Democratic Republic of Congo: Every Delay Costs Lives
In November and early December Amnesty International delegates took part in field missions to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), visiting North Kivu province, eastern DRC, and refugee sites along the Uganda/DRC border in south-western Uganda.
The aim of the mission was to investigate human rights abuses reported in the current conflict and raise them with senior representatives of all the parties involved. They gathered first-hand information of war crimes and serious human rights violations taking place in the conflict zone of North Kivu, with testimonies from eye witnesses to the atrocities taking place on a daily basis where the humanitarian situation continues to be desperate.
First-hand information gathered by Amnesty International indicates that war crimes and serious human rights violations are taking place in the conflict zone of North Kivu. These include:
1. Unlawful killings of civilians are being carried out on a daily basis.
- Amnesty International learned about a family of seven, all of whom were allegedly shot dead by armed group fighters in a field close to Kiwanja on 28 November.
- Amnesty International researchers also gathered detailed testimony from eyewitnesses to the killings of scores of civilians, mainly men from ethnic Nande and Hutu communities in Kiwanja, allegedly carried out by CNDP fighters on 5 November. The killings appeared to be in reprisal for an earlier attack on the town by mayi-mayi militia forces. The CNDP has denied responsibility.
2. Sexual Violence: this is widespread and being committed by government and armed group forces. One international health specialist who treats rape survivors in rural North Kivu described rape as an “institutionalised” practice among all the armed forces. Victims of rape are sometimes threatened with death if they ask for medical help. Mayi-mayi and FDLR abduct and use women and girls, sometimes held captive.
Many rapes are opportunistic but there is a deliberate ethnic dimension (i.e. rape of women girls perceived to be from an "opposing" community) to a large proportion of those carried out in this conflict and some rapes are committed as "punishment" or reprisal. The fact that army and armed group commanders take almost absolutely no action to prevent or punish rape suggests that, at the very least, they systematically condone the crime and thereby implicitly encourage its persistence on a mass scale.
3. Child Soldiers: there has been a resurgence in the recruitment or re-recruitment and use of children as fighters by armed group forces. Many children now reportedly take to hiding away from their homes to avoid abduction by armed groups. Children constitute between 50 to 60 per cent of those displaced or living as refugees.
4. Threats to human rights defenders: Large numbers of human rights activists, journalists and community health workers have been threatened by the armed forces. Many have been forced into hiding or exile, while others continue to receive death threats.
5. Humanitarian Situation: this remains desperate for ten of thousands of displaced in Masisi, Lubero, and Rutshuru territories who, because of continuing violence, have yet to receive any organized humanitarian aid.
Even in IDP camps close to Goma, where international aid is being given, many displaced are still living in fear and with very little physical protection. There are regular reports of rapes, shooting and looting in the camps, often allegedly committed by government soldiers.
Early in November, the humanitarian community estimated that nearly 70 per cent of the population of North Kivu, with a population of about five million people, was either displaced or hosting IDPs. According to MONUC, close to 1,350,000 registered IDPs are estimated to be in North Kivu , which means that more than 1 out of 4 North Kivu inhabitants is currently displaced, whether in a camp, a host family or without assistance in the bush. IDP camps have reportedly been destroyed or placed under conditions that restrict the delivery of humanitarian aid to those living in areas under the control of various armed groups.
6. National Armed Forces: The Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), the national army, has primary responsibility for territorial integrity and security but continues to be responsible for grave human rights violations, including frequent rape and looting. FARDC discipline has broken down completely in some areas of North Kivu, notably around Kanyabayonga where whole units went on a week-long spree of looting, during which a number of rapes and killings were also reported.
The FARDC is an amalgamation of former government and armed group forces. It is poorly trained and riven with former ethnic and political loyalities. Large quantities of FARDC weapons have fallen into the hands of armed groups.
Amnesty International says:
- The need for effective protection of civilians is urgent across North Kivu as demonstrated by the scale of continuing human rights abuses against civilians.
Example: Refugees who fled the CNDP advance towards the Ugandan border on 27/28 November told AI that they had seen no signs of MONUC along approximately 40 km of road leading to the border, despite the fact that thousands of people were streaming along that road. Most of those fleeing had walked for at least two days, during which time they were exposed to armed robbery and in some cases abduction by retreating mayi-mayi and FDLR fighters.
- Effective protection, in Amensty International's view, is currently the exception not the rule as most communities live, or flee, in acute fear. There have been a number of calls for a “bridging force” potentially from the EU, to provide additional help while MONUC awaits the deployment of a further 3,000 peace-keepers as agreed by the UNSC in November. The UN has expressed belief that such force could stabilize the region while political mediation efforts are taking place. However the mandate and geographical scope of any such force remains to be clarified.
Amnesty International Recommendations:
- MONUC's reinforcement is imperative and urgent. Every day of delay is costing lives.
- MONUC is currently badly overstretched but this is not an excuse for a less than robust approach to fulfil its protection mandate, within its capacity. Leaving thousands to flee without protection, or women and girls in IDP camps unnecessarily exposed to sexual violence, is not acceptable.
- MONUC needs:
- to become more proactive and visible along North Kivu's major roads, especially when it knows that civilians are fleeing in large numbers;
- to maintain a permanent daytime presence at FARDC and armed group barriers on those roads;
- to mount patrols in and around IDP camps, especially at night, and in the countryside around IDP camps during the day, when women and children leave the camps to seek food and firewood;
- to react immediately and vigorously to reports of shooting inside or close to IDP camps.
- Pressure needs to be renewed by the international community, as well as by specific governments with regional influence, on the national army and armed groups to halt human rights abuses. This is especially important in current and future diplomatic efforts to end the fighting in North Kivu. International and regional mediators need to place respect for human rights at the top of the agenda. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Olusegun Obasanjo, should also take into consideration the human rights dimension of the crisis in his mediation efforts.
- Mediation efforts need also to propose and lay the foundations for a longer-term resolution of the roots of this conflict, particularly:
- ending the presence of the FDLR and other foreign armed groups in eastern DRC
- the ending of arms proliferation in eastern DRC and firmer controls over the supply of arms to the DRC.
- the thorough reform of the national army to make it capable of protecting all eastern DRC's communities neutrally and in full respect of human rights. Individuals reasonably suspected of war crimes and other serious human rights abuses must immediately be removed from army command positions and other security forces.
- ending impunity, including by developing a national justice mechanism with a specific mandate to investigate and prosecute the most serious human rights violations committed in the DRC since 1994.
“We recognize that MONUC, the UN peacekeeping force, is badly overstretched but this is not an excuse for a less than robust approach to fulfil its protection mandate,” said Amnesty International. “Leaving thousands to flee without protection, or women and girls in displacement camps unnecessarily exposed to sexual violence, is not acceptable.”
“MONUC’s reinforcement is imperative and urgent. Every day of delay is costing lives.”