Armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) continue to utilize instability and the weakness of state authority in various parts of the country to attack security forces and perpetrate atrocities against civilians. In the eastern DRC such groups – including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and various Mayi-Mayi militias – have been operating for more than 20 years. Despite military offensives conducted by the government's armed forces (FARDC) with assistance from the UN Mission in DRC (MONUSCO) and its force intervention brigade, attacks by armed groups and inter-communal violence continue to threaten vulnerable populations.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, 4.1 million Congolese are currently internally displaced and more than 623,000 have fled to neighboring countries. At least 1.9 million of the internally displaced persons in the DRC were forced to flee violence during 2017. On 23 October the UN declared a "Level 3" humanitarian emergency for South Kivu and Tanganyika provinces, as well as the Kasaï region.
After a period of relative stability in eastern DRC, during 2017 several Mayi-Mayi militias carried out attacks on FARDC posts throughout South Kivu, resulting in more than 400,000 people being displaced between July and September. On 7 December suspected members of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) attacked the UN's Semuliki base in the Beni region, resulting in 15 peacekeepers and 5 FARDC soldiers being killed. Recent inter-communal violence in Tanganyika and Ituri provinces has also resulted in civilian casualties and displacement.
Tensions between the government and a local militia, Kamuina Nsapu, following the killing of their chief, have also resulted in atrocities perpetrated against populations in Kasaï, Kasaï Central and Kasaï Oriental provinces since August 2016. The UN Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC has found at least 80 mass graves in the Kasaï region since January 2017, with responsibility for most of these attributed to the FARDC. On 4 August the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report implicating the FARDC and local government officials in fomenting ethnic violence in the Kasaï region and supporting the formation of a pro-government militia, Bana Mura.
OHCHR has documented evidence of the FARDC, Kamuina Nsapu and Bana Mura all committing extrajudicial killings. MONUSCO has reported that hundreds of schools and a number of health centers in the Kasaï region have been destroyed or attacked during fighting. The UN has also documented hundreds of children being used as combatants or human shields by Kamuina Nsapu, as well as sexual violence perpetrated against young girls. Meanwhile, Bana Mura has targeted populations based upon ethnicity and destroyed villages of alleged supporters of Kamuina Nsapu.
Political violence related to the postponed 2016 elections also continues. As a result of a failure to hold elections during 2016, mediation between the government and opposition took place under the aegis of the Conference Episcopale du Congo (CENCO). On 31 December 2016 the negotiations resulted in an agreement calling for elections to be held during 2017 and for President Joseph Kabila to abstain from seeking a third term. On 5 November the government announced that presidential elections would now be held on 23 December 2018.
Despite a government ban on demonstrations, on 31 December 2017 Catholic organizations and opposition groups held peaceful demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the CENCO agreement and pressure the government to hold elections during 2018. At least eight civilians were killed in the suppression of the demonstrations, which included the security forces firing tear gas into churches.
Rising tensions in areas that have been relatively calm in recent years, including the Kasaïs, is indicative of the enduring challenge of building effective governance and political stability in the DRC. Despite diplomatic pressure from the international community, the government has not undertaken a meaningful investigation into allegations that hundreds of people have been killed by the FARDC in the Kasaï region.
Competition for control of profitable minerals, as well as underlying conflict between communities that consider themselves indigenous and those perceived as outsiders, has enabled the proliferation of armed groups in the DRC. Such groups will continue to emerge even after the eradication of the ADF, FDLR, Kamuina Nsapu and other Mayi-Mayi militias if these issues are not resolved. Mayi-Mayi militias have also been increasingly involved in inter-communal violence in eastern DRC, including between Twa communities in Tanganyika.
Growing government repression and the population's frustration with the unconstitutional delay in elections enhances the risk of further instability and political violence. Security forces have repeatedly used disproportionate and deadly force during peaceful demonstrations.
Although the government has routinely failed to hold those who perpetrate atrocities in the DRC accountable, on 13 December eleven men from the "Army of Jesus" militia and their leader, Frederic Batumike, were convicted of crimes against humanity for committing mass rape and murder in Kavumu, South Kivu, from 2013-2016.
The government of the DRC has struggled to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and its own forces have been complicit in some previous mass atrocity crimes.
On 31 March 2017 the UN Security Council (UNSC) extended MONUSCO's mandate until March 2018, emphasizing that the DRC government "bears the primary responsibility to protect civilians within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction, including protection from crimes against humanity and war crimes." The resolution reduced MONUSCO's troop ceiling from 19,815 to 16,215 despite ongoing security challenges.
On 31 May the European Union imposed sanctions on nine individuals with command responsibility for security forces involved in deadly violence against protestors. The following day the United States issued sanctions against General François Olenga for command responsibility of the Republican Guard during violence against the political opposition in Kinshasa. The UNSC also currently subjects 9 entities and 31 individuals connected to armed groups in the eastern DRC to sanctions.
On 22 November the guarantors of the Peace, Security and Cooperation (PSC) Framework for the DRC – including the UN, African Union, International Conference for the Great Lakes Region and the Southern African Development Community – reviewed the status of election preparations in the DRC. The group issued a joint statement welcoming the setting of the new date for elections and urging the government to fulfill its responsibilities under the CENCO agreement. On 8 December the UNSC passed a resolution reaffirming its support for the PSC Framework and calling upon the government to "vigorously" pursue neutralization of armed groups operating in the eastern DRC.
The DRC government and MONUSCO need to ensure that protecting civilians remains their primary priority as they address the ongoing threat posed by various armed groups in both the Kasaï and eastern regions. The government must halt support for Bana Mura and condemn the ethnic targeting of civilians.
The government must urgently address allegations of the security forces using disproportionate and deadly force against peaceful protesters and ensure accountability for the unlawful killing of civilians. The government should fully cooperate with the Human Rights Council-mandated international team of experts, provide access to all relevant sites and establish a credible domestic investigative mechanism. If the government fails to fulfill its promises in this regard, the UNSC should be prepared to act to ensure accountability and potentially refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.
The government must take meaningful steps towards holding the December 2018 elections and ensuring a timely and peaceful transition of power in the DRC.
Last Updated: 15 January 2018