UN Human Rights Council must promote accountability for “new” crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Published: 12 Jul 2019
By: Thijs Van Laer
When talking about conflicts in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), people often think about the situation in the two Kivu provinces, or maybe the political situation in Kinshasa.
But since 2016, violence has spread in the Kasai region in southern DRC, where a customary dispute quickly escalated into violent conflict. Attacks by a militia called Kamuina Nsapu were followed by violent military operations that spared neither children (who were forcibly recruited into the militia) nor civilians living in the combat zones.
While conducting research on Kasai in late 2017, IRRI was struck by the testimony of two girls forcibly recruited into the militia. They experienced unimaginable atrocities and were seriously traumatised. A number of civilians we spoke to had witnessed sexual abuse committed by government soldiers. Their accounts testify that, once again, women and girls have been marked most profoundly by this violence. The experts mandated by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) have also confirmed that women have been subject to forced labour and sexual slavery.
At the end of 2017, another wave of violence broke out, on the other side of the country, in Ituri. Ituri was the locus of several previous waves of violence, between 1997 and 2008, but had since seen a fragile peace in most of its territory. That changed in December 2017, when militias staged attacks on villages, massacred civilians and burned houses. Again, it has been reported that many women and girls fell victim to sexual abuse. Another wave of violence is currently taking place in the same area, leading to more than 160 deaths, according to civil society.
Then, in December 2018, two weeks before national elections, according to the UN more than 535 people were killed in Yumbi in northwestern DRC. IRRI documented attacks by one community against another, marked by killings, arson attacks and, again, sexual violence. The area had previously experienced conflict, but not to this extent.
What are the common elements of these three “new” conflicts? First, the commission of mass human rights violations, which could, according to the UN, amount to crimes against humanity.
Second, each of the conflicts started over relatively minor problems: customary conflict in Yumbi and Kasai and a dispute between individuals in Ituri. Nonetheless, these conflicts escalated quickly to devastating effect. And the reason they were able to escalate so quickly was because of the disastrous mismanagement of initial disputes by provincial and national authorities; and the reaction by the military, disproportional and deadly in the Kasai, or delayed and passive in Yumbi and Ituri. In addition, politicians have been supporting militias involved in the violence, and tensions linked to the national political crisis or decentralisation have been allowed to fester.
Third, these atrocities have created displacement crises. At the height of the conflict in the Kasai region, more than 800,000 people were internally displaced, while 27,000 fled to neighbouring Angola. In Ituri, the last wave of violence alone displaced 300,000 people, in addition to the many people who have taken refugee inside the country or in Uganda since December 2017. Furthermore, 16,000 people fled from Yumbi to Congo-Brazzaville, while 12,000 sought safety on islands in the Congo River. Many of the displaced live in deplorable humanitarian conditions, and are victims of human rights abuses and/or experience undue pressure to return.
Fourth, these conflicts are exacerbated by a generalised climate of impunity. For the Kasai region, there is finally limited progress in the trial of the murder of two UN experts, even if several accused have not been heard. There have been a high number of arrests of former Kamuina Nsapu members, but only a few from militias supporting the then-government, or from the security services.
In Ituri, there have been only limited attempts to arrest and prosecute the individuals accused of involvement in atrocities, which has contributed to the recent resurgence of the violence. The impact of recent military operations remains to be seen.
Several reports documenting the violence in Yumbi have been published by the UN, the government and the national human rights commission. A number of individuals await trial for their involvement in the attacks. Other individuals accused by people we interviewed of playing key roles in the violence have not been held accountable, in some cases even being elected to new political positions since the December elections.
So what should be done?
First, the key actors from all sides involved in these atrocities, including high-level individuals, need to be held to account. For Kasai, the HRC expert team plays an important role, and it is positive that their mandate will be renewed. But a wider mechanism that also covers other conflict areas, and reports to the HRC on the most senior individuals involved, is also needed.
Second, there is crucial work to be done on bringing about reconciliation, building on efforts to promote justice. These conflicts have pitted communities against each other, with victims and perpetrators coexisting within many of them. Tensions already existed between communities in these zones, even though they were not the direct and principal cause of the conflicts. The violence has exacerbated these inter-community tensions, making reconciliation efforts of key importance. Religious and traditional leaders have an important role to play, but they need far more support.
Third, more consistent efforts to demobilise militia members who want to renounce violence are needed. In Kasai, some groups have shown willingness to demobilise, but are unlikely to do so effectively, unless there are dedicated programmes to assist former combatants, including many boys and girls, in dealing with their past and building a new future inside their communities. Efforts to rebuild the confidence of former fighters in authorities and international actors, including MONUSCO, who are supposed to protect their communities if tensions reappear, are also needed.
This statement was delivered during a side-event on 8 July 2019 in the margins of the 41st session of the Human Rights Council.
The following organisations co-sponsored the event: Franciscans International (FI), Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Dominicans for Justice and Peace, European Network for Central Africa (EURAC), Lutheran World Federation (LWF), Cordaid, Centre for Civil and Political Rights (CCPR), World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), International Refugee Rights Inititiative (IRRI), , Pain pour le prochain, Human Rights Watch, Groupe d’Action pour les Droits de la Femme (GADF), Protection International, African resources Watch (Afrewatch), ChristianAid, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).