Possible War Crimes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Two new United Nations reports were issued this week that document a series of human rights abuses, including possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). These reports underscore the urgent need for the DRC government and the international community to institute fundamental reforms to the country's security and judicial systems.

The reports cover a series of events that took place in North and South Kivu in October - November 2008. This was a period of fierce fighting between government forces (the FARDC) and the militia group known as the Congrès National pour la Defense du Peuple (CNDP), led at the time by Laurent Nkunda and his Chief of Staff, Bosco Ntaganda.

One of the reports focuses on the actions of government forces, some of whom engaged in large-scale pillage as well as arbitrary killings and sexual violence against the very people they were supposed to be protecting in Goma, and in Kanyabayonga and surrounding villages, as they fled the advancing CNDP forces at the end of October. UN human rights investigators documented at least 12 cases of arbitrary killings, and numerous cases of wounding, by FARDC troops in the Goma and Kanyabayonga areas in late October and nearly November, and a total of some 70 rapes believed to have been committed by government soldiers in Goma and Kanyabayonga between the end of October and mid December.

On 5 November, one week after retreating government troops inflicted chaos in Goma, the CNDP recaptured the town of Kiwanja (some 75 kilometres north of Goma) - after briefly losing it to one of the FARDC's allies, known as the Mayi Mayi - and carried out a series of summary executions and other human rights abuses. In all, UN investigators were able to confirm 67 cases of arbitrary execution, but noted that the real total is likely to have been higher. The report on Kiwanja states that the victims "were not killed in crossfire, but were arbitrarily executed, often inside their houses, after fighting had stopped."

The report goes on to note that "The fact that killings took place simultaneously in several different areas of Kiwanja and that they were preceded, days before the events, by public warnings by CNDP authorities that in case of a Mayi Mayi attack, the population would be held responsible may suggest that, at least to a certain extent, the 'opération ratissage' was retaliatory in nature and ordered and condoned by the command of the CNDP."

The actions of the CNDP could well amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity, and are part of a self-perpetuating pattern of brutality in eastern DRC which continues to go largely unpunished. I am deeply concerned that members of the CNDP who may be implicated in these crimes -- especially Bosco Ntaganda, against whom there was already an International Criminal Court arrest warrant -- are either still at large, or have even been absorbed into the FARDC.

Despite some welcome changes in the command structures of the FARDC in the wake of the disastrous rampage in Goma and Kanyabayonga, local people have been complaining that soldiers who committed violations have not only not been arrested, but remain in the area. I totally agree with the report's conclusion that the judicial response to the violations has, so far, been wholly insufficient. That has, unfortunately, generally been the case since the war officially ended in 2002, and is one of the main reasons why progress on the human rights front since then has been so deeply unsatisfactory.

I hope that the recent announcement by the government of a zero tolerance policy on sexual violence will be followed by concrete and immediate action to hold perpetrators accountable, particularly since sexual violence continues to take place on a daily basis.

Fundamental reforms to both the security sector and judicial systems are of paramount importance if both the authorities and the international community are serious about bringing lasting peace to eastern DRC.

(*) The two reports were produced jointly by the UN peacekeeping force in DRC (known as MONUC) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:

UN Report on Goma and Kanyabayonga, October and November 2008

UN Report on Kiwanja, North Kivu, November 2008

For more information on the situation of human rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, visit this page.

Learn more about OHCHR mandate and work visit this page.