In eastern DRC, civilians hostage to eternal wars

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The eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been ravaged by three decades of continuous warfare, resulting in millions of civilian and military casualties. As the situation becomes mired in a military-political stalemate and violence rages on, what is happening to the people who yearn for peace and security? The question arises on the eve of elections scheduled for December 2023.

At the end of 2021, the March 23 Movement (M23) reappeared, resuming fighting with the DRC Armed Forces (FARDC). It is not the only armed group in the east: there are reportedly more than a hundred. Faced with this explosive situation, the Congolese army has been reinforced by those of neighbouring states, and several peace initiatives and mediation efforts have been launched. But these military and political responses have so far been ineffective.

The region has been the scene of the formation, dissolution and re-emergence of armed groups for more than 30 years, without any military operation having succeeded in calming the situation. The population, a victim of this tragedy, has a strong desire for peace, with elections looming at the end of the year.

Faced with this situation, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member organisations in the DRC, the African Association for the Defence of Human Rights (ASADHO), Groupe Lotus and the League of Voters, condemn the violations committed by the armed groups against the civilian population and call for an end to this spiral of violence.

In eastern DRC, nothing new

Eastern DRC is at the heart of the Great Lakes region, bordering Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. It is a region rich in wood with an incredible ecological heritage and natural resources and is coveted.. The region is enclosed by volcanoes and lakes with many inhabitants.

For nearly 30 years, the population has suffered insecurity and violence from foreign and Congolese armed groups, as well as from the government forces supposed to protect them. This has led to massive population displacement: no less than 600,000 people have been displaced by the clashes between the M23 and the FARDC. According to UN figures, January 2023 was again marked by increasing human rights abuses, particularly in North Kivu.

Cycles of violence follow one another.
First, the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, with the perpetrators fleeing to the Congo, leading to their pursuit by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) army. Then, the decline of Mobutu’s dictatorial regime in Zaire, with the arrival in power of Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s Alliance des forces démocratiques de libération du Congo (AFDL) from 1996 onwards, marking the beginning of armed violence [1].

The presence of foreign forces in eastern Congo has led to the emergence of national armed groups. Their rise has grown with poor governance and corruption, entrenching violence and systematising human rights abuses.

For 30 years, FIDH organisations have documented and condemned violations in the DRC. These include the crimes committed by the RPF army in 1994 to the search for the perpetrators of the genocide, the crimes committed during the "two Congo wars" between 1998 and 2003, and those of the more recent conflicts in the west of the country. It is clear that impunity reigns and is at its peak. Efforts by members of civil society to open investigations have been in vain.

Armed groups, the scourge of the East

The M23 is not new. It emerged in 2012 in North Kivu and took the town of Goma, before being dispersed in November 2013 by the FARDC and troops of the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO. It is made up of former Congolese Tutsi militiamen from Laurent Nkunda’s armed group Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) [2], a militia that was active until 2009, when a peace agreement was reached with the Congolese government to integrate them into the country’s army on 23 March 2009. Under the pretext of the failure of this agreement, the militiamen defected, creating the M23.

Among them, Bosco Ntaganda, arrested and sentenced by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2021 to 30 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ituri in 2002-2003 while commanding the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo. At the end of November 2022, in Kishishe, North Kivu, 131 civilians were reportedly killed by the M23 according to initial UN figures, but Congolese government and M23 figures differ. In December 2022, following this massacre, the Congo referred the matter to the ICC.

Based on the report of the UN Group of Experts on the Congo [3], the M23 is accused by the DRC and other states of being supported by Rwanda, in order to fight the FARDC and the FDLR, composed of former Rwandan perpetrators still active in the country. The FDLR and Interahamwe are said to have only a few survivors from that regime and are said to be composed of Congolese who joined them. They are also said to have collaborated with the FARDC to fight the M23, which has been denounced by Rwanda and the M23 (see Annex 49 of this same report).

But the M23 is not the only threat. Several other groups sow terror in the east. The ADF, an armed group of Ugandan origin, is active in the provinces of Ituri and North Kivu. Created in Uganda against the regime of Yoweri Museveni, President since 1986, to establish the Islamic State, the ADF is now operating on Congolese soil. They have established themselves on the border with Uganda. Labelled as a terrorist group by the United States for its links with Daech, they are connected with the insurgents in northern Mozambique, the "Al-Shabaab", also described as terrorists. Daech claimed responsibility for recent attacks by the ADF on 15, 23 and 29 January in the DRC in the Beni territory of North Kivu and in Ituri, where dozens were killed. Another attack by the ADF in Beni territory left 35 people dead and several injured. Terrorist attacks in Kampala in late 2021 were also claimed by the same group.

The plethora of foreign and more or less informal armed groups operating in the east of the DRC must be noted. In this context, the question of a regional armed force is raised.

A regional armed force "to bring peace" to eastern DRC?

On 20 June 2022, the Community of East African States (EAC) decided to send a regional force to combat armed groups in the eastern provinces of the DRC, in Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu [4]. This follows the holding of meetings on eastern DRC at the initiative of former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, following the DRC’s accession to the EAC in March 2022. In addition, the ’Luanda’ peace process between the DRC and Rwanda, which accuse each other of causing conflict between armed groups - the FDLR for the DRC and the M23 for Rwanda - is underway, led by Angolan President João Lourenco. But despite negotiations, including through the African Union, the situation is stalling.

This Kenyan-led regional force was deployed in late 2022 in Goma. Since then, divisions of the armies of Burundi and Uganda have joined it and soon of South Sudan. Following an agreement with the DRC in 2021, the Ugandan army is also operating near the Ugandan border [5] with the FARDC against the ADF. According to another bilateral agreement, the Burundian army has been present in South Kivu since August 2022, alongside the FARDC and against armed groups of Burundian origin: the Resistance for the Rule of Law in Burundi (RED-Tabara) and the Forces nationales de libération (FNL). Finally, according to another recent agreement, Angola should send soldiers to North Kivu for the disarmament and reintegration of M23 fighters into civil society.

Can the armies of authoritarian regimes be relied upon to establish peace?

The Ugandan, Burundian and South Sudanese contingents are from armies that repress fundamental rights and freedoms in their countries. In the Ugandan electoral context, many dissidents were repressed. This situation has been condemned by the FIDH and its organisations, as well as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose mandate will not be renewed by the Ugandan government. Since 1986, the country has been ruled by President Yoweri Museveni. With Ugandan elections scheduled for 2026, his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, head of the land forces, has challenged him and wants to replace him.

In Burundi, the army has reportedly resorted to the Imbonerakure, a militia in the pay of the regime. It is known for its abuses against the population and dissidents since 2015. Despite the resumption of relations by Burundi’s partners since the arrival of Evariste Ndayishimiye in power in 2020, the civil and political rights situation remains precarious.

Officially, Rwanda does not have any armed contingents in the DRC. Unofficially, its presence in North Kivu, including in support of the M23 to fight the FDLR and the FARDC, has been criticised by civil society. The European Union has decried the support to the M23, even though it has adopted a 20 million euro aid package for the same country to finance the intervention in favour of Mozambican troops to fight the insurgents in the province of Cabo Delgado. This is a region where a gas deposit is exploited by the company Total. This Rwandan presence in the east of the DRC gives access to the natural resources that abound in the region and allows a climate of insecurity to be maintained. Paul Kagame has been President of Rwanda since 2000: he has established a regime based on fear and restrictions on rights and freedoms, both inside and outside the country. Democratic space is almost non-existent.

In 2019, when Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi came to power in the DRC in order to strengthen cooperation with neighbouring countries, the idea of an integrated headquarters for the region’s armies did not succeed. Civil society, particularly in the east, opposed it, seeing it as a gateway for neighbouring armies, whose official or hidden presence has already been denounced [6] The risk of destabilising the region exists.

A regional force accused of passivity and inaction

Demonstrations were organised in Goma in early 2023 against this regional force, which was seen as passive and ineffective: demonstrations were violently dispersed.

This was not the first time: in July 2022, movements in North Kivu escalated into attacks on MONUSCO, which was in the process of phasing out and whose presence and ineffectiveness were regularly criticised. At least 19 people were killed and 61 injured. In July 2022, two soldiers from the MONUSCO force intervention brigade opened fire in Kasindi, killing two people. Investigations are still ongoing.

In 2013, MONUSCO’s Forced Intervention Brigade (FIB) was created with an offensive mandate under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, with the right to use force beyond self-defence. It includes Kenyan, Malawian, Tanzanian and South African contingents [7]. In the same year, the FIB fought and defeated the then M23, alongside the FARDC [8]. Since then, the FIB has also been fighting alongside the FARDC against other armed groups, including the ADF, but coordination with the EAC regional force remains unclear.

A region under siege

In May 2021, with the resurgence of armed group activity in the east of the country, President Tshisekedi declared a state of siege in Ituri and North Kivu. But the results are not there. Worse, this has led to violations of fundamental rights and freedoms in the provinces concerned by the state of siege, which civil society has denounced, noting that the power given to the military and the police has been turned against anyone who dares to criticise the excesses. The FARDC, known for its abuses, continues its operations with MONUSCO and other contingents. Since the lifting of the Security Council notification requirement in December 2022 (arms embargo), they can more easily procure arms, equipment, training, advice and military assistance for the DRC.

In this context, the appointment, at the end of March 2023, of Jean-Pierre Bemba as Minister of Defence by President Tshisekedi, a few months before the presidential election, is of great concern to the FIDH organisations. In 2016, he was found guilty by the ICC, before being acquitted in 2018, of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the Central African Republic between 2002 and 2003 as military leader of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), a Congolese rebel group that was also active in the DRC. Although Jean-Pierre Bemba was acquitted of all charges brought against him by the ICC, the Appeals Chamber did not question the fact that crimes of murder, rape and pillaging were committed by the MLC.

FIDH organisations have drawn attention to the risks of deploying and intervening with a regional force. With the multiplication of military initiatives in the east of the DRC, they wonder about the conduct and coordination of operations between this new force and existing forces, namely the FIB and its contingents in the region, the Ugandan army, the Burundian army, the Angolan army and the FARDC. The impact this could have on the population is of central concern to FIDH. While military solutions and political and diplomatic measures for peace seem to have failed so far, concern prevails, especially as the fate of the population does not seem to be a priority in the eyes of regional and international authorities.

FIDH and its member organisations in the DRC therefore fear an umpteenth intervention that would fuel a new cycle of endless violence in a context of growing impunity.

Deja vu?

The FIDH organisations are also concerned about tensions between communities that could be exacerbated and warn against their instrumentalisation in the east of the DRC, particularly in the context of the upcoming elections scheduled for December 2023.

FIDH noted an increase in inter-community tensions and hate speech. Demonstrations and new tensions have arisen against the Rwandan-speaking population and the Tutsi community in the DRC following the resurgence of the M23 and the DRC’s accusations against Rwanda, which is accused of supporting this armed movement. Its links with Rwanda had been denounced during the group’s previous formation in 2012. Recently, in its mid-term report of December 2022, the UN noted a "worrying proliferation of xenophobia and hate speech inciting discrimination, hostility and violence against Rwandan-speaking populations perceived to support the M23/ARC, in particular the Banyamulenge and Tutsi communities, which has sometimes led to acts of violence and even killings. Also in the west of the country, in the province of Maï-Ndombe, two communities have been fighting each other in a deadly manner since May 2022.

The FIDH organisations are alarmed by the situation in these provinces against the backdrop of the approaching electoral context, with the enrolment of citizens on the electoral roll and the start of negotiations for the presidential elections.

The current situation is reminiscent of the situation before the 2018 elections, when conflicts degenerated into massacres in Yumbi, in the province of Maï-Ndombe and in the Kasai provinces. In the cities of Beni and Butembo in the east of the country, as well as in Yumbi, presidential, legislative and provincial elections was cancelled and postponed because of insecurity and the Ebola virus.

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