (CAR) issued its first verdict, finding three suspected members of the “3R” (Retour, Réclamation et Réhabilitation) armed group guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The historic verdict represents an important step in advancing justice domestically for victims and survivors of atrocities in CAR.
Meanwhile, on 18 November the UN General Assembly’s Sixth Committee – the Assembly’s primary forum for legal matters and questions regarding international law – adopted a resolution to move toward drafting a treaty on crimes against humanity with a clear timeline. Unlike the conventions for genocide and war crimes, there is currently no international treaty specifically devoted to crimes against humanity. During 2019 the International Law Commission completed a draft of fifteen articles for review by the Sixth Committee, but action on the draft articles had stalled until the resolution last month. The articles define crimes against humanity, create obligations on states to prevent and punish such crimes and urge states to criminalize the acts under national law.
Juliette Paauwe, Senior Research and Advocacy Officer at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “The international community should ensure continued financial and political support to all efforts aimed at fighting impunity, including by building capacities of local, regional and national courts. All states should codify international crimes into domestic legislation and, where possible, pursue accountability for perpetrators under the principle of universal jurisdiction.”
This Friday, 9 December, marks the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime. This annual day was authorized by the UN General Assembly in 2015 to serve as an opportunity for members of the international community to honor all the victims of this most unconscionable crime. Friday also marks the 74th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This was the first human rights treaty to be adopted in the aftermath of World War Two and in the shadow of the Holocaust.
Genocide is a crime that diminishes us all and challenges our very sense of what makes us human. Commemorating the victims of genocide, restoring the dignity of victims and their families, and ensuring accountability for perpetrators is an essential step in the process of personal and societal healing after atrocities.
Sadly, since the establishment of this International Day of Commemoration, we have witnessed the genocides of the Rohingya by the authorities in Myanmar (Burma) and of the Yazidi in Iraq by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. As we observe this annual day, populations around the world continue to face the threat of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes not for anything they have done, but for who they are. This includes the Uyghur population and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups in China, where the government appears to be intentionally perpetrating at least four acts prohibited under Article II of the Genocide Convention.
In recent years we have also witnessed a worrying rise in nationalism, xenophobia, neo-Nazism and genocide denial around the world. For example, Bosnia and Herzegovina has documented an intensification of the denial of war crimes and genocide committed during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, as well as the increasing glorification of war criminals. Rising hate speech associated with these developments highlights the necessity of preserving accurate histories of genocide and delivering education on past atrocities with a curriculum that is unbiased and does not exacerbate societal divisions. Memorialization of genocide and its victims is thus an essential part of atrocity prevention.
On this International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect stands with the victims of past genocides and encourages states and the international community to relentlessly uphold their responsibility to protect. We also urge governments and international civil society to use this day to understand existing risks to vulnerable populations, and to assess our collective capacity to prevent would-be perpetrators from harvesting fear and inciting further identity-based conflict.