Tensions between the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and a local militia following the killing of their chief, Kamuina Nsapu, has resulted in atrocities perpetrated against populations in Kasaï, Kasaï Central and Kasaï Oriental provinces since August 2016. Inter-ethnic conflict has become a dominant characteristic of the violence and the Catholic Church in the DRC has reported that over 3,000 people have been killed. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, of the 3.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the DRC, over 1.4 million are in the Kasaï region.
The UN Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC (UNJHRO) has found at least 80 mass graves in the Kasaï region since January, with responsibility for most of these attributed to the government's armed forces (FARDC). On 4 August the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report implicating the FARDC and local government officials in actively fomenting ethnic violence in the Kasaï region and in 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. On 2 June the UN's stabilization mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) reported at least 639 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, mutilated women and children, and destroyed villages of alleged supporters of Kamuina Nsapu.
Other armed groups continue to utilize ongoing instability and the weakness of state authority in eastern DRC to attack security forces and perpetrate crimes against civilians. Such groups – including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and various Mayi-Mayi militias – have been operating in the DRC for more than 20 years. Despite military offensives conducted by the FARDC with assistance from MONUSCO and its force intervention brigade, such attacks and inter-communal violence continue to threaten vulnerable populations in North Kivu, South Kivu, Tanganyika and Katanga.
The risk of political violence as a result of the postponed 2016 elections also remains high. Security forces have been accused of using excessive force against opposition demonstrators, including on 20 December 2016 – the day after President Joseph Kabila's constitutional mandate ended. UNJHRO recorded 98 civilians killed by security forces during protests in September and December 2016.
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 the negotiations resulted in an agreement calling for elections to be held during 2017 and for President Kabila to abstain from seeking a third term. Negotiations on implementation met several complications, resulting in CENCO withdrawing from the process. The government has declared that it lacks the capacity to hold elections during 2017.
Rising tensions in areas that have been relatively calm in recent years, including the Kasaïs, is indicative of the enduring challenge of effective governance and political stability in DRC. The growth in inter-ethnic violence in the Kasaï region and evidence implicating the government in attacks targeting certain ethnic groups increases the risk of further atrocities. The situation in the Kasaïs has also created an enormous humanitarian crisis, placing additional strain on a country that was already home to over 2 million IDPs and tens of thousands of refugees from neighboring countries.
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.
The government has often failed to hold members of the FARDC accountable for systematic human rights violations. 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. Growing government repression and the population's frustration with the unconstitutional delay in elections enhances the risk of further instability and conflict.
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. The DRC needs ongoing international support to prevent recurring violence.
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 mounting security challenges.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, gave the government an 8 June deadline to establish a credible investigation into the violence in the Kasaï region, which it failed to meet. On 23 June the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution mandating the High Commissioner to appoint a team of international experts to collect evidence and determine responsibility for possible atrocities perpetrated in the Kasaï region.
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 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 27 July the UNSC issued a Presidential Statement calling upon parties to the 31 December CENCO agreement to remain committed to its implementation. The UNSC also condemned violence in the Kasaï region.
The DRC government and MONUSCO needs 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 targeting of civilians based upon ethnicity.
The government must urgently address allegations of the security forces using disproportionate and deadly force and ensure accountability for the unlawful killing of civilians. The FARDC must not permit individuals who have previously committed atrocities to join its forces and should train all recruits in the protection of civilians, respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.
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 International Criminal Court and UNSC should be prepared to act to ensure accountability.
The government must take meaningful steps towards ensuring a timely and peaceful transition of power in the DRC, including implementation of the CENCO agreement.
Last Updated: 15 September 2017