/ 10 August 2022

DRC: To restore security, address impunity for rights violations in the east

Drc Peacekeepers Funeral
Hundred of people attend a funeral ceremony for peacekeepers who died in protests demanding the departure of the UN mission in Goma, Democratic Congo Republic on August 05, 2022. (Photo by Augustin Wamenya/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The resurgence of the March 23 Movement (M23), an armed group that claims to defend the rights of Congolese Tutsi in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), has prompted regional actors to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts.

Diplomatic efforts aimed at easing tension between the DRC and Rwanda have been re-kindled through the East African Community (EAC), comprising seven states. Rwanda stands accused of supporting the M23 rebellion. 

The political and military responses proposed by the EAC, however, ignore the root causes of the armed conflict in eastern DRC, especially the widespread impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of human rights violations.

Current efforts led by Kenya within the EAC, which the DRC recently joined, and by Angola through the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, include moves to foster dialogue between the DRC authorities, the armed groups operating within its borders, and Rwanda. These diplomatic endeavours have a military track too, with the EAC planning to deploy a regional force to fight armed groups reluctant to voluntarily lay down arms.

These two approaches are not new. Over recent decades, the DRC has initiated or taken part in numerous political processes that have resulted in peace agreements, amnesty for members of insurgent groups, or the integration of armed combatants into state security forces. 

The M23 even takes its name from one of these agreements – one reached on 23 March 2009. The group cited frustration over the DRC government’s failure to respect this agreement, including integration of combatants into DRC’s army, as justification for its renewed resort to armed operations in North Kivu between May 2012 and December 2013. 

After the M23 was defeated by the Congolese army — supported by the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade, talks under regional mediation and international support resulted in the signing of a renewed commitment, the Nairobi Declarations, in December 2013. Almost 10 years later, the M23 claims it has resorted to violence once more because the government has failed to honour its 2013 commitments, among other problems. It is a never-ending game of cat and mouse.   

The Nairobi Declaration looked at security and governance issues, including addressing the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Operating in eastern DRC, the FDLR is an armed group which contains remnants of the Interahamwe and former Rwandan soldiers allegedly involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, as well as fighters not involved, including many too young to have participated.

Military efforts to address the armed conflict in eastern DRC have been widely used. Since President Félix Tshisekedi came to power in January 2019, six military operations have taken place in eastern DRC, including an ongoing state of siege, which resembles a state of emergency, in the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri since May 2021, and a joint operation with the Ugandan army since November 2021. 

In addition to the Congolese and Ugandan armies, which operate openly in the region, forces from Burundi, Rwanda and South Sudan have made regular incursions, sometimes with the DRC’s blessing, according to reports from the UN Group of Experts on the DRC. A UN peacekeeping force, Monusco, of at least 17 000, has also been deployed primarily in eastern DRC for more than 20 years. The situation on the ground for civilians, however, has only deteriorated.

Human rights violators let off scot-free 

For nearly three decades, holding perpetrators of serious crimes to account in eastern DRC has rarely, if ever, formed part of systematic attempts to stop the violence. 

The International Conference on the Great Lakes Region’s Protocol on the fight against impunity for genocide and other serious crimes has remained a dead letter. Some leaders in the DRC and beyond believe prosecuting the perpetrators of serious crimes would undermine peace and stability efforts, yet experience shows nothing could be further from the truth. If you can unlawfully kill, rape, destroy and loot, and get away with it scot-free, then why not commit such crimes again?

Rampant impunity has prompted the proliferation of armed groups’ crimes. According to the UN, M23 combatants have killed at least 25 civilians in North Kivu since March, while over 170 000 people, including tens of thousands of children, have been forced to flee their homes over the fighting between the M23 and the Congolese army. No political measures can effectively improve the situation of the population in eastern DRC without addressing past human rights violations, including those documented in the 2010 UN’s Congo Mapping Exercise Report, and ensuring victims access truth and justice.

Eastern DRC is home to hundreds of thousands of Rwandan, Burundian and South Sudanese refugees who have fled war and persecution in their countries. Armed groups from these same countries also take advantage of the total absence of state control in the region and settle there. 

To build lasting security in the region, leaders must ensure accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious human rights violations committed on a large scale in the DRC since the 1990s. They must carry out this work as a top priority, with a greater commitment than we are seeing. 

The international and regional community should also pressure Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi to improve the human rights situations in their own countries and ensure space for everyone to fully and peacefully exercise their civil and political rights. Political rhetoric and military interventions alone will not be enough to resolve violence against civilians in eastern DRC. 

Jean-Mobert Senga is the Democratic Republic of the Congo researcher for Amnesty International.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.