(Goma) – M23 rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are responsible for widespread war crimes, including summary executions, rapes, and forced recruitment. Thirty-three of those executed were young men and boys who tried to escape the rebels’ ranks.
Rwandan officials may be complicit in war crimes through their continued military assistance to M23 forces, Human Rights Watch said. The Rwandan army has deployed its troops to eastern Congo to directly support the M23 rebels in military operations.
Human Rights Watch based its findings on interviews with 190 Congolese and Rwandan victims, family members, witnesses, local authorities, and current or former M23 fighters between May and September.
“The M23 rebels are committing a horrific trail of new atrocities in eastern Congo,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “M23 commanders should be held accountable for these crimes, and the Rwandan officials supporting these abusive commanders could face justice for aiding and abetting the crimes.”
Map of Approximate Area Controlled by M23 Rebels as of September 7, 2012 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. © 2012 John Emerson/Human Rights Watch.
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The M23 armed group consists of soldiers who participated in a mutiny from the Congolese national army in April and May 2012. The group’s senior commanders have a well-known history of serious abuses against civilians. In June the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, identified five of the M23’s leaders as “among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations in the DRC, or in the world.” They include Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted on two arrest warrants by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ituri district, and Col. Sultani Makenga, who is implicated in the recruitment of children and several massacres in eastern Congo.
Based on its research, Human Rights Watch documented the forced recruitment of at least 137 young men and boys in Rutshuru territory, eastern Congo, by M23 rebels since July. Most were abducted from their homes, in the market, or while walking to their farms. At least seven were under age 15.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that at least 33 new recruits and other M23 fighters were summarily executed when they attempted to flee. Some were tied up and shot in front of other recruits as an example of the punishment they could receive.
One young recruit told Human Rights Watch, “When we were with the M23, they said [we had a choice] and could stay with them or we could die. Lots of people tried to escape. Some were found and then that was immediately their death.”
Since June, M23 fighters have deliberately killed at least 15 civilians in areas under their control, some because they were perceived to be against the rebels, Human Rights Watch said. The fighters also raped at least 46 women and girls. The youngest rape victim was eight years old. M23 fighters shot dead a 25-year-old woman who was three months pregnant because she resisted being raped. Two other women died from the wounds inflicted on them when they were raped by M23 fighters.
M23 rebels have committed abuses against civilians with horrific brutality, Human Rights Watch said. Just after midnight on July 7, 2012, M23 fighters attacked a family in the village of Chengerero. A 32-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch that the M23 fighters broke down their door, beat her 15-year-old son to death, and abducted her husband. Before leaving, the M23 fighters gang-raped her, poured fuel between her legs, and set the fuel on fire. A neighbor came to the woman’s aid after the M23 fighters left. The whereabouts of the woman’s husband remain unknown.
Local leaders, customary chiefs, journalists, human rights activists and others who spoke out against the M23’s abuses – or are known to have denounced the rebel commanders’ previous abuses – have been targeted. Many received death threats and have fled to Congolese government-controlled areas.
M23 leaders deny that they or their forces have committed any crimes. In an interview with Human Rights Watch on August 8, Col. Makenga, one of the M23’s leaders, denied allegations of forced recruitment and summary executions, claiming those who joined their ranks did so voluntarily. “We recruit our brothers, not by force, but because they want to help their big brothers…. That’s their decision,” he said. “They are our little brothers, so we can’t kill them.” He described the repeated reports of forced recruitment by his forces as Congolese government propaganda.
Rwandan military officials have also continued to recruit by force or under false pretenses young men and boys, including under the age of 15, in Rwanda to augment the M23’s ranks. Recruitment of children under age 15 is a war crime and contravenes Rwandan law.
On June 4, Human Rights Watch reported that between 200 and 300 Rwandans were recruited in Rwanda in April and May and taken across the border to fight alongside M23 forces. Human Rights Watch has since gathered further evidence of forced recruitment in Rwanda in June, July, and August with several hundred more recruited. Based on interviews with witnesses and victims, Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 600 young men and boys have been forcibly or otherwise unlawfully recruited in Rwanda to join the M23, and possibly many more. These recruits outnumber those recruited for the M23 in Congo.
Congolese and Rwandans, including local authorities, who live near the Rwanda-Congo border told Human Rights Watch that they saw frequent troop movements of Rwandan soldiers in and out of Congo in June, July, and August in apparent support of M23 rebels. They said that Rwandan army soldiers frequently used the footpath near Njerima hill in Rwanda, close to Karisimbi volcano, to cross the border.
In addition to deploying reinforcements and recruits to support military operations, Rwandan military officials have been providing important military support to the M23 rebels, including weapons, ammunition, and training, Human Rights Watch said. This makes Rwanda a party to the conflict.
“The Rwandan government’s repeated denials that its military officials provide support for the abusive M23 rebels beggars belief,” Van Woudenberg said. “The United Nations Security Council should sanction M23 leaders, as well as Rwandan officials who are helping them, for serious rights abuses.”
The armed conflict in eastern Congo is bound by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, including Common Article 3 and Protocol II to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which prohibit summary executions, rape, forced recruitment, and other abuses. Serious laws-of-war violations committed deliberately or recklessly are war crimes. Commanders may be criminally responsible for war crimes by their forces if they knew or should have known about such crimes and failed to prevent them or punish those responsible.
A United Nations Group of Experts that monitors the arms embargo and sanctions violations in Congo independently presented compelling evidence of Rwandan support to the M23 rebels. Its findings were published in a 48-page addendum to the Group’s interim report in June 2012. The Rwandan government has denied these allegations. The UN sanctions committee should immediately seek additional information on M23 leaders and Rwandan military officers named by the Group of Experts with a view to adopting targeted sanctions against them, Human Rights Watch said.
In July and August, five donor governments – the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden – announced the suspension or delay of assistance to Rwanda in light of the evidence presented by the Group of Experts. Although Rwandan military support for the M23, and M23 abuses have continued unabated, on September 4 the United Kingdom Department for International Development announced it would disburse around half the assistance it had withheld.
The renewed hostilities by the M23, the Congolese army, and various other armed groups have resulted in the displacement of over 220,000 civilians who have fled their homes to seek safety elsewhere in Congo or across the border in Uganda and Rwanda.
“Congolese civilians have endured the brunt of wartime abuses,” Van Woudenberg said. “The UN and its member states should urgently step up their efforts to protect civilians, and donor governments providing aid or military assistance to Rwanda should urgently review their programs to ensure they are not fueling serious human rights abuses.”