Crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Although the five-year civil war in the DRC ended in 2003 with the formation of a transitional government, crimes against humanity and war crimes against civilian populations – including murder, rape and sexual slavery, recruitment and use of child soldiers, and forced displacement – continue unabated. The civil war, often referred to as Africa’s “First World War,” has claimed four million lives and subjected countless civilians to displacement, rape, abduction, and torture. There has not been a cessation of violence since the end of the war; fragile peace agreements have been broken and violated over and over again. Persistent violence and the struggle for control over natural resources has dragged all of Congo’s neighbors into a regional conflict and human rights and humanitarian crisis, in a region already marred by instability.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Warning List since 2003. The Museum's concern about the DRC stems from the relationship of the crisis to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the scale and effects of violence against civilians, mass sexual violence against women, continued fighting in the East, and the role of ethnicity in the perpetration of violence.
According to the Enough Project, rape as a weapon of war in Congo “exists on a scale seen nowhere else in the world”. The UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, declared the DRC as “the rape capital of the world”, a statement supported by the release of an estimation by the UN stating that 15,000 women were raped in eastern Congo in the year 2009. During the period of July 30 to August 4, 2010 mass rapes were carried out by members of the Rwandan rebel group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and Congolese Mai-Mai Cheka rebels in the region of eastern Congo. At least 303 civilians were raped during the seizure and attacks on multiple villages. Homes and shops were also looted and 116 people were abducted to carry out forced labor. The crimes occurred within miles of the UN peacekeepers’ base; however the UN force was not able to protect Congolese civilians. The UN headquarters only became aware of the violence and mass rapes in eastern Congo on August 12 when the UN was informed of the horrific crimes by the International Medical Corps, which was treating victims. Atul Khare, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping acknowledged the failure of the UN by stating: “our actions were not adequate, resulting in unacceptable brutalization of the population of the villages in the area. We must do better.” The Security Council has urged for the “swift and fair prosecution of the perpetrators” and called for the enhancement of the UN Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (MONUSCO) “interaction with the civilian population.” Since the mass rapes occurred, Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, stated that there is the potential for victims to be attacked in the future by the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) as “there is already some information from MONUSCO peacekeepers on the ground that rapes, killings and lootings have been perpetrated by FARDC soldiers.”
According to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers’ 2008 Global Report, an estimated 7,000 child soldiers remain in government forces and armed groups. Children are recruited from refugee camps and used as combatants, sexual slaves, guards and porters. Moreover, Refugees International estimates that approximately 2 million people remain internally displaced in eastern DRC and that there are more than 450,000 Congolese refugees who have sought safety in neighboring countries.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) estimated in January 2008 that 5.4 million people have died from war-related causes (including malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition) in Congo since 1998, while as many as 45,000 die every month – making it arguably the world’s deadliest documented conflict since World War II. Approximately 500,000 Congolese civilians continue to die each year. The conflict has taken an extraordinary toll on children who make up nearly 50% of the recorded deaths, despite constituting only 19% of the total population.
In late November 2008, former UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, and former UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Marie Guehenno, warned that the conditions in the DRC look frighteningly similar to the conditions in Rwanda before the genocide.
UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Francis Deng, visited the Great Lakes region from 23 November to 4 December 2008 to assess whether or not the human rights violations in the North Kivu region of the DRC could be evidence of the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such”. He found that “massive violations of international human rights and humanitarian law were being committed on the basis of ethnicity and national origin” in the DRC. Special Adviser Deng urged all parties to the conflict to put an end to the atrocities and work toward a political solution.
The UN report, DRC: Mapping Human Rights Violations 1993-2003, released in 2010, identified multiple violations of human rights and/or international humanitarian law following the investigation of 617 serious incidents that occurred during the period in focus. The report declared that the violations may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes, and the systematic attacks carried out during 1993-2003 “could be characterized as crimes of genocide.” See below for further information on the report and responses to its publication and findings.
III. International Responses
The United Nations Security Council
In 2004, the UN Security Council began imposing sanctions on the DRC. As of March 2008, there were asset freezes and travel bans on 22 individuals and companies, and an arms embargo on the DRC. In December 2008, sanctions were expanded to target individuals hindering humanitarian assistance or supporting armed groups operating in eastern DRC through illicit trade of natural resources. The Security Council “further extended the arms embargo and targeted travel and financial sanctions until November 2010” through the passage of Resolution 1896.
After adopting several resolutions regarding the violence in the DRC, the UN Security Council authorized a peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, in November 1999. There are over 19,000 military personnel stationed in the country, with 90% of the peacekeepers deployed in eastern Congo. MONUSCO has a Chapter VII mandate that allows it to use “all necessary means”, to protect civilians and humanitarian workers under the imminent attack of violence as well as to ensure the security necessary for the operations of the UN and the oversight of the peace process. However, Congolese civilians have been victims of various crimes conducted by rebel forces in the region despite peacekeeper efforts, as evidenced by the mass rapes conducted in July/August 2010. Peacekeepers have been unable to defend Congolese civilians on numerous occasions as a result of being inadequately staffed, not having the proper equipment, or not having the will to act. See Human Right Watch December 2008 Report, “The UN’s Inability to Protect Civilians"
Click here to access UN publications and documents on the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The United Nations Human Rights Council
The UN Human Rights Council has called for an immediate end to all human rights violations in the DRC through the passage of multiple resolutions focusing on the situation in the country. In December 2008, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution (A/HRC/RES/S/8/1) in which the Council condemned the acts of violence, human rights violations and abuses committed in Kivu, in particular sexual violence and militia recruitment of child soldiers. The Council underlined that the Government had the primary responsibility to make every effort to strengthen the protection of the civilian population and to investigate and bring to justice perpetrators of violations of human rights. The Council passed a resolution (A/HRC/RES/13/22) in March 2010 in which it reaffirmed its call to end human rights violations as well as encouraged the government of the DRC to establish and implement the reforms necessary to consolidate peace and national reconciliation. Furthermore the Council called on the international community to support the DRC and its institutions in improving the present state of human rights.
Amnesty International, concerned by the lack of action following the passage of resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council, urged the UN to do more to protect the civilians and end impunity in the DRC. While supportive of MONUSCO’s mandate expansion, it criticized the follow up procedures of the HRC as “weak”. Amnesty recommended a stronger human rights mechanism to report to the UN and pointed out that despite rhetoric to end impunity within the December 2008 resolution, no actual measures were included to facilitate justice. The UN was conspicuously silent on the reform of national courts; did not discuss the possibility of an independent vetting process to exclude people suspected to have committed international crimes and human rights violations from the security personnel; nor did it voice any support for the ICC’s investigation in the DRC.
The International Criminal Court
On 19 April 2004, President Kabila of the DRC referred his country to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, formally announced on June 23, 2004 the decision to open an investigation – the first of the ICC – on the crimes committed in the DRC. The Office of the Prosecutor had been analyzing the situation in the DRC since July 2003.
On 10 February 2006, the first arrest warrant was issued for Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, alleged founder and leader of the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC) and the Forces Patriotiques pour la Libération du Congo (FPLC). Lubanga was indicted with war crimes, specifically for enlisting and conscripting child soldiers under the age of 15 and using them to actively participate in hostilities.
On 6 July 2007, the ICC also issued arrest warrants for Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, who were charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity; including the use of child soldiers, attack on civilians, pillaging and sexual violence. The ICC issued additional arrest warrants for Bosco Ntaganda (22 August 2006) and Callixte Mbarushimana (28 September 2010). Mbarushimana was arrested on 11 October 2010; however Ntaganda remains at large. Hearings continue for the Lubanga, Katanga, Ngudiolo and Mbarushimana cases.
The ICC’s investigations in the DRC has sparked some criticism namely on the lack of planning and the rushed investigative process conducted in its haste to present cases in court as soon as possible. Nevertheless, Param-Preet Singh, counsel in Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program recognizes that it set a precedent and made “clear that the use of children in armed combat is a war crime that can and will be prosecuted at the international level."
High Commissioner for Human Rights
On 1 October 2010, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) released a 566-page report on the DRC entitled DRC: Mapping Human Rights Violations 1993-2003. A draft version of the report was leaked by Le Monde prior to its official publication, causing controversy and tension in response to the language used and allegations made within the document. The report documented 617 violent incidents committed in the DRC, mostly in its Eastern provinces, between March 1993 and June 2003. The report notes that “the vast majority of the 617 most serious incidents described in the mapping report point to the commission of multiple violations of human rights and/or international humanitarian law, which may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes, and often both at the same time” (463-464). It also includes that “the apparent systematic and widespread attacks described in this report reveal a number of inculpatory elements that, if proven before a competent court, could be characterised as crimes of genocide” (31).
The report is based on the interviews of over 1,280 witnesses and the analysis of more than 1,500 documents showing that armed groups systematically targeted unarmed civilians, both Congolese and Hutu refugees, the large majority of which were women, children and the elderly. The report made particular attention to the apparent systematic and widespread use of rape and sexual violence by all combatant forces against women. In addition, according to the report, over 30,000 children were recruited by armed groups and suffered inhumane treatment. Most significant, allegations against the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPA) who, allied with Burundian troops and Congolese rebels, allegedly committed crimes against ethnic Hutu civilians in 1996 on such a wide and systematic scale that they could amount to genocide if proven by a court of law.
This report has caused great controversy as it identifies the governments and militaries of multiple states as being responsible for and allegedly carrying out mass atrocity crimes. The governments of the DRC, Uganda, Burundi, Angola, and Rwanda have submitted comments to the report, criticizing the document’s conclusions and recommendations, and have denied the allegations made against their militaries and governments. The Rwandan government threatened to withdraw its forces from the UN Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS) in protest of the report. Civil Society has endorsed the publication of the report and has called for immediate investigation and justice regarding the allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect stated that “some of the actors involved in mass atrocities in the DRC continue to reiterate their support for the responsibility to protect principle while behaving in a manner completely inconsistent with it”, and called on the international community to deliver on their commitment to RtoP.
Please see the ICRtoP Overview of the DRC Mapping Exercise for more information on the report.
On 7 November 2008, in response to the surge in violence at that time, Great Lakes Regional leaders, the AU and UN met in Nairobi. They called for a ceasefire in North Kivu and the establishment of a humanitarian corridor to address the humanitarian crisis, called on the UN Secretary-General to strengthen the mandate of MONUSCO and provide adequate resources for the force. They also considered the possibility of sending peacekeepers to North Kivu, and established a mediation process and mechanism that involves all the regional leaders and a team of facilitators. While the UN did strengthen and reinforce the mandate of the MONUSCO by UN resolution 1856 on 22 December 2008 to emphasize the focus on the protection of civilians, the calls for a ceasefire, humanitarian corridor and mediation process were unheeded.
The heads of State of country members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) met two days later to discuss the situation in the DRC. One of the outcomes of the meeting was for SADC to immediately deploy its Team of Military Experts to assess the situation; dispatch its Military Monitoring Commission to monitor the border between the DRC, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda; and send a SADC representative to the mediation mechanism established by the Great Lakes Region for the DRC. It also considered sending a peacekeeping force into Kivu Province. However, little practical measures have actually been put in place to follow up their rhetoric with action.
Regional efforts to better the humanitarian crisis in the DRC intensified in 2008, with a flurry of meetings and dialogue. In mid-October, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) Secretariat condemned the violence, and in late October 2008 the ICGLR called for the international community to end the crisis in Eastern Congo. On 20 December 2008, the African Union Peace and Security Council condemned the atrocities and urged the UN Security Council to strengthen the mandate of MONUSCO. However, the AU, SADC nor the leaders of the Great Lake regions have made progress; humanitarian efforts decided upon are rarely translated into actual action; ceasefires had no lasting hold. There is a dire need for greater commitment to the goals and tasks decided upon during regional meetings. Given that the regional states have been unsuccessful in implementing mechanisms to improve the humanitarian situation, it is necessary that the international community steps in to assist their efforts in resolving the crisis.
Civil societies groups have tirelessly sought to find a political solution to the conflict and have stepped up efforts to address key concerns in the DRC, including civilian causalities, a lack of accountability and insufficient MONUSCO capacity.
The International Crisis Group and Refugees International (among others), motivated to find a political solution to the conflict, have urged the USA, the UK and the EU to deploy full-time, field-based senior envoys to support mediation efforts and to muster the political will and resources to support a sustained and comprehensive effort. These recommendations work towards efforts to secure a lasting political solution to local, national, and international dimensions of the crisis.
In January 2009, Amnesty called on all parties involved in the conflict to take all feasible precautions during the planning of the military operations to avoid civilian casualties. Parties Amnesty addressed include the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) and the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) as well as the governments of the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda. whose forces are now engaged in military offensives inside the DRC against the LRA and FDLR.
Specifically addressing accountability issues within the DRC, 11 organizations including the International Rescue Committee, CARE and the Enough Project urged the Congolese government to fulfill its obligation to protect civilians from human rights abuses, particularly by holding its own commanders and troops accountable for human rights abuses, especially with regards to sexual attacks in eastern DRC.
Several organizations recognized the failure of MONUSCO to protect civilians lie with the fact that the MONUSCO is stretched beyond capacity and have emphasized the need for MONUSCO to be strengthened and assisted. In early February 2009, international humanitarian aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) accused U.N. peacekeepers in Congo of failing to protect civilians by not reacting to attacks by Ugandan rebels that have killed hundreds of civilians. On 19 November 2008, 44 Congolese NGOs in North Kivu wrote a letter to the UN Security Council calling for an immediate reinforcement of peacekeeping troops, a strengthening of MONUC’s mandate, and the immediate deployment of EU troops as done in 2003 in Ituri. That same month, Oxfam International also called for immediate additional support to the UN peacekeepers. Juliette Prodhan, head of Oxfam in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said that “the world is failing in its Responsibility to Protect the Congo's innocent civilians”. Also in November, Refugees International urged the UN Security Council to underscore that civilian protection is MONUSCO’s primary responsibility, provide clear guidance on how to fulfill this responsibility and ensure that it has sufficient resources.
Civil Society responded with a call for justice following the publication of the 2010 report by the OHCHR on human rights violations during 1993-2003. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect condemned the gross violations of human rights, and the allegations and evidence of mass atrocity crimes conducted in the DRC during the period in focus. In its Open Statement Regarding UN Report on the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Global Centre noted that “the evidence unearthed by the report points to the simultaneous perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity, two of the four crimes that the Responsibility to Protect seeks to banish forever”. Members of civil society have demanded action in the forms of investigations into the allegations put forth in the report and the prosecution of those responsible for the crimes. Kenneth Roth, Executive-Director of Human Rights Watch, stated in the HRW release, DR Congo: UN Report Exposes Mass Graves, that “the time has come to identify and prosecute the people responsible for carrying out and ordering these atrocities, going right up the chain of command.” Amnesty International identified the significance of the report but noted that concrete action must now follow “to end impunity for crimes committed in the country during the decade covered by the report as well as the crimes that continue to be committed on a daily basis.”
The widespread and devastating effects of the conflict in the DRC documented by UN agencies and humanitarian organizations – with 2 million people displaced, millions dead, tens of thousands dying each month from consequences of the war, and tens of thousands of girls and women subjected to sexual violence – has undeniably reached the Responsibility to Protect threshold. The international community has stepped up to fulfill their responsibility to react and rebuild; however, attempts at alleviating the humanitarian crisis and to implement a peace process in the DRC have been progressing slowly. MONUSCO's mixed record has prompted calls to strengthen the capacity and mandate of the deployment. Meanwhile, trials for the DRC cases at the ICC have begun; the trials contribute significantly to efforts to end impunity and achieve justice and rule of law in the DRC.